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Making Software Suck Less, Pt. II 209

Not long ago, chromatic wrote about one aspect of the quest to create software that doesn't suck. This time he's back with a proposal that's simultaneously practical and idealistic. Namely: If you as a whiz at a certain language or other aspect of programming want the world of programming to be better, you can help other people become programmers, or better programmers, with well-considered instruction. I hope someone in the Computer Science department at a high school near chromatic gives him a call, because he outlines here something more important than a "learn to program" curriculum.

Making Software Suck Less, Pt. II

Coders Code Whether You Like It Or Not

The insidious thing about Free software, the really subversive part, is that it takes so little to start writing it. Anyone with a few tools, spare time, and the wherewithall to start hacking can. Witness the long listings of low-version-number IM clients and MP3 players on software announcement sites. People like to code.

Every new project represents a coder who wants to write free software, but chooses not to work with an existing project for whatever reason. How many more people would like to contribute but don't know where to start? Hundreds, even thousands of free software projects could use another coder, some testers, and someone -- anyone -- offering suggestions and attaboys. For each veteran programmer, battle-hardened and wizened by experience, a dozen novices spend evenings honing their skills.

Mentoring Beginning Programmers

The obvious solution is to match availability with opportunity and enthusiasm with experience. The free software community can produce better programmers by giving new recruits mentors to emulate. It offers the possibility for programmers to learn by improving existing projects, instead of reinventing wheels. This doesn't require expert programmers. It takes people with practical experience, patience, and the willingness to invest time in another person's education.

Though this article draws from experience with free software, there's no reason similar procedures could not succeed in commercial settings. Computer science sophmores (and higher) would benefit from internship programs organized similarly.

The Usual Suspects

Candidates for mentoring exhibit a combination of at least three different characteristics. These are expressable as three different archetypes: the self-taught hacker, the computer science student, and the new programmer. Individual personalities and experiences also come into play. These are gross generalizations, but serve the purpose of categorizing the types of information to present.

Self taught hackers learn by experimentation. They dissect existing code, copying and modifying implementations. Their technique gradually coalesces from dominant influences. Hackers often amass a library to improve their education. One danger for members of this class is that they may pick up questionable practices from questionable code ("cargo cult programming").

Computer science students learn theory and are expected to teach themselves various languages and implementations. (This category does not cover degrees like 'information services.') The education covers ideal solutions, often emphasising aesthetics and mathematical perfection. Students may not be exposed to practical issues in specific languages and techniques, focusing on working code.

New learners enter the world of coding with a strong sense of need. Management might pick a hapless victim for a project of undefined scope. A home user may just wish to do more with her computer. People in this category often don't know where to turn. They may not all grow into dedicated coders, but can fend for themselves with some guidance and direction.

Besides these categories, recruits may include artists, musicians, writers, and testers. Though direct mentoring from programmers may not awaken nascent coding abilities, these folks are certainly welcome. Even experienced programmers new to the idea of free software or to a class of software can benefit from directed guidance. (Many people in this position just need to see how to contribute.)

Course Requirements

Mentoring must provide examples of secure, clean, and idiomatic programming. It should also include issues related to the practice of programming -- time management, software design, tools and classes of tools, and project leadership. Additionally, mentors should introduce their students to a network of peers, whether on IRC, through mailing lists, or in user groups.

Benefits of Mentoring

Besides the warm glow of humanitarianism, being a mentor bestows personal benefits. Your project immediately gains an extra set of hands and eyes. Each new person brings a fresh point of view, with different expectations and stories for the code and unique experiences. At first, the additional overhead of explaining will slow progress; wise mentors invest slightly more time to turn these lessons into improved documentation and tutorials. After a short period of training, the project gains another person familiar with internals.

The discipline of explaining your personal technique, especially the more reflexive elements of your coding style, will also improve your skills. ("Why do I do it that way?") Describing system architecture and complex codes in words forces you to organize your thoughts. It can even clarify future design decisions. Your student must be free to ask questions and to challenge your assumptions. Either strengthen your arguments or discover a better alternative.

Leaving the Nest

If you've mentored correctly, at some point you'll have taught every lesson you can. The student will have met the right people and will have tasted the fruit of hard work. Your example will still teach him, but he will make his own way. You will be peers.

Prepare for this from the beginning. Allow the student to lead subprojects with the freedom to make mistakes but the supervision to produce working results. Provide opportunities for personal growth. Your job is to remove obstacles from the path of enlightenment. Writing good software is hard, but teaching people to contribute is very rewarding.

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Making Software Suck Less, Pt. II

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Promising costs nothing, it's the delivering that kills you.