My Secret Life as a Spaghetti Coder
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For the last 8 weeks or so, I've been out of the habit of getting up from my office chair regularly. I made a comment about it on twitter and @jwo, thought it was important enough to take a break too.


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Is there a perfect way to teach programming to would-be programmers? Let's ask the Magic 8-Ball.

8-ball says, 'Outlook not so good'

Outlook not so good.

Does that mean we shouldn't teach them? Of course not. Does it mean we shouldn't look for better methods of teaching them? Emphatically I say again, "of course not!"

And what of the learner? Should beginners seek to increase their level of skill?

Only if they want to become a level 20 Spaghetti Code Slingmancer (can you imagine the mess?). Or, that's how some make it seem.

Spaghetti Slingmancer
Photo from Ken Stein found via Spaghetti cables @ Geek2Live

All it means to me is that we shouldn't let our paranoia about the wrong ways of learning stop us from doing so. For instance, take this passage about the pitfalls of reading source code:
Source code is devoid of context. It's simply a miscellaneous block of instructions, often riddled with a fair bit of implicit assumptions about preconditions, postconditions, and where that code will fit in to the grand scheme of the original author's project. Lacking that information, one can't be sure that the code even does what the author wanted it to do! An experienced developer may be able to apply his insight and knowledge to the code and divine some utility from it ("code scavenging" is waxing in popularity and legitimacy, after all), but a beginner can't do that.
Josh Petrie, "Don't Read Source Code"

Josh also mentions that source code often lacks rationale behind bad code or what might be considered stupid decisions, and that copy and paste is no way to learn.

They're all valid points, but the conclusion is wrong.

Which one of us learned the craft without having read source code as a beginner? Even the author admits that he was taught that way:
Self-learning is what drives the desire to turn to source code as an educational conduit. I have no particular problem with self-learning -- I was entirely self-taught for almost three quarters of what would have been my high school career. But there are well-known dangers to that path, most notably the challenge of selecting appropriate sources of knowledge for a discipline when you are rather ill-informed about that selfsame discipline. The process must be undertaken with care. Pure source code offers no advantages and so many pitfalls that it is simply never a good choice.
This is a common method of teaching - "do as I say, not as I do." It's how we teach beginners anything, because their simple minds cannot grasp all the possible combinations of choices which lead to the actual Right Way to do something. It's a fine way to teach.

But I'd wager that for all X in S = {good programmers}, X started out as a beginner reading source code from other people. And X probably stumbled through the same growing pains we all stumble through, and wrote the same crapcode we all do.

Of course, there are many more bad programmers than good, so lets not make another wrong conclusion - that any method of learning will invariably produce good programmers.

Instead, let's acknowledge that programming is difficult as compared to many other pursuits, and that there's not going to be a perfect way to learn. Let's acknowledge that those who will become good programmers will do so with encouragement and constant learning. Instead of telling them how they should learn, let them learn in the ways that interest them, and let's guide them with the more beneficial ways when they are open to it.

Let's remember that learning is good, encourage it, and direct it when we can. But let people make mistakes. Learning in the wrong manner will produce good programmers, bad programmers, and mediocre ones. Independent, orthogonal, and irrelevant are all words that come to mind. The worst it will do is temporarily delay someone from reaching their desired level of skill.

I would be knowledgeable having read programming books with no practical experience. But I wouldn't have any understanding. Making mistakes is fundamental to understanding. Without doing so, we create a bunch of angry monkeys, all of whom "know" that taking the banana is "wrong," but none of whom know why.

What do you think?

I was introduced to the concept of making estimates in story points instead of hours back in the Software Development Practices course when I was in grad school at UH (taught by professors Venkat and Jaspal Subhlok).

I became a fan of the practice, so when I started writing todoxy to manage my todo list, it was an easy decision to not assign units to the estimates part of the app. I didn't really think about it for a while, but recently a todoxy user asked me
What units does the "Estimate" field accept?

When I work in Windows, I don't get as much done as when I'm in MacOS X.

