The Developer’s Cry

Yet another blog by a hobbyist programmer

Programming is hard

I have always seen programming as something creative, like an art. And like in art, it is hard work to create something beautiful. It’s hard to get the details right. If you get it right, then people will like the result, and of course, some may not because tastes differ and you can’t make everybody happy. But aside from people’s reaction to the picture painted, a painter also gets his satisfaction from mere crafting, using this technique here and that trick there, knowing the internals of his work.
Picture a musician, selecting an instrument to play, a rhythm, writing a melody.

That sure is a romantic view of programming. In reality, it’s more of a purely technical process. When you want to accomplish goal G you are going to have to make work A and B together. This might be done with technique C. This is engineering. Apply a trick here, and it is called a hack. Hacks can be dirty hacks, or they can be clever hacks. In a security context, they might even be dangerous hacks.

Some say building applications is like building a house, and there should be blueprints for building software as well. Houses are built from small, simple building blocks. All houses have walls and a roof, a kitchen, a living and a bedroom, yet each house is unique. For each room, you can zoom in and work out the details. Users have the option of changing the wallpaper. And of course, a construction error may take down the entire house.
It’s a nice metaphore that works well, but I suspect that whoever thought up that idea is not a programmer.

Programming is a mind game. The programmer builds a model in his mind, writes down the code and tries it. If it doesn’t work, she tries to find out where it doesn’t work. You may use a debugger or sketch it on paper but mostly the problem is cracked in your mind. Like a game of chess, it takes a lot of concentration trying to think six moves ahead, a single mistake will play out badly sooner or later.

Bugs are rarely ever “happy little accidents” like in Bob Ross paintings. They range from apparently random program crashes to worldwide Heartbleed scale disaster. Slowly the world is waking up, it has become apparent that eventually all software is flawed. Consequently, using the internet is as big a risk as a running across a highway, naked.

Programming is hugely underestimated. Programming is hard. It is really, really hard. The human mind was not made for this job. It is incredible that we have computers at all. Steve Jobs said that everyone should learn to program, because it teaches you to think. I agree a little, but it’s like saying “Everyone can paint!” Or, “everyone should learn how to build a house.”

The best way to keep out bugs? Keep It Simple, Stupid. Simplify, simplify. Write code in a clear, consistent style. Add useful comments. Sometimes comment on why you did it this way. Test, test, test. Eat your own dog food.

There is a nice test to see if you’ve written good code. Open up a source file that you wrote six months ago. If you can’t make out how it works within five minutes, then it’s just not good enough. Now open up a source code that someone else wrote.

Boom. Oh, the horror.

Note that even this test is flawed, because you might not be seeing what you think you are seeing. Think about it. Programming is hard. And so is building houses.