software craftsmanship wisdom

Too small to have specialists

posted Jun 8, 2014, 9:47 PM by Chandan Datta

Why you need some really experienced members to do the really hard stuff?

Leaky abstractions mean that we live with a hockey stick learning curve: you can learn 90% of what you use day by day with a week of learning. But the other 10% might take you a couple of years catching up. That's where the really experienced programmers will shine over the people who say "whatever you want me to do, I can just pick up the book and learn how to do it." If you're building a team, it's OK to have a lot of less experienced programmers cranking out big blocks of code using the abstract tools, but the team is not going to work if you don't have some really experienced members to do the really hard stuff.

Why you need deeper experience?

Fog Creek is too small to have specialists, so when I needed to write a really good installer for FogBUGZ, our ASP/VBScript based product, I drew on several years of C++/MFC experience, and years of experience with Windows APIs, and good Corel PhotoPaint skills to create a neat picture in the corner of the wizard. Then to get FogBUGZ to work perfectly with Unicode, I had to write a little ActiveX control using C++ and ATL, which drew upon years of C++ and COM experience and a week or so learning about character encodings when I implemented that code in CityDesk.

Why you need  proficiency in multiple frameworks
I've been working with ASP and VBScript since it first came out. VBScript is the dinkiest language on earth and ASP programming consists of learning about 5 classes, only two of which you use very often. And only now do I finally feel like I know the best way to architect an ASP/VBScript application. I finally think I know where the best place to put database access code is, the best way to use ADO to get recordsets, the best way to separate HTML and code, etc. And I finally use regexps instead of one-off string manipulation functions. Only last week, I learned how to get COM objects out of memory so you can recompile them (without restarting the whole web server).

There are a lot of programming worlds, each of which requires a tremendous amount of knowledge for real proficiency. Here are the three I personally know best:

Visual Basic
All, basically, what you would call Windows programming. Yes, I've written Unix code and Java code, but not very much. My proficiency in Windows programming comes from knowing not just the basic technologies but also the whole supporting infrastructure. So, I claim, I'm really good at Windows programming because I also know COM, ATL, C++, 80x86 Assembler, Windows APIs, IDispatch (OLE Automation), HTML, the DOM, the Internet Explorer object model, Windows NT and Windows 95 internals, LAN Manager and NT networking, including security (ACEs, ACLs, and all that stuff), SQL and SQL Server, Jet and Access, JavaScript, XML, and a few other cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse. When I can't get the StrConv function in VB to do what I want, I bang out an COM control so I can drop into C++ with ATL and call the MLang functions without dropping a beat. It took me years to get to this point.

Until you've done Windows programming for a while, you may think that Win32 is just a library, like any other library. You might think that basic programming, say, your expert C++ skills, are the 90% and all the APIs are the 10% fluff you can catch up on in a few weeks. To these people I humbly suggest: times have changed. The ratio has reversed.

Why you need to be good with using APIs?

Very few people get to work on low level C algorithms that just move bytes around any more. Most of us spend all our time these days calling APIs, not moving bytes. Someone who is a fantastic C++ coder with no API experience only knows about 10% of what you use every day writing code that runs on an API. When the economy is doing well, this doesn't matter. You still get jobs, and employers pay the cost of your getting up to speed on the platform. But when the economy is a mess and 600 people apply for every job opening, employers have the luxury of choosing programmers who are already experts at the platform in question. Like programmers who can name four ways to FTP a file from Visual Basic code and the pros and cons of each.

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