It's not because MacOS is inherently better than Windows productivity-wise. It's because my calendar and time-boxing mechanism resides on MacOS. So when I've got an entire day of work to do in Windows, I don't have anything telling me "it's time to switch tasks."

Why is that a problem? That's the focus of this week's chapter in MJWTI. (Last week, I took a mini-vacation / early bachelor party to go fishing at Lake Calcasieu in Southwest Louisiana, so I didn't get around to posting then in the Save Your Job series.)

The "Eight-Hour Burn" is another of the chapters in Chad's book that really stuck with me after I first read it. The premise is that instead of working overtime, you should limit each day's work to an 8 hour period of intense activity. In doing so, you'll get more done than you otherwise would. Our brains don't function at as high a level as possible when we're tired. And when we're working on our fifth 60-hour week, we're probably tired.

We may love to brag about how productive we are with our all-nighters [paraphrasing Chad], but the reality is we can't be effective working too many hours over a long period of time.

A Brain Scan

And it's more than just our brains being tired that should prevent us from working too long. It's the fact that when we know we've got so much extra time to do something, we end up goofing off anyway:
Think about day 4 of the last 70-hour week you worked. No doubt, you were putting in a valiant effort. But, by day 4, you start to get lax with your time. It's 10:30 AM, and I know I'm going to be here for hours after everyone else goes home. I think I'll check out the latest technology news for a while. When you have too much time to work, your work time reduces significantly in value. If you have 70 hours available, each hour is less precious to you than when you have 40 hours available.
That's why I'm in trouble when I work in Windows all day. I do work 12-16 hours most days between job, school, and personal activity (like this blog). I get burnt out every few weeks and have to take a couple of days off, but when I'm in MacOS X, at least my working days are very productive: I've got each task time-boxed and any time I spend reading blogs or news or just getting lost on the web is always scheduled.

When I'm in Windows with nothing to remind me but myself, I drift off quite a bit more easily. After all, it's only 6:30 in the morning. I've still got eight hours to get everything done (I'm leaving early to go check the progress on the house I'm having built).

The good news is that I've got an item on my longer-term to-do list to remedy the situation. Hopefully after reading this chapter again, I'll be more motivated to get it done. The bad news is, since it means working in Windows all day to get it done, I'll probably be off doing my best to read all of Wikipedia instead.

Anyway, how much do you work? Do you have any tricks for staying fresh and motivated?

An interesting discussion going on over at programming reddit got me thinking about what features I'd like my ideal job to have. Aside from "an easy, overpaid job that will get bring me fame and fortune," here's what would make up my list:
  1. Interesting Work: You can only write so many CRUD applications before the tedium drives you insane, and you think to yourself, "there's got to be a better way." Even if you don't find a framework to assist you, you'll end up writing your own and copying ideas from the others. And even that only stays interesting until you've relieved yourself of the burden of repetition.

    Having interesting work is so important to me that I would contemplate a large reduction in income at the chance to have it (assuming my budget stays in tact or can be reworked to continue having a comfortable-enough lifestyle, and I can still put money away for retirement). Of course,the more interesting the work is, the more of an income reduction I could stand.

    Fortunately, interesting work often means harder work, so many times you needn't trade down in salary - or if you do, it may only be temporary.

    The opportunity to present at conferences and publish papers amplifies this attribute.

  2. Competent Coworkers: One thing I can't stand is incompetence. I don't expect everyone to be an expert, and I don't expect them to know about all the frameworks and languages and tricks of the trade.

    I do expect programmers to have basic problem solving skills, and the ability to learn how to fish.

  3. Sane Management: Don't make me delighted to have a broken watch. I shouldn't have to turn back the dial on it to meet deadlines. Or put more strongly, management/customers shouldn't be given the latitude to control all three sides of the iron triangle of software development.

    Scope, Schedule, and Resources. Choose two. We, the development team, get to control the third.

  4. Trust: One comment in the reddit discussion mentioned root access to my workstation and it made me think of trust. If you cannot trust me to administer my own computer, how can you trust me not to subvert the software I'm writing?

