On Forests and Trees

When an English speaker is drowning in details that make the big picture hard to see, she might complain, “I can’t see the forest for the trees.”

image credit: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho (Flickr)

It’s an odd expression, partly ironic and partly humorous. When I hear it, I sometimes think of my sister, who, after moving from Indiana to Utah, complained that the mountains were getting in the way of her view. (Her tongue was firmly in her cheek… :-)

The expression also describes an important problem of software engineering–one that a lot of engineers don’t understand well enough. It’s a problem with generalization.
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Why you should use an IDE instead of vim or emacs

With a title like the one above, you may be expecting a rant from an IDE bigot. I know there are plenty of flame wars on this topic, on both sides, and if I raised your hackles (or whet your appetite), I’m sorry.

This is not that kind of post. For one thing, I don’t take myself so seriously:

There’s a keystroke for that! Image credit: xkcd.com

What I’m hoping to do here is point out some subtleties to this debate that don’t get a lot of airtime, and explain to my supercharged-text-editor friends why I work the way I do. However, I also plan to write a companion to this post, explaining why you need to learn a tool in the vim/emacs category, and I’ll have plenty to say on that topic as well. Hopefully that buys me a few minutes of an open mind. :-)

From a distance

If you step back from the debate over IDEs vs. supercharged text editors, and squint to suppress the details, you’ll see that most exchanges on this topic look like this: Continue reading

How to make a const-correct codebase in 4300 easy steps

One of the codebases that I work on is theoretically C++, but if you peer under the hood, it looks more like 1990-vintage C. It’s 500 KLOC of almost purely procedural code, with lots of structs and few true objects. More dusty and brittle than I’d like.

Image credit: Tim Gillin (Flickr)

I am not a C++ bigot; I first began to do serious, professional coding in C, not long after this codebase got its start. I understand the C-isms pretty well. And although I think Linus got carried away in his rant about the ugliness of C++, I can appreciate the ways that lean C sometimes makes its descendant look ugly and inefficient. (Though C++11 and 14 are making this less true…)

This means that I don’t consider the C-like style of this particular codebase a fatal flaw, in and of itself.

However, since my early coding adventures I’ve been converted to the advantages of OOP for complex projects and large teams, and I’ve also accumulated a lot of battlescars around multithreading. Our codebase needs OOP to solve some encapsulation antipatterns, and it needs RAII and C++11-style mutexing in the worst way. Its old, single-threaded mindset makes far too many things far too slow and error-prone.

A few months ago, we decided to make an investment to solve these problems.

To do it right, I had the team add a story to our scrum backlog about making the codebase const-correct. And therein lies a tale worth recounting…

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Courage Counts

If you’ve read Call it Courage, then you know the story of Mafatu, the boy who was afraid.

Mafatu grows up in Polynesia, surrounded by the ocean—but everything about the sea terrifies him, because he remembers his mother drowning when he was young. Determined to conquer his fear or die trying, Mafatu sets out alone in a dugout canoe, into the element that terrifies him most. He ends up stranded on an island that harbors cannibals. In one memorable scene, his faithful companion dog is endangered by a tiger shark; Mafatu jumps in the water and attacks with only a knife. When he kills the shark, he realizes that something fundamental in his heart is now different.

He still feels fear, but it no longer overpowers him.

He is free.

I’ve been blogging about the skills and mindset of effective software architects for quite a while now, but I recently realized that I’ve omitted the fundamental subject of courage.

image credit: nalsa (Flickr)

This is an important gap, because courage counts. The cleverest, most skilled architect or engineer will accomplish very little, at key junctures in a career, without it.

Symptoms of fear

In the past two decades, I’ve heard many people (myself included) make statements like the following: Continue reading

Learned Helplessness, Rats, and People Power

In the 1950s, researchers at Johns Hopkins conducted some very troubling experiments. They caught wild rats and squeezed them in their hands until they stopped struggling, teaching them that nothing they did would let them escape the crushing grip of their human captors. Then they dropped the rats in a bucket of water and watched them swim.

Now, wild rats are superb swimmers. On average, rats that had not received the squeeze treatment lasted around 60 hours in the bucket before they gave up from exhaustion and allowed themselves to drown. One unsqueezed rat swam for 81 hours.

A later rats-in-bucket experiment (not quite so brutal). Photo credit: MBK (Marjie) (Flickr).

The average squeezed rat sank after 30 minutes.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Martin Seligman became interested in this phenomenon–he called it “learned helplessness“–and he was able to trigger similar “giving up” behavior in dogs and other animals. He theorized that human depression Continue reading