The Data Asylum

Programming, Databases and People

How to Be a Programmer - Circa 2002

While looking through some old files I found this gem. It's an essay written seven years ago by Robert L. Read called "How To Be a Programmer: A Short, Comprehensive, and Personal Summary". It covers a what the writer feels are the most important skills to learn across beginner, intermediate and advanced skill levels.

I remember being heavily influenced by this as it appeared a short time after I first had a real job. seven years is a long time in technology and I was wondering if the advice in it held up. Here are a few excerpts.

2.9 How to Deal with Intermittent Bugs The intermittent bug has to obey the same laws of logic everything else does. What makes it hard is that it occurs only under unknown conditions. Try to record the circumstances under which it does occur, so that you can guess at what the variability really is. … Try, try, try to reproduce it. If you can't reproduce it, set a trap for it by building a logging system, a special one if you have to, that can log what you guess is what you need when it really occurs.

When I first read this many years ago I was relieved. It's not just me that has these problems. I've used this formula too many times to count.

6.7 How to Know When to Apply Fancy Computer Science There is a body of knowledge about algorithms, data structures, mathematics, and other gee-whiz stuff that most programmers know about but rarely use. In practice, this wonderful stuff is too complicated and generally unnecessary.

It's the biggest contradiction in our industry that a lot of importance is placed on solutions to complicated problems when most of the time simple solutions to simple problems are needed (and more desirable).

4.1 How to Stay Motivated It is a wonderful and surprising fact that programmers are highly motivated by the desire to create artifacts that are beautiful, useful, or nifty. … There's a lot of money to be made doing ugly, stupid, and boring stuff; but in the end fun will make the most money for the company.

I'm not sure where I stand on this one. As much as I'd like to believe that fun is always the way to go I'm not sure that it will always pay the bills.

Overall it is still a relevant and important essay for any programmer at any level.