Friday, December 4, 2015

Mastery Takes Time

I have talked about achieving mastery previously. Here's another, perhaps better researched article on how long it takes to achieve mastery of a discipline. For those too indolent to click a link, what it says is that it takes about 10,000 hours, or about five full-time years, to obtain a reasonable degree of mastery, and it doesn't matter what it is; playing the violin, swinging a baseball bat, or coding in C++. A study of violinists indicated that "natural" talent was not a factor. The people who were the best were the ones who practiced the most and the longest.

This is something recent college grads all seem not to know about the careers on which they are embarking. They think (like I once thought) that their natural intelligence and their good education was what made the difference. As an Old Hand, I can tell you that practice has a lot to do with it, and good as you are, you will get a lot better when you've been doing the job for 20 years.

Don't Teach Yourself to Code by Writing a Library

It is a terrible idea to teach yourself how to use some unfamiliar feature of C++ by designing a library that heavily uses this feature.

I cannot think of an easily explained example, because libraries that come into existence in this way are very rarely easily explained. Even experienced C++ folks look at the thing and say, "Huh...WHAT?! Can you DO THAT?" Readers with more than a couple years of development experience are grimacing right now, because chances are good that the code they are paid to work in every day relies on a library that some genius thought would be cooler if it all used some tricks they'd been reading about.

It may be cool to the original author, but to anyone who hasn't read the same blogs as the author, it's just mysterious. Especially mysterious when the author has trouble doing what they originally imagined was possible, and ends up covering this lack of experience with a hack, that then lingers long after the author stops working on the library.

Writing libraries is a great time to slow down; to be conservative; to solicit the widest possible review; to ask your peers, "Is this good style?"

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Mysterious Hidden Languages of C++

C++ is old enough to have teenaged children (like Java, conceived when C++ was itself a wild teenager). Some lucky developers have spent virtually their whole career writing C++. But while C++ grew and solidified, the world of programming languages bubbled and foamed around it. Languages and language ideas came and went. Lexical styles changed and changed again. In these modern days of Hascell, python and Javascript, it can be hard to remember that the folks who originally designed C and C++ learned to program in BCPL.

The Secret Expression Language Inside C++

An expression language is a language where every executable statement produces a value. The vestigal expression language embedded in C++ includes individual expressions, sequences, blocks, if/else, and function call, but not iteration, alas.

x = 1, y = 2, z = x + y is a sequence. It sets the values of variables x, y, and z, and produces the value 3.

(rand(), 0) is a block. It calls the function rand(), and produces the value 0.

x == 1 ? y : (z, 0) is an if/else statement. It evaluates the boolean condition x == 1. If x and y have the values set in the previous expression, it produces the value 2. If x is not equal to 1, it produces zero.

C++ Has a Shiny New Functional Language Too

Here's the old syntax for a function.

int foo(int x)
    return x*x-1;
Here's the same function as a lambda. Return value in a different place. Syntax for associating a name with the function different. New rules to remember about the difference between lambdas and function pointers.

auto foo = [](int x)
    return x*x-1;
Lambdas have a whole new scheme (ouch, pun) of type deduction rules. Someday they are going to be special. But today they are mostly syntactic sugar, for people who grew up with Javascript or some exotic functional language so they can pretend that C++ is trendy too.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Aphorisms for Work

Here are some aphorisms that I think upon, usually during meetings with grumpy managers.

It takes the same time to do a project right as to do it wrong

You just spend the tine in different places. You can rush through coding without any planning, but you will spend a lot of time in front of the debugger, and maybe have to throw your code away and start over when you understand the problem better. Or you can do thoughtful design, code at a deliberate pace, run your unit tests, and be done. It comes down to a lifestyle choice.

The most dangerous thing in the world is a half-understood Harvard Business Review article 

There's an HBR article that says, essentially, "All other things being equal, getting software done sooner results in greater revenue." This one paper is the cause of so much misery for development teams. Managers love to use this article as an excuse to pry the software out of development and jam it into production before it's finished. They never read the "all other things being equal" part of the article. 

There is an HBR article that says, "Pay is not what motivates employees the most." There are managers who read this article and think they can overwork and underpay their employees. They don't read the part about what does motivate employees, like empowerment, recognition, and work/life balance.

The most pain is inflicted when the manager hears a summary second-hand, and doesn't even know he has only half the advice. He thinks, "There's an HRB article that says you should ship the project as early as possible", or "HBR says employees don't care that much about pay."

When everything is important, nothing is

Ever have your manager tell you on Monday to work on this, because it is the most important thing, and then tell you on Tuesday to work on that, because it is the most important thing. And then you ask him to choose which is most important, and he says they both are? That is what a weak manager does when he doesn't want to make a decision. There must be a most important thing, the thing to finish first. 

If everything is important, if everything is an emergency, then nothing is really important, because your manager will blame you for what you didn't choose, no matter what you did choose. If your manager behaves in this way, it's a good time to get your resume updated and start looking for work.

The 90/90 Rule: The first 90% of development takes 90% of the time, and the last 10% takes the other 90% of the time

Oh, how many times has a developer said he was 90% done in one month, only to spend a second month on that last pesky ten percent? You're 90 percent done with the part of the task you know about. Generally that's about half the task. It's a very mature organization indeed that can correctly estimate completion percentages. Your best chance is to estimate things using a consistent process, and then consistently record how your estimate matched reality. Then you can de-rate future estimates until your estimation process matures.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Software Quality: A Race to the Bottom?

Another Old Hand, whose opinions are based on very relevant experience, says that the software industry is trapped in a race to the bottom in software quality.

The trap is that investors' needs are divorced from software companies' mechanisms for producing value. Investors want the stock price or corporate valuation to improve in every reporting period; every year, every quarter, every month, every day. Investors are entirely uninterested in what a company did last month. They invest today to reap profit in the future. Companies, on the other hand, can only demonstrate their ability to produce value by completing projects; shipping disks, posting content, publishing interfaces. But it is hard to encode much value into a software product in a day or a month.

To impress investors, a company must ship, soon. Since investors aren't interested in what the software does, there is a strong incentive to ship early, but less incentive to ship complete or useful code. For a startup which has never shipped, it's all about who has the value story with the most zeros on the end of it and the shortest time to delivery.

To impress partners and customers, a company must ship. Customers are largely uninterested in what a company plans to do. They want products now. If a potential customer wants functionality, and there are competitors, the one who ships first wins the customer. Having won, it's a relatively smaller problem to keep the customer. Customers are used to defective software.

Thus, according to my friend, what wins is crazy, caffeine-fueled speed. Quality doesn't matter. By the time the customer finds out the product is imperfect, the sale is made, the money paid.

This reasoning depresses me. I hate what it means for my profession. Yet I can find no flaws in the argument, only small exceptions; established quality brands; software products (databases, kernels) that can never work in the marketplace if they aren't reliable; special customers who know what they need and write quality into their purchase agrements.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Reading Your Own Press Releases: A Management Antipattern

To customers, a new company is an unknown. A new company has no reputation. A new company must focus on providing innovative or cost-effective solutions to customer problems, because it's the only story they have to tell. Nothing wrong with that.

Well-established companies have more to say. In addition to presenting their latest product's features, they can tell customers about their previous products, their many years in business, their reputation for quality. Nothing wrong with that either. It's easy for a customer to choose an established company versus an upstart competitor, even without doing a bunch of homework, because the established company is a known quantity.

But sometimes, an established company loses its way. They begin to tell themselves about their reputation for quality, their years in business, and their leadership position. Their executives tell their product teams that they can charge a premium price because they are the "Cadillac brand", regardless of the strength of competitive products. If they say this often enough, it becomes received wisdom within the company. I call this behavior reading your own press releases.

A company that is reading its own press releases is already past its prime. When a company starts reading its own press releases, it stops worrying about solving customer problems, or being better, faster, and stronger than the competition. They may even get away with this for a few years if they really were market leaders. But eventually, they find themselves sidelined by their hungrier competitors, and their position of advantage evaporates.

I've worked for two companies who had this problem. One is now a division of a conglomerate, who fixed the problem by replacing complacent managers. The other annoyed its partners so much with slow product delivery that the partners made the company irrelevant. Last I checked, this second company was still in business, but they shed three quarters of their staff in a paroxysm of downsizing, and never recovered their former greatness.

I bet you can see some obvious examples in the news of large technology companies who have been reading their own press releases. Where are their new products? Missing in action or underwhelming critics and customers. When your division manager starts talking this way, tell them to wake up and smell the innovation.