Excerpt from the article: 'How to be a Programmer' - Part 2

By Robert L Read

Penelope Truce
Penelope Truce
May 31, 2011
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Chapter 2: Beginner

(...continued  from

2.2 Team Skills

Why Estimation is Important

To get a working software system in active use as quickly as possible requires not only planning the development, but also planning the documentation, deployment, marketing. In a commercial project it also requires sales and finance. Without predictability of the development time, it is impossible to plan these effectively.

Good estimation provides predictability. Managers love it, as well they should. The fact that it is impossible, both theoretically and practically, to predict accurately how long it will take to develop software is often lost on managers. We are asked to do this impossible thing all the time, and we must face up to it honestly. However, it would be dishonest not to admit the impossibility of this task, and when necessary, explain it. There is a lot of room for miscommunication about estimates, as people have a startling tendency to think wishfully that the sentence:

    I estimate that, if I really understand the problem, it is about 50% likely that we will be done in five weeks (if no one bothers us during that time).

really means:

    I promise to have it all done five weeks from now.

This common interpretation problem requires that you explicitly discuss what the estimate means with your boss or customer as if they were a simpleton. Restate your assumptions, no matter how obvious they seem to you.

How to Estimate Programming Time

Estimation takes practice. It also takes labor. It takes so much labor it may be a good idea to estimate the time it will take to make the estimate, especially if you are asked to estimate something big.

When asked to provide an estimate of something big, the most honest thing to do is to stall. Most engineers are enthusiastic and eager to please, and stalling certainly will displease the stalled. But an on-the-spot estimate probably won't be accurate and honest.

While stalling, it may be possible to consider doing or prototyping the task. If political pressure permits, this is the most accurate way of producing the estimate, and it makes real progress.

When not possible to take the time for some investigation, you should first establish the meaning of the estimate very clearly. Restate that meaning as the first and last part of your written estimate. Prepare a written estimate by deconstructing the task into progressively smaller subtasks until each small task is no more than a day; ideally at most in length. The most important thing is not to leave anything out. For instance, documentation, testing, time for planning, time for communicating with other groups, and vacation time are all very important. If you spend part of each day dealing with knuckleheads, put a line item for that in the estimate. This gives your boss visibility into what is using up your time at a minimum, and might get you more time.

I know good engineers who pad estimates implicitly, but I recommend that you do not. One of the results of padding is trust in you may be depleted. For instance, an engineer might estimate three days for a task that she truly thinks will take one day. The engineer may plan to spend two days documenting it, or two days working on some other useful project. But it will be detectable that the task was done in only one day (if it turns out that way), and the appearance of slacking or overestimating is born. It's far better to give proper visibility into what you are actually doing. If documentation takes twice as long as coding and the estimate says so, tremendous advantage is gained by making this visible to the manager.

Pad explicitly instead. If a task will probably take one day---but might take ten days if your approach doesn't work---note this somehow in the estimate if you can; if not, at least do an average weighted by your estimates of the probabilities. Any risk factor that you can identify and assign an estimate to should go into the schedule. One person is unlikely to be sick in any given week. But a large project with many engineers will have some sick time; likewise vacation time. And what is the probability of a mandatory company-wide training seminar? If it can be estimated, stick it in. There are of course, unknown unknowns, or unk-unks. Unk-unks by definition cannot be estimated individually. You can try to create a global line item for all unk-unks, or handle them in some other way that you communicate to your boss. You cannot, however, let your boss forget that they exist, and it is devilishly easy for an estimate to become a schedule without the unk-unks considered.

In a team environment, you should try to have the people who will do the work do the estimate, and you should try to have team-wide consensus on estimates. People vary widely in skill, experience, preparedness, and confidence. Calamity strikes when a strong programmer estimates for herself and then weak programmers are held to this estimate. The act of having the whole team agree on a line-by-line basis to the estimate clarifies the team understanding, as well as allowing the opportunity for tactical reassignment of resources (for instance, shifting burden away from weaker team members to stronger).

If there are big risks that cannot be evaluated, it is your duty to state so forcefully enough that your manager does not commit to them and then become embarrassed when the risk occurs. Hopefully in such a case whatever is needed will be done to decrease the risk.

If you can convince your company to use Extreme Programming, you will only have to estimate relatively small things, and this is both more fun and more productive.

How to Find Out Information

The nature of what you need to know determines how you should find it.

If you need information about concrete things that are objective and easy to verify, for example the latest patch level of a software product, ask a large number of people politely by searching the internet for it or by posting on a discussion group. Don't search on the internet for anything that smacks of either opinion or subjective interpretation: the ratio of drivel to truth is too high.

If you need general knowledge about something subjective the history of what people have thought about it, go to the library (the physical building in which books are stored). For example, to learn about math or mushrooms or mysticism, go to the library.

If you need to know how to do something that is not trivial get two or three books on the subject and read them. You might learn how to do something trivial, like install a software package, from the Internet. You can even learn important things, like good programming technique, but you can easily spend more time searching and sorting the results and attempting to divine the authority of the results than it would take to read the pertinent part of a solid book.

If you need information that no one else could be expected to know for example, ‘does this software that is brand new work on gigantic data sets?’, you must still search the internet and the library. After those options are completely exhausted, you may design an experiment to ascertain it.

If you want an opinion or a value judgment that takes into account some unique circumstance, talk to an expert. For instance, if you want to know whether or not it is a good idea to build a modern database management system in LISP, you should talk to a LISP expert and a database expert.

If you want to know how likely it is that a faster algorithm for a particular application exists that has not yet been published, talk to someone working in that field.

If you want to make a personal decision that only you can make like whether or not you should start a business, try putting into writing a list of arguments for and against the idea. If that fails, consider divination. Suppose you have studied the idea from all angles, have done all your homework, and worked out all the consequences and pros and cons in your mind, and yet still remain indecisive. You now must follow your heart and tell your brain to shut up. The multitude of available divination techniques are very useful for determining your own semi-conscious desires, as they each present a complete ambiguous and random pattern that your own subconscious will assign meaning to.

How to Utilize People as Information Sources

Respect every person's time and balance it against your own. Asking someone a question accomplishes far more than just receiving the answer. The person learns about you, both by enjoying your presence and hearing the particular question. You learn about the person in the same way, and you may learn the answer you seek. This is usually far more important than your question.

However, the value of this diminishes the more you do it. You are, after all, using the most precious commodity a person has: their time. The benefits of communication must be weighed against the costs. Furthermore, the particular costs and benefits derived differ from person to person. I strongly believe that an executive of 100 people should spend five minutes a month talking to each person in her organization, which would be about 5% of their time. But ten minutes might be too much, and five minutes is too much if they have one thousand employees. The amount of time you spend talking to each person in your organization depends on their role (more than their position). You should talk to your boss more than your boss's boss, but you should talk to your boss's boss a little. It may be uncomfortable, but I believe you have a duty to talk a little bit to all your superiors, each month, no matter what.

The basic rule is that everyone benefits from talking to you a little bit, and the more they talk to you, the less benefit they derive. It is your job to provide them this benefit, and to get the benefit of communicating with them, keeping the benefit in balance with the time spent.

It is important to respect your own time. If talking to someone, even if it will cost them time, will save you a great deal of time, then you should do it unless you think their time is more valuable than yours, to the tribe, by that factor.

A strange example of this is the summer intern. A summer intern in a highly technical position can't be expected to accomplish too much; they can be expected to pester the hell out of everybody there. So why is this tolerated? Because the pestered are receiving something important from the intern. They get a chance to showoff a little. They get a chance to hear some new ideas, maybe; they get a chance to see things from a different perspective. They may also be trying to recruit the intern, but even if this is not the case there is much to gain.

You should ask people for a little bit of their wisdom and judgment whenever you honestly believe they have something to say. This flatters them and you will learn something and teach them something. A good programmer does not often need the advice of a Vice President of Sales, but if you ever do, you be sure to ask for it. I once asked to listen in on a few sales calls to better understand the job of our sales staff. This took no more than 30 minutes but I think that small effort made an impression on the sales force.

How to Document Wisely

Life is too short to write crap nobody will read; if you write crap, nobody will read it. Therefore a little good documentation is best. Managers often don't understand this, because even bad documentation gives them a false sense of security that they are not dependent on their programmers. If someone absolutely insists that you write truly useless documentation, say ``yes'' and quietly begin looking for a better job.

There's nothing quite as effective as putting an accurate estimate of the amount of time it will take to produce good documentation into an estimate to slacken the demand for documentation. The truth is cold and hard: documentation, like testing, can take many times longer than developing code.

Writing good documentation is, first of all, good writing. I suggest you find books on writing, study them, and practice. But even if you are a lousy writer or have poor command of the language in which you must document, the Golden Rule is all you really need: ``Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'' Take time to really think about who will be reading your documentation, what they need to get out of it, and how you can teach that to them. If you do that, you will be an above average documentation writer, and a good programmer.

When it comes to actually documenting code itself, as opposed to producing documents that can actually be read by non-programmers, the best programmers I've ever known hold a universal sentiment: write self-explanatory code and only document code in the places that you cannot make it clear by writing the code itself. There are two good reasons for this. First, anyone who needs to see code-level documentation will in most cases be able to and prefer to read the code anyway. Admittedly, this seems easier to the experienced programmer than to the beginner. More importantly however, is that the code and the documentation cannot be inconsistent if there is no documentation. The source code can at worst be wrong and confusing. The documentation, if not written perfectly, can lie, and that is a thousand times worse.

This does not make it easier on the responsible programmer. How does one write self-explanatory code? What does that even mean? It means:

    → Writing code knowing that someone will have to read it;

Applying the golden rule;

Choosing a solution that is straightforward, even if you could get by with another solution faster;

Sacrificing small optimizations that obfuscate the code;

Thinking about the reader and spending some of your precious time to make it easier on her; and

Not ever using a function name like ``foo'',``bar'', or ``doIt''!

How to Work with Poor Code

It is very common to have to work with poor quality code that someone else has written. Don't think too poorly of them, however, until you have walked in their shoes. They may have been asked very consciously to get something done quickly to meet schedule pressure. Regardless, in order to work with unclear code you must understand it. To understand it takes learning time, and that time will have to come out of some schedule, somewhere, and you must insist on it. To understand it, you will have to read the source code. You will probably have to experiment with it.

This is a good time to document, even if it is only for yourself, because the act of trying to document the code will force you to consider angles you might not have considered, and the resulting document may be useful. While you're doing this, consider what it would take to rewrite some or all of the code. Would it actually save time to rewrite some of it? Could you trust it better if you rewrote it? Be careful of arrogance here. If you rewrite it, it will be easier for you to deal with, but will it really be easier for the next person who has to read it? If you rewrite it, what will the test burden be? Will the need to re-test it outweigh any benefits that might be gained?

In any estimate that you make for work against code you didn't write, the quality of that code should affect your perception of the risk of problems and unk-unks.

It is important to remember that abstraction and encapsulation, two of a programmer's best tools, are particularly applicable to lousy code. You may not be able to redesign a large block of code, but if you can add a certain amount of abstraction to it you can obtain some of the benefits of a good design without reworking the whole mess. In particular, you can try to wall off the parts that are particularly bad so that they may be redesigned independently.

How to Use Source Code Control

Source code control systems let you manage projects effectively. They're very useful for one person and essential for a group. They track all changes in different versions so that no code is ever lost and meaning can be assigned to changes. One can create throw-away and debugging code with confidence with a source code control system, since the code you modify is kept carefully separate from committed, official code that will be shared with the team or released.

I was late to appreciate the benefits of source code control systems but now I wouldn't live without one even on a one-person project. Generally they are necessary when you have team working on the same code base. However, they have another great advantage: they encourage thinking about the code as a growing, organic system. Since each change is marked as a new revision with a new name or number, one begins to think of the software as a visibly progressive series of improvements. I think this is especially useful for beginners.

A good technique for using a source code control system is to stay within a few days of being up-to-date at all time. Code that can't be finished in a few days is checked in, but in a way that it is inactive and will not be called, and therefore not create any problems for anybody else. Committing a mistake that slows down your teammates is a serious error; it is often taboo.

How to Unit Test

Unit testing, the testing of an individual piece of coded functionality by the team that wrote it, is a part of coding, not something different from it. Part of designing the code is designing how it will be tested. You should write down a test plan, even if it is only one sentence. Sometimes the test will be simple: ``Does the button look good?'' Sometimes it will be complex: ``Did this matching algorithm return precisely the correct matches?''

Use assertion checking and test drivers whenever possible. This not only catches bugs early, but is very useful later on and lets you eliminate mysteries that you would otherwise have to worry about.

The Extreme Programming developers are writing extensively on unit testing effectively; I can do no better than to recommend their writings.

Take Breaks when Stumped

When stumped, take a break. I sometimes meditate for 15 minutes when stumped and the problem magically unravels when I come back to it. A night's sleep sometimes does the same thing on a larger scale. It's possible that temporarily switching to any other activity may work.

How to Recognize When to Go Home

Computer programming is an activity that is also a culture. The unfortunate fact is that it is not a culture that values mental or physical health very much. For both cultural/historical reasons (the need to work at night on unloaded computers, for example) and because of overwhelming time-to-market pressure and the scarcity of programmers, computer programmers are traditionally overworked. I don't think you can trust all the stories you hear, but I think 60 hours a week is common, and 50 is pretty much a minimum. This means that often much more than that is required. This is serious problem for a good programmer, who is responsible not only for themselves but their teammates as well. You have to recognize when to go home, and sometimes when to suggest that other people go home. There can't be any fixed rules for solving this problem, anymore than there can be fixed rules for raising a child, for the same reason---every human being is different.

