Saturday, July 21, 2012

Old school developers - achieving a lot with little

Ken Thompson

I was reading through bits of the excellent Coders at Work book by Peter Seibel and found it interesting that the (what I'd call respectfully) old school developers, such as Ken Thompson, Joe Armstrong and Jamie Zawinski use hardly any modern tools and techniques while developing software.

Ken Thompson was the designer of the B programming language (the precursor to C) and also the Go programming language (with Rob Pike). He also worked alongside Dennis Ritchie to develop the C programming language and the original Unix operating system while working at Bell Labs. After designing the UTF-8 method of character encoding on a placemat in a New Jersey diner, he worked overnight to implement full UTF-8 support in Bell Lab's Plan 9 operating system.
Regarding his programming style, he debugs only via printf statements, hardly ever uses unit tests, starts his projects by designing the data structures and then works bottom up, with throwaway test stubs.

Joe Armstrong
Joe Armstrong developed the Erlang programming language and the open source Open Telecom Platform (OTP) framework for Ericsson. When designing software he prefers to rigorously document as much as possible up front before starting to write code, especially for difficult projects such as those involving real-time networking protocols. He uses prototypes to solve the hard problems first, and for debugging, just uses print statements. He is a critic of Object Oriented Programming, and favours functional programming languages like Haskell. He never uses an IDE, preferring just Emacs and the command line (no mouse required).

Jamie Zawinski worked in MIT's AI lab with Lisp, then moved onto leading the development of Lucid Emacs, also in Lisp, which later became known as XEmacsAfter this he joined Netscape and worked on the front-end for the Unix version of Netscape Navigator, and later led the development of Netscape Mail (both projects were in C). He too prefers to just use print statements to debug his code. His process is either to write code top down or bottom up, let the code evolve naturally, then refactor it when necessary. During development he hardly ever uses unit tests, believing it slows things down - he thinks there's a lot to be said for getting the code right first time. In his view, its a matter of priorities, "do you want this to be good software or do you want it to be done next week - pick one because you can't have both".
Jamie Zawinski

So what tools and techniques do you actually need to be a great programmer? Are these modern techniques of TDD, BDD, Scrum, Agile, Design Patterns, XP etc. just window dressing or do they serve a higher purpose? Is it just a fact that a gifted programmer will always find a way to be a great programmer, no matter what tools he or she works with?

My own view is that some level of TDD and a reliance upon a decent set of unit tests is invaluable. Maybe then these modern techniques should just be seen as advances to make our job a little easier and more productive, especially for those who are not a genius-level developer, like these guys.

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