    Additionally, I need you to trust my opinion. When I recommend some course of action, I need to know that you have a good technical reason for refusing it, or a good business reason. I want an argument as to why I am wrong, or why my advice is ignored. If you've got me consistently using a hammer to drive marshmallows through a bag of corn chips, I'm not likely to stay content.

    I don't mind if you verify. In fact, I'd like that very much. It'll help keep me honest and vigilant.

  5. Personal Time: I like the idea of Google's 20% time. I have other projects I'd like to work on, and I'd like the chance to do that on the job. One thing I'd like to see though, is that the 20% time is enforced: every Friday you're supposed to work on a project other than your current project. It'd be nice to know I'm not looked down upon by management as selfish because I chose to work on my project instead of theirs.

    I wouldn't mind seeing something in writing about having a share of the profits it generates. I don't want to be working on this at home and have to worry about who owns the IP. And part of that should allow me to work on open source projects where the company won't retain any rights on the code I produce.

  6. Telecommuting: Some days I'll have errands to run, and I dislike doing them. I really dislike doing them on the weekends or in the evenings after work. I'd like to be able to work from home on these days, do my errands, and work late to make up for it. It saves the drive time on those days to help ensure I can get everything done.
There are some other nice-to-have's that didn't quite make the list above for me. For example, it would be nice to be able to travel on occasion. It would also be nice to have conferences, books, and extended learning in general paid for by the company. I'd like to see a personal budget for buying tools I need, along with quality tools to start with.

But if you can meet some agreeable combination of the six qualities above, I'll gladly provide these things myself. If you won't let me use my own equipment, and you provide me with crap, we may not have a deal.

That's my list. What's on yours?

Rails Rumble has nothing on this.

Of course, you could just click the edit button in your database management studio of choice and achieve the same functionality.

SELECT DISTINCT 'script/generate scaffold ' + + ' ' + column_names
FROM sys.tables t
    SELECT + 
           case when max_length > 255 then ':text' else ':string' end + ' '
    FROM sys.columns c
    WHERE c.object_id = t.object_id
    ORDER BY c.column_id
    FOR XML PATH('') ) dummy_identifier ( column_names )

A similar discovery was made in the 1930's. One important difference to note is that, since my program does not simulate the input on it's output program, I am able to achieve speeds that are logarithmically faster than what Turing could accomplish.

You might think that "tech support" is a solved problem. You're probably right. Someone has solved it and written down The General Procedures For Troubleshooting and How To Give Good Tech Support. However, surprisingly enough, not everyone has learned these lessons. And if the manual exists, I can't seem to find it so I can RTFthing.

The titles of the two unheard of holy books I mentioned above might seem at first glance to be different tales. After all, troubleshooting is a broad topic applicable to any kind of problem-solving from chemistry to mechanical engineering to computer and biological science. Tech support is the lowliest of Lowly Worms for top-of-the-food-chain programmers.


Being a programmer, when I see something repetitive that I can automate, I normally opt to do so. We know that one way to save your job is by automating, but another is to know when not to automate. It sounds obvious, but when you get into the habit of rooting out all duplication of effort, you can lose sight of the fact that sometimes, it costs more to automate something than to do it by hand. More...

Every day, psychological barriers are erected around us, and depending on what task they are a stumbling block for, they can be helpful or a hindrance.

Ramit Sethi wrote a guest post on personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly about passive barriers that got me thinking about passive barriers in software development, or perhaps just any easily destroyed (or erected barrier) that prevents you from doing something useful (or stupid). One example he uses that comes up a lot in my own work references email: More...

Logging Good Ideas Without Interrupting Your Flow Recently I decided I'd start using a wiki to manage knowledge and ideas, adding research and thoughts as I flushed them out over time. I'd like to see how the things I think about are interrelated, and I think using a wiki is going to help me on that front.

One problem I've had with the traditional to-do list, emails, calendars, and wikis was that when you open the whole thing up, you can pretty easily get distracted from what you were doing by all of the information that floods your brain: all the emails in your inbox (especially the bold ones), the rest of the to-do list, tomorrow's events, and -- well everyone knows the time-sink a wiki can be. More...

Sometimes you work late b/c business demands it. Others are your fault: through over-committing, frivolity, or incompetence.



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