Beyond 60 hours a week is an extraordinary effort for me, which I can apply for short periods of time (about one week), and that is sometimes expected of me. I don't know if it is fair to expect 60 hours of work from a person; I don't even know if 40 is fair. I am sure, however, that it is stupid to work so much that you are getting little out of that extra hour you work. For me personally, that's any more than 60 hours a week. I personally think a programmer should exercise noblesse oblige and shoulder a heavy burden. However, it is not a programmer's duty to be a patsy. The sad fact is programmers are often asked to be patsies in order to put on a show for somebody, for example a manager trying to impress an executive. Programmers often succumb to this because they are eager to please and not very good at saying no. There are four defenses against this:

    Communicate as much as possible with everyone in the company so that no one can mislead the executives about what is going on,

    Learn to estimate and schedule defensively and explicitly and give everyone visibility into what the schedule is and where it stands,

    Learn to say no, and say no as a team when necessary, and

    Quit if you have to.

Most programmers are good programmers, and good programmers want to get a lot done. To do that, they have to manage their time effectively. There is a certain amount of mental inertia associated with getting warmed-up to a problem and deeply involved in it. Many programmers find they work best when they have long, uninterrupted blocks of time in which to get warmed-up and concentrate. However, people must sleep and perform other duties. Each person needs to find a way to satisfy both their human rhythm and their work rhythm. Each programmer needs to do whatever it takes to procure efficient work periods, such as reserving certain days in which you will attend only the most critical meetings.

Since I have children, I try to spend evenings with them sometimes. The rhythm that works best for me is to work a very long day, sleep in the office or near the office (I have a long commute from home to work) then go home early enough the next day to spend time with my children before they go to bed. I am not comfortable with this, but it is the best compromise I have been able to work out. Go home if you have a contagious disease. You should go home if you are thinking suicidal thoughts. You should take a break or go home if you think homicidal thoughts for more than a few seconds. You should send someone home if they show serious mental malfunctioning or signs of mental illness beyond mild depression. If you are tempted to be dishonest or deceptive in a way that you normally are not due to fatigue, you should take a break. Don't use cocaine or amphetamines to combat fatigue. Don't abuse caffeine.

How to Deal with Difficult People

You will probably have to deal with difficult people. You may even be a difficult person yourself. If you are the kind of person who has a lot of conflicts with coworkers and authority figures, you should cherish the independence this implies, but work on your interpersonal skills without sacrificing your intelligence or principles.

This can be very disturbing to some programmers who have no experience in this sort of thing and whose previous life experience has taught them patterns of behavior that are not useful in the workplace. Difficult people are often inured to disagreement and they are less affected by social pressure to compromise than others. The key is to respect them appropriately, which is more than you will want to but not as much as they might want.

Programmers have to work together as a team. When disagreement arises, it must be resolved somehow, it cannot be ducked for long. Difficult people are often extremely intelligent and have something very useful to say. It is critical that you listen and understand the difficult person without prejudice caused by the person. A failure to communicate is often the basis of disagreement but it can sometimes be removed with great patience. Try to keep this communication cool and cordial, and don't accept any baits for greater conflict that may be offered. After a reasonable period of trying to understand, make a decision.

Don't let a bully force you to do something you don't agree with. If you are the leader, do what you think is best. Don't make a decision for any personal reasons, and be prepared to explain the reasons for your decision. If you are a teammate with a difficult person, don't let the leader's decision have any personal impact. If it doesn't go your way, do it the other way whole-heartedly.

Difficult people do change and improve. I've seen it with my own eyes, but it is very rare. However, everyone has transitory ups and downs.

One of the challenges that every programmer but especially leaders face is keeping the difficult person fully engaged. They are more prone to duck work and resist passively than others.


Dedication to the programmers of

Copyright 2002, 2003 Robert L. Read

by Robert L. Read. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with one Invariant Section being ‘History (As of February, 2003)’, no Front-Cover Texts, and one Back-Cover Text: ‘The original version of this document was written by Robert L. Read without renumeration and dedicated to the programmers of’ A copy of the license is included in the section entitled ‘GNU Free Documentation License’.


Keywords: Programmer, Debugging, Personal skills, Hypothesis, statistics, Testing, Design, Bugs, Memory, Optimize, Caching, Loop, Functions, Performance, part 2

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