15 Tenets For The Software Engineer

Rob Diana By Rob Diana
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Many people talk about the things a software engineer needs to know in order to be successful in their job. Other people talk about the traits needed to be successful. Typically, these posts may read differently but there are many similarities between the two posts. In reality, a software can never really be successful without looking at both types of posts. The list of 15 tenets below is my hope to consolidate the ideas into one handy list for your review.

  • Remember the basics. If you forget the basics of a programming language, you lose your foundational knowledge. That is never a good thing.
  • Always assume the worst case. If you had formal computer science education, you learned about big-O notation. Knowing why an algorithm has no chance of performing well is a good thing. Figuring out why a particular use case seems much slower than others is how you stay successful.
  • Test your code. Ensure you have tests for your code, whether you follow TDD or any other method. Depending on the type of test, you may want to target a different level of coverage, but you should still write as many tests as you can.
  • Do not employ new technologies because they are new, use them because they solve a problem. As technologists, we tend to follow the hot new tools in the hope of finding a silver bullet. Utility is the key, not coolness.
  • Read, a lot. If you are not reading about our industry, you will fall behind and that could have career threatening complications.
  • Try new techniques and technologies, a lot. Yes, I said not to use new technologies just because they are new, but you do need to try new things in order to determine if something new is useful. Also, trying new things helps you learn and keep current in your industry.
  • Fail, you will learn something. At the minimum, you will learn what does not work and you can refine your solutions. In some case, you can even consider the failure a small success.
  • Ship the damn software. Sometimes you just need to get the job done, but you must be aware of technical debt. If you continuously just ship software without removing technical debt, you are well on your way to creating a nightmare when a major production issue arises.
  • Do it the “right way”. Most developers have an idea of the “right way” to implement a design, but that may not always be what project management wants. This is almost a contradiction to the previous “ship the damn software” rule, but there is a balance that needs to be met.
  • Leave the code better than how you found it. Instead of preaching the benefits of refactoring, think of whether you want to maintain the pile of code that keeps getting worse. If you clean it up a little each time you modify it, then it will not be a terrible mess.
  • Think about concurrent access. If you are building a web application, and I don’t mean the scale of Facebook, weird issues may arise under load. Even an application with 100 concurrent users can start to see weird issues when there is concurrent reads and writes on things like HashMaps. This is just the start of the problems as well.
  • Storage may be free, but I/O sucks. You may think that writing everything to disk is a great way to persist data. Generally it is, but if you use disk storage as a temporary storage area, your application could quickly grind to a slow crawl. Physical storage should be limited to that data that needs to persist for long periods of time, or when the data cannot reside in memory.
  • Memory does not go as far as you may think. To start, many people will have their application and database residing on the same server. This is perfectly acceptable until both require a lot of RAM. As an example, you can easily run a Java application in Tomcat in 528MB. However, once you have to deal with scale of any sort and you add in the RAM required by the persistent storage (RDBMS, NoSQL, etc), you can quickly jump to 8GB. Obviously, this is highly dependent upon the number of users hitting the system and how much data you store in memory.
  • Caching fixes everything until it crashes the server. If you are looking for ways to avoid a lot of database queries, you end up using some form of caching. The problem is that caching requires much more memory than your typical application usage, especially when dealing with data that scales with the number of users (see the previous point on memory). The worst problem with caching is that it can chew up so much memory that you run into an OutOfMemory error in java or similar errors in other languages. At that point, your server will either crash or become unresponsive and caching no longer helps because it has become part of the problem.
  • Think like a consultant. As an employee, there tends to be an unwritten rule that the company can do things they would not do with consultants. Deadlines may be moved, scope may be increased, and the developer needs to find a way to meet these new constraints. As an