Archive for October, 2007

Abstraction is The Name of The Game

October 30th, 2007 6 comments

I just read a post by Uncle Bob that discusses the optimal length of a function. He quite correctly claims that the old functions-should-fit-on-a-screen rule lost its validity. He further states that “A well written function might be 4, 5, perhaps 8 lines long; but no longer.”

I’m not saying Uncle Bob is wrong, most well written functions are indeed short, but specific guidelines like that always makes me hesitant. The problem I see is that these rules tend to become an end in themselves, while the real purpose – the reason that the rule was once formulated – end up in the background.

I mean, you shouldn’t make a function short for the sake of making it short. A short function is not necessarily well-written, and a well-written function is not necessarily short. So, what makes a function well-written? Well, here’s my definition:

A piece of code is well-written if you with little effort can figure out what it does.

Keeping a function short certainly helps, but what really matters is how well it reflects intention and how well it hides details. So, don’t think lines of code, think abstraction.


Categories: programming Tags:

Tools of The Effective Developer: Make It Work – First!

October 29th, 2007 15 comments

I’ve come across many different types of developers during my nearly two decades in the business. In my experience there are two developer character type extremes: the ones that always seek and settle with the simplest solution, and the ones that seek the perfect solution, perfect in terms of efficiency, readability or code elegance.

Developers from the first group constantly create mess and agony among fellow developers. The second group contain developers that never produce anything of value since they care more for the code than they do for the result. The optimal balance is somewhere in between, but regardless of what type of developer you are: you should always start by making it work, meaning implement the simplest solution first.

Why spend time on an implementation that isn’t likely to be the final one, you might ask. Here’s why:

  1. The simple solution helps evolving the unit-testing safety net.
  2. The simple solution provide rapid feedback, and may prevent extensive coding of the wrong feature. It is like a prototype on the code level.
  3. The simple solution is often good enough, and – with a working solution ready – you are less inclined to proceed and implement a more complex solution unless you really have to. Thus avoiding premature optimization and premature design, that makes you add features that might be needed in the future.
  4. With the simple solution in place, most integration and programming interfacing is done. That makes it easier to implement a more complex solution.
  5. While implementing the simple solution, your knowledge of the system increases. This helps you make good decisions later on.

This may all sound simple enough to you. After all, the habit of Making It Work First comes naturally to many developers. Unfortunately, for me, I’m not one of those developers. I still let more or less insignificant design issues consume an unnecessary amount of time. The thing is, it is hard to find the perfect design on the first try. The perfect design may not even exist, or cost too much to be worth the effort.

That is why I struggle to attain the habit of Making It Work First.

Previous posts in the Tools of The Effective Developer series:

  1. Tools of The Effective Developer: Personal Logs
  2. Tools of The Effective Developer: Personal Planning
  3. Tools of The Effective Developer: Programming By Intention
  4. Tools of The Effective Developer: Customer View
  5. Tools of The Effective Developer: Fail Fast!

I’m back!

October 28th, 2007 No comments

I’m back from my three week vacation!

I had a great time, but as suspected I wasn’t able to stay away from computers. In the warm evenings, just for fun, I started to implement a ray tracer in the D Programming Language.

I have been looking for a suitable project that would give me a chance to get deep into D, and a ray tracer seems to be the perfect fit. D is supposed to be great at floating point programming and now I have the chance to find out on my own.

To make it a little more interesting I have used a more top-down breath-first kind of approach than I normally do. I want to see how that affects a test-driven development technique. As a part of the experiment I keep a detailed development log which I plan to share with you when I reach a certain point. It could be within a week or take several months depending on work load and inspiration level.

So stay tuned. I’ll be back with ray tracing, or other topics that comes across my sphere of interest.


Vacation – at last!

October 7th, 2007 No comments

Tomorrow I’m off to a well needed vacation. We’re going to Turkey for three weeks and I plan to stay as far away from computers as possible. That almost never works so don’t be surprised if posts keep coming.

Well, off I go, so


Categories: blogging Tags:

How to automate acceptance tests

October 5th, 2007 No comments

In a comment to my previous post AC wonders how I automate acceptance testing. He considers that as being done by real testers. Well, he’s absolutely right. I expressed myself a bit sloppy, so let me use this post to explain what I meant to say.

Acceptance testing is done by the customer to make sure she got what she ordered, to make sure you delivered the right system. This process cannot and should not be automated. What you can do – and this was what I meant to say – is to automate acceptance tests, and use them during construction.

The customer defines the acceptance tests. These are valuable to the developer since they can be used to validate the system as it develops. The sooner you get a hold on these test cases the better, so make sure you press the customer to produce them early. Better yet, help the customer in the process. That way you can help making the test cases automatable.

So, how do you design a test so that it can be automated? First of all you need to stop thinking in terms of user interface. Instead you should describe the test, in plain text, and in terms of action, function and result. Look for possible test data, edge cases, exceptional uses and describe those as well.

The second thing you need to do is to make the system in such a way that it can be automated. Separating the GUI from the business logic is often all you need to do to achieve that. You then automate the acceptance tests in the same way as you automate integration tests. In fact, they could even become a part of your integration testing harness. The only difference being the fact that they are defined by the customer.

