How to do Programming
July 3, 2016
TL;DR: Identify assumptions and write them down.
There’s a common (I think) misconception that the programming trade is all about knowing obscure facts and doing hard math. From this it follows that a person has to get really good at math or know a huge number of things before doing programming.
Unfortunately people who have this misconception can be discouraged from trying in the first place. It might be unrealistic to think that every single person not only can but also will want to do it, but I think that lots of people with this misconception could do very well at programming, once they understand what it is actually like, and if they put some effort into learning it.
In reality, being good at the math or knowing all about compilers and language features does not help with a large percentage of the day-to-day work that most programmers do. Instead, their effort goes into writing down all the assumptions made by the high-level description of a feature. In other words, the requirements will say “display a count of the current total” and the programming work is about finding the assumptions implied by that description (“what does ‘current’ actually mean?” etc), then writing them down explicitly. Once you write down the assumptions in the right way, the explicit representation of the assumptions is your code and you are done. Getting everything written down correctly used to be much harder, but with modern programming tools it isn’t even possible to make some of the most problematic mistakes anymore, and the tools can catch lots of other mistakes automatically. For everything else you would want to get help from a more experienced colleague, or just ask strangers on Stack Overflow.
There are programmers who would take issue with this description. I’m using the terms “doing programming” and “day-to-day programming” strategically, really to mean commercial or hobbyist programming for which there are mature high-quality tools and well-understood best practices. On the cutting edge of academia, and within programming projects that have very demanding requirements, advanced math and knowing lots of obscure facts can be much more important.
Basically, what I’m saying is that people tend to confuse the larger industry with that super-difficult hacker nerd work they see in movies and TV shows. In fact, the vast majority of programming work going on right now is the other kind. There are huge numbers of those jobs to be done, because it is where all the theory and advanced knowledge finally can be applied to a real-world problem. Many large software teams have so much of this kind of work that they split out a whole department for “requirements engineering”, which is taking the really high-level descriptions with tons of assumptions, and breaking those out into statements with fewer or no assumptions left in each statement, so that the code writers can focus on making the final code work. The best requirements are harder to write than all the coding work that comes after!
Maybe someone has told you before that programming is all about breaking problems down into smaller problems. It’s another way of saying the same thing.