Thursday, August 20, 2009

Staying Current: A Software Developer's Responsibility

I have a personal hatred for weekend conferences*. To me, a weekend conference ensures that I'll be "working" for 12 straight days.

I understand that opinion isn't universal.

Some people have problems getting time "off" to attend conferences. These situations feel like a fundamental misunderstanding of a software developer's responsibilities. Part of your (software developing) job is staying up on current technologies. That means doing some research during your day.

(almost directly stolen from Ward on technical debt)
If you spend your entire day coding and never looking at new things, you accrue productivity debt. In the short term (say the last week of a release), it makes sense to take on a little debt. However, in the long term, assuming little or no payment, the interest (where interest equals the gap between your skills and the current solutions) will render you a NZPP (Net-Zero Producing Programmer). In a typical organization you can coast as a NZPP for around 6 months and slowly transition to a NNPP.

It is your responsibility not to become a NZPP (or NNPP). Most talented software developers refuse to work with NZPPs. At the point that you become NZPP, you usually have to declare bankruptcy (with regard to software development). You generally have two choices: take a much lower paying job where you can learn new things or move into another role. If you want to be a software developer, neither of these outcomes is desirable.

Luckily, you have the power to avoid becoming a NZPP. Most employers will happily buy you technical books and send you to technical conferences. In my opinion, whether or not you took advantage of these benefits should be noted on your performance review. Not staying current as a software developer, especially when the opportunity is offered to you, is software malpractice.

I once created a list of things I look for in potential team-mates.
  • Have you tried Test Driven Development? Can you name something you liked and something you disliked?
  • What language(s) that are gaining popularity, but not yet mainstream, have you written Hello World in?
  • Do you read books or blogs looking for new ideas at least (on average) once every two weeks?
  • Do you at least attempt to learn a new language every year?
  • Have you ever run a code coverage or cyclomatic complexity tool against your codebase?
A commenter said something along the lines of
Not everyone has the personal free time to dedicate to doing all of these things
And, that is the fundamental flaw. Employees (and even some employers) seem to think that these are activities that should be done in your off time. I can't disagree more. These are things that a responsible developer needs to do as part of their job, thus it can be done during work hours.

20% time isn't something Google invented, it's just something they named, formalized and made popular. The activity itself is something good software developers have been doing for years. I applaud Google for making it a standard, thus ensuring that it's employees always have the opportunity to stay current. However, your company doesn't need to standardize on 20% time for you to stay current.

It's your responsibility to make time in your day to read a book or a blog.

You should also take advantage of a company sponsored trip to a conference. If you've attended conferences before and derived little value, I highly suggest the QCon conferences and JAOO.

Once you start doing research as part of your job you'll find that conferences are just like work, except the focus is 100% on research. And, it's not something you want (or should have to) spend your personal time on, it's just another productive day of doing what you have a responsibility to do.

* Which is why Josh and I run SpeakerConf Tuesday-Thursday. You can travel to, attend and travel home without missing a weekend day.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Macros Facilitate Expressive Code

Someone once asked me if I thought Clojure was more expressive than even Ruby. I didn't have enough information to form an opinion then, and I still don't now. However, I recently noticed something that led me to believe the answer could actually be yes.

I was looking through the code of clojure.test on Friday and I noticed something interesting. In clojure.test, the form(s) passed to the "is" macro are wrapped by a try/catch. It caught my eye because I often want to do the same thing in other languages, and usually I have to settle for much less elegant solutions.

Here's a bit of example code to help create some context
(deftest a-test
(is (= 1 (some-function-that-throws-an-exception)))
(println "this code still executes"))
For this example to work you'll have to ignore the fact that you probably don't want this behavior. In practice I prefer my tests to abort on the first failing assertion; however, in this blog entry I'm focusing on what's happening, not what I theoretically prefer.

In the example I call a function the same way I would anywhere else, and the framework has full control over what happens if my function throws an exception. This is accomplished when the "is" macro takes the forms and manipulates them into something similar to the original code, but with additional capabilities.

This particular example struck me as one where macros allow you to write only what you want, and the macro adds the additional behavior that you desire. However, the key is, you don't have to do anything special to get this additional behavior.

Consider trying to do the same thing in Ruby. In Test::Unit you would need an assert method that took a block.

def safe_assert_equal
result = yield
assert_equal result.first, result.last
rescue Exception=>e
puts e

class Testable < Test::Unit::TestCase
def test_something
safe_assert_equal { [1, 2] }

The additional syntax isn't drastically invasive; however, you are forcing additional syntax and requiring the understanding of why it's necessary.

Of course, in Java things would be even less expressive. The most likely solution would be to put the assertEquals in a Runnable, but I'd be interested in hearing other ideas. Regardless of the solution, it would obviously be invasive and take away from the readability of the test.

Being able to only say what is necessary is powerful. Stuart Halloway likes to talk about Essence and Ceremony, where Essence is the ability to say only what you want, and Ceremony is all the additional things you are required to say.

Macros seem to be a powerful tool for those looking to write Ceremony-free code.