I’m not saying this is easy. (Here’s a nice post which discusses when to automate.) I’m not saying it can be done for all of your acceptance tests. What I say is: it can be done for far more tests than you might think. For example, we are customizing a GIS system for an internal customer’s needs. The application is user controlled and involve plenty of complex actions, modifying graphical data and properties. Still we were able to automate most of the acceptance tests.

We spent a lot of time writing code to set up fixtures, initiate actions and check the results. It was worth every second though. You see, manually running one of our acceptance test cases usually takes several minutes. By having the computer do all the work, time is reduced significantly and free up developer time. We use the automated test cases individually, almost like an extended compiler, to verify features as we implement them. And at night we run all of our acceptance tests to get feedback on how far we’ve come and to spot unexpected problems.

But the real acceptance testing is still going to be done manually, by the customer, at the end of the project. Just like AC pointed out.


Categories: software development, test-driven Tags:

Tools of The Effective Developer: Fail Fast!

October 2nd, 2007 5 comments

It’s a well known fact that we regularly introduce errors with the code we write. Chances are slim to get it right on the first try. If we do, the risk is great that changing requirements and murdering deadlines will mess things up later on.

It’s also well known that the cost of failure increases with time. The sooner you discover the flaw, the easier it is to fix. In other words, if we are going to fail, there are good reasons to do it fast.

When developers talk about failing fast they usually refer to the defensive coding technique that is based on assertions and exception handling. It’s true that assertions are the very foundation of failing fast, they should be your first line of defense against bugs. But it doesn’t stop there. Failing fast should pervade your whole process of making software. You should fail fast on all levels.

The most effective fail fast-technique is automated testing, the fastest way to get feedback. Be sure to write the tests first. And don’t just automate unit-testing; integration and acceptance testing are often easier to automate than you might think. The key is to isolate your code using mock objects.

The fail-fast property doesn’t apply to code and systems alone. It should be used on the project level too. By using agile practices like short iterations, small releases, and on-site customers you create an environment of continuous feedback. It will help you steer the project to success, or – by failing fast – avoid a disaster. Kate Gregory puts it this way in a nice post from 2005:

“Failure can be a good thing. If it saves you from following a doomed path for a year, you’re glad to have failed early rather than late.”

Failing takes courage, failing increases your knowledge, failing calls upon action. That’s why I like the habit of Failing Fast.

This was the fifth post in this series. Here are the other Tools of The Effective Developer posts:

  1. Tools of The Effective Developer: Personal Logs
  2. Tools of The Effective Developer: Personal Planning
  3. Tools of The Effective Developer: Programming By Intention
  4. Tools of The Effective Developer: Customer View

The Search Engine Game

October 2nd, 2007 1 comment

SEO is obviously something that is occupying a lot of people’s minds nowadays. Digg and other community websites are full of posts with the three-letter abbreviation. The challenge is to outsmart the search engine algorithm so that your content (well, ads) will show amongst the first search results. The number of SEO experts out there are legio, but so are the skeptics. Alastair Revell, for instance, thinks that all you need is a good grip of basic web design.

“What I believe is that writing search engine optimised pages is part and parcel of good web design and not a black art to be practised by specialists.”

I agree with Alastair on this. To me, SEO with the sole purpose of climbing as high as possible on the Google ladder, is a lot like cheating. It’s like skipping a cue. The effect is that more legitimate content could be pushed downwards. The problem then, is that if some does it, everyone needs to follow or lose their legitimate rank.

A parallel can be drawn to driving in big cities: in order to prevent cars from behind to pass and take your place, you need to keep a short distance to the car in front. This way of driving use up more fuel than necessary. It requires you to accelerate faster, and break more often than what is optimal. The same is true for SEO. The time you spend on optimizing search engine results is waste in the sense of content quality.

Instead of worrying about duplication or other SEO related problems, your time is better spent on improving content and users’ experience. In my opinion, that is the only way to be a long-term winner in the Search Engine Game.

Categories: blogging, web-design Tags:

How I Reward Good Blog Posts

October 1st, 2007 3 comments

I sometimes come across a blog post that makes me want to reward the author a little more than the normal Digg, Reddit or Stumble voting. This is usually the case for content that enlightens or inspires me, or just makes me feel good.

I wouldn’t go so far as to pay the blogger, but since I’m willing to spend a little time there is another way. Here’s how I do it:

When I decide to reward the author, I scan the post for an ad that catches my attention. If (and only if) I find an ad that is worth spending at least 30 seconds on, I go ahead and click it. In that way the author gets a little money (usually a fraction of a dollar), I accomplish my goal of rewarding him or her, and the advertiser gets the chance to present his offer to someone who is suffering from severe ad blindness.

Please note that this is not some kind of click fraud. I only click on ads that interest me, and I do spend time to investigate the offer. In fact, my habit of rewarding good posts is every advertisers dream. Since I use Firefox with the Adblock Plus extension, I need to turn that off in order to see the advertising on the page. Nothing but the wish to reward the blogger could make me go through that procedure.

Categories: blogging, reading Tags: