Tag Archives: communication

5 More Attributes of Highly Effective Programmers

Nearly 7 years ago, I wrote a little article called The Top 5 Attributes of Highly Effective Programmers that got some good feedback and has proven popular over time.

One matures as a developer, of course. I wrote that last article quite closer to the beginning of my career. Over the last few years, especially at Microsoft, I’ve had the opportunity to witness a much wider range of behaviors. I’ve been able to develop a much better sense of what differentiates the novice from the truly effective developer.

The difference in skills can be truly staggering if you’re not used to seeing it. A new programmer, or one who has not learned much from experience, can often be an order of magnitude or more less productive than a good, experienced developer. You don’t want to spend very long at the bottom of this kind of ranking. Some of this is just experience, but in many cases it’s just a mindset–there are plenty of “experienced” developers who haven’t actually learned to improve. It’s true in many professions, but especially so in programming–you can’t plateau. You have to keep learning. The world changes, programming changes, and what was true 10 years ago is laughably outdated.

The attributes I listed in the previous article are still applicable. They are still valuable, but there is more. Note that I am not claiming in this article that I’ve mastered these. I still aspire to meet higher standards in each of these areas. Remember that it is not hypocrisy to espouse good ideas, even while struggling to live up to them. These are standards to live up to, not descriptions of any one person I know (though I do know plenty of people who are solid in at least one of these areas).

Sense of Ownership

Ownership means a lot of things, but mainly that you don’t wait for problems to find you. It means that if you see a problem, you assume it’s your job to either fix it or find someone else who can, and then to make sure it happens. It means not ignoring emails because, hey, not my problem! It means taking issues seriously and making sure they are dealt with. Someone with a sense of ownership would never sweep a problem under the rug or blithely hope that someone else will deal with it.

You could equate ownership with responsibility, but I think it goes beyond that. “Responsibility” often takes on the hue of a burden or delegation of an unwelcome task, while “ownership” implies that you are invested in the outcome.

Ownership often means stepping outside of your comfort zone. You may think you’re not the best person to deal with something, but if no one else is doing it, than you absolutely are. Just step up, own the problem, and get it done.

Ownership does not mean that you do all the work–that would be draining, debilitating, and ultimately impossible. It does not mean that you specify bounds for your responsibility and forbid others to encroach. It especially does not mean code ownership in the sense that only you are allowed to change your code.

Ownership is a mentality that defies strict hierarchies of control in favor of a more egalitarian opportunism.

Closely related to the idea of ownership is taking responsibility for your mistakes. This means you don’t try to excuse yourself, shift blame, or minimize the issue unnecessarily. If there’s a problem you caused, be straight about it, explain what happened, what you’re going to do to prevent it, and move on.

Together, these ideas on ownership will gain you a reputation as someone who wants the best for the team or product. You want to be that person.

Remember, if you are ever having the thought, Someone ought to…–stop! That someone is you.

Data-Driven

A good developer does not make assumptions. Experience is good, yes, but data is better. Far, far better. Knowing how to measure things is far more important than being able to change them. If you make changes without measuring, then you’re just a random-coding monkey, just guessing that you’re doing something useful. Especially when it comes to performance, building a system to automatically measure performance is actually more important than the actual changes to performance. This is because if you don’t have that system, you will spend far more time doing manual measurement than actual development. See the section on Automation below.

Measurement can be simple. For some bugs, the measurement is merely, does the bug repro or not? For performance tuning of data center server applications, it will likely be orders of magnitude more complicated and involve systems dedicated to measurement.

Determining the right amount of data to make a decision is not always easy. You do have to balance this with expediency, and you don’t want to hold good ideas hostage to more measurement than necessary. However, there is very little you should that do completely blind with no data at all. As a developer, your every action should be independently justifiable.

The mantra of performance optimization is Measure, Measure, Measure. This should be the mantra of all software development. Are things improving or not? Faster or not? How much? Are customers happier or not? Can tasks be completed easier? Are we saving more money? Does it use less memory? Is our capacity larger? Is the UI more responsive? How much, exactly?

The degree to which you measure the answer to those questions is in large part dependent on how important it is to your bottom line.

My day job involves working on an application that runs on thousands of servers, powering a large part of Bing. With something like this, even seemingly small decisions can have a drastic effect in the end. If I make something a bit more inefficient, it could translate into us needing to buy more machines. Great, now my little coding change that I didn’t adequately measure is costing the company hundreds of thousands of extra dollars per year. Oops.

Even for smaller applications, this can be a big deal. For example, making a change that causes the UI to be 20% more sluggish in some cases may not be noticed if you don’t have adequate measurement in place, but if it leads to a bad review by someone who noticed it, and there are adequate competitors, that one decision could be a major loss of revenue.

Solid Tests

Notice that I don’t say “tests”, unqualified. Good tests, solid, repeatable tests. Those are the only ones worth having.

If you see a code change that doesn’t have accompanying test changes, don’t be afraid to ask the question, “Where are the tests?” The answer might be that existing tests cover the change, or that tests at a larger scope, or in a different change will cover it, but the point is to ask the question, and make sure there is a satisfactory answer. “Manual test” is a valid response sometimes, but this should be very rare, and justifiable.

I cannot say how many times I’ve been saved due to the hundreds of unit tests that exercise my code, especially when I’m attempting a big internal refactor, usually for performance reasons.

As important as good tests are, it’s also important to get rid of bad tests. Don’t waste resources on things that aren’t helpful. Insist on a clean, reliable test suite. I’m not sure which is worse: no tests, or tests you can’t rely on. Eventually, unreliable tests become the same as having no tests at all.

Automation

An effective developer is always trying to put themselves out of a job. Seriously. There is more work than you can possibly fit in the time allotted. Automate the heck out of the stuff that annoys you, trips you up, is repetitive, is frequent, is error-prone. Once you can break down a process into something so deterministic that you could write a script for someone else to follow and get the same result, then make sure that someone else is a program.

This is more than just simple maintenance scripts for server management. This is ANY part of your job. Collecting data? Get it automatically ingested into the systems that need it. Generating reports? If you’ve generated the same report more than twice, don’t do it a third time. Your build system requires more than a single step? What’s wrong with you?

You have to free yourself up for more interesting, more creative work. You’re a highly paid programmer. Act like it.

Example: One of my jobs in the last year has been to run regular performance profiling, analyze the results, and send them to my team, making suggestions for future focus. This involved a bunch of steps:

  1. Log onto a random machine in the datacenter.
  2. Start a 120-second CPU profile.
  3. Wait for 120-seconds plus a few minutes for processing, symbol resolution, etc.
  4. Compress file, copy to my machine
  5. Analyze file–group, filter, and sort data according to various rules.
    1. Look for a bunch of standard things that I always report on
  6. Do the same thing for a 900-second memory/exception/thread/etc. profile.

This took about an hour each time, sometimes more.

I realized that every single part of this could happen automatically. I a wrote a service that gets deployed to every datacenter machine. A couple of times per day it checks to see whether we need a profile, whether the machine is in a good state to profile, etc.. It then runs the profiler, collects the data, and even analyzes the data automatically (See Chapter 8 of Writing High-Performance .NET Code for a hint about how I did this). This all gets uploaded to a file server and the analysis gets displayed on a web-site. No intervention whatsoever. Not only do I not have to do this work myself anymore, but others are empowered to look at the data for themselves, and we can easily add more analysis components over time.

Unafraid of Communication

The final thing I want to talk about is communication. This has been a challenge for me. I definitely have the personality type that really likes to disappear into a cave and pound on a keyboard for a few days, to emerge at the end with some magical piece of code. I would delete Outlook from my computer if I could.

This kind of attitude might serve you well for a while, but it’s ultimately limiting.

As you get more senior, communication becomes key. Effective communication skills are one of the things you can use to distinguish yourself to advance your career.

Effective communication can begin with a simple acknowledgement of someone’s issue, or an explanation that you’re working on something, with a follow-up to everyone involved at regular points. Nobody likes to be kept in the dark, especially for burning issues. For time-critical issues, a “next update in XX hours” can be vital.

Effective communication also means being able to say what you’re working on and why it’s cool.

Eventually, it means a lot more–being able to present complicated ideas to many other people in a simple, understandable, logical way.

Good communication skills enable you to be able to move beyond implementing software all by yourself to helping teams as a whole do better software. You can have a much wider impact by helping and teaching others. This is good for your team, your company, and your career.

Do you have a good engineering culture?

I assume one big prerequisite to all of these attributes: You must have a solid engineering environment to operate in. If management gives short shrift to employee happiness, sound software engineering principles, or the workplace is otherwise toxic, than perhaps you need to focus on changing that first.

If your leaders are so short-sighted that they can’t stand the thought of you automating your work instead of just getting the job done, that’s a problem.

If bringing up problems or admitting fault to a mistake is a career-limiting move, then you need to get out soon. That’s a team that will eventually implode under the weight of cumulative failure that no one wants to address.

Don’t settle for this kind of workplace. Either work to change it or find some place better.

 


Check out my latest book, the essential, in-depth guide to performance for all .NET developers:

Writing High-Performance.NET Code, 2nd Edition by Ben Watson. Available for pre-order:

10 Ways to Learn New Things in Development

Expanding upon one of the topics in my post about 5 Attributes of Highly Effective Developers, I’ve been thinking of various ways to kick-start learning opportunities in my career and hobbies.

1. Read books. There are tons of books about programming–probably most of them are useless, but there are many, many gems that can greatly influence your abilities.

I still find that it’s easier and faster to find information about many topics in familiar books than to find similarly valuable information online. Read all your books to get to this point.

Books are also valuable from theory, architecture, design point of view. There just aren’t that many places on the web to get high-quality, authoritative instruction in this.

Like this? Please check out my latest book, Writing High-Performance .NET Code.

2. Read Code. This is something I was late to. I didn’t start reading a lot of significant code until after I had a few years of professional programming experience. I would be a better programmer if I had started earlier. I try to read some source code every week (not related to work, not my own, etc.) from an open source project. Start with programs that you use and are interested in. I started with Paint.Net and it solidified a lot of .Net program design technique for me.

Reading other people’s code shows you different ways of doing things than you might have thought of on your own.

3. Write Code – Lots of it. Fundamentally, the best way to learn something is to do it. You can’t fully internalize something until you’ve written it. This starts with something as simple as copying the code examples from tutorials and books. That’s copying by hand, not cut&paste. There’s a difference. The idea is internalize and think, not blindly copy. Look up new API calls as you go. Tweak things.

Most importantly, develop your own projects–whether they’re simple games, participation in an open source project, or a simple plug-in to a program you use.

Try to use new technologies, new techniques, new designs–do things differently. Do things better in this project than in previous ones.

This is really the core point–if you want to be a better developer than develop.

4. Talk to other developers – about specific problems you have, as well as the latest tech news from [Apple|Microsoft|Google|Other]. This not only helps you feel part of a team or a community, but exposes you to a wide variety of different ideas.

Different types of projects require different designs, coding techniques, processes and thinking.

If you work in a small team (like I do) and you don’t have access to many other people, go find some at a local user group meeting. If nothing else, participate in online forums (you’ll have to look harder for an intelligent discussion).

5. Teach others. Similar to just reading code versus writing it, teaching other people can do wonders for forcing you to learn a topic in depth.

The very idea that you’re going to have to teach a topic to someone else should force you to learn something with a far better understanding than you might otherwise. You can face questions.

If you can’t explain a concept to a 6 year-old, you don’t fully understand it. – Albert Einstein

Teaching situations are myriad: one-on-one with your office-mate, water-cooler meetings, informal weekly gatherings, learning lunches, classrooms, seminars, and more.

How about setting up a once-a-week 30 minute informal discussion among like-minded developers? Each week, someone picks a topic they want to know more about and teaches it to the others, instigating a conversation. If you knew were going to teach the group about synchronization objects, don’t you think you’d want to understand the ins and outs of critical section implementation?

6. Listen to podcasts

If you’ve got time where your brain isn’t otherwise occupied, subscribe to podcasts. My current favorite programming-related one is .Net Rocks. They also do a video screen cast called dnrTV.

These will help you keep up on the latest and greatest technologies. You can’t learn everything and podcasts are a good way to get shallow, broad knowledge about a variety of topics, from which you can do your own deep investigations.

If there are other, high-quality developer podcasts, I’d love to hear about them.

7. Read blogs

There are more blogs than people to read them, but some are extremely well-done. I’m not even going to post links to any–there are plenty of other resources out there for that. This is one of the best ways to connect to people who actually develop the software you love and use.

8. Learn a new language

If all you’ve ever done is C(++,#)/Java there are a LOT of other ways to think about computer problems. Learning a new language will change the way you think. It’s not just a different syntax–it’s fundamentally rewiring the brain. Sure, all languages get compiled down to assembler in the end, but that doesn’t mean a high level abstraction isn’t valuable.

Functional, query, and aspect-oriented languages are starting to merge with C-based languages–are you ready?

9. Learn the anti-patterns

Aside from knowing what to do, learn what not to do. Read Dailywtf.com often and take the lessons to heart if you don’t already know.

It’s all well and good to understand proper OO design, coding style, and what you should be writing, but it’s easy to get into bad habits if you’re not careful. Learning to recognize bad ideas is vital when taking charge of a project.

Wikipedia has a thorough breakdown of many common anti-patterns,

10. Be Humble

Learning means:

  • Replacing faulty knowledge with better knowledge
  • Adding knowledge that you do not already have

There’s no way to learn until you admit you have some deficiencies. It all comes back to humility, doesn’t it? If you ever start thinking you know everything you need to, you’re in trouble. True learning is about hungrily seeking after knowledge and internalizing it. It takes lots effort. We all know this in theory, but we have to be constantly reminded.


Check out my latest book, the essential, in-depth guide to performance for all .NET developers:

Writing High-Performance.NET Code, 2nd Edition by Ben Watson. Available for pre-order: