Sunday, August 15, 2010

Steve McConnell rules!

As person with over 15 years in software business I must admit that the biggest mistake I made is that I assumed that general programming and later management knowledge just comes to you with the experience.

Even if it is partially so, you’re inevitably exposed to a relatively small sample of problems and solutions. Furthermore, you’re bound to learn only from your own mistakes. In many cases people see those mistakes and the mistakes made by other people around them (including management) and assume that these mistakes are somehow unique to their project or their company.

But as the saying goes: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Most of the mistakes that you or others around you made had already been made countless times before. It pays to read serious literature about avoiding such mistakes through use of best software development practices. Further more, this literatures should preferably be read before engaging is big development projects.

After reading quite a few books on general subjects of software development (besides technology and language-specific books) I can say that I found most valuable information in the books of Steve McConnell.

When I started reading “Code Complete 2” – it was love at first sight. The book made me completely rethink my approach to writing code. The book includes both low level advice such as recommended naming conventions and sizes of modules as well as high level concepts such as managing complexity though consistent levels of abstraction that is essential to intelligibility of systems. I believe that any serious software professional ought to read this book, preferably before he spends years on making and correcting his own mistakes.

The next book by McConnell that is more intended to team-leads/architects is “Rapid Development”. Although the book was published in 1996, it’s still very relevant today. Concepts and ideas in this book apply to today’s “agile” world as much as they did to “waterfall” world of past decades. It contains an invaluable list of practices and classic mistakes that every developer/manager encountered at some point. Same as with Code Complete 2, this book is essential reading for any professional software practitioner.

A more specialized book by McConnell is “Software Estimation”. The book contains exhaustive description of various estimation methodologies along with advice on applicability of each methodology within a given context. It also contains information on estimation of “iterative” (aka agile) projects. I believe that serious software estimation is impossible without basic knowledge of techniques described in this book.

A common feature of McConnell’s books is reliance on large studies of projects and code-bases. This is particularly valuable because it takes the information from realm of personal experience and opinion into realm of scientific and empirical knowledge that is so much missing in many books on software. I don’t want to start a flame war or invite angry feedback but books such as Uncle Bob’s “Clean Code” lack this kind of empirical proof and are mostly based on author’s opinion (with which I mostly agree, btw). I believe that software profession has evolved for long enough time that we can use information accumulated in countless successful and failed projects to better plan and execute new projects.

Lastly, I regret that very few colleges and universities include McConnell’s books as part of mandatory learning material. IMHO they contain infinitely more useful information to future software engineers than many abstract and outdated subjects in computer science.

1 comment:

  1. If you enjoyed Software Estimation, you might enjoy our approach to estimating and managing tasks in LiquidPlanner. As one of the developers, I think it's great to be able to clearly communicate that a bug or a feature may involve some risk (very wide estimate) or is fairly straightforward (very narrow estimate).

    Anyways, check it out if you have a few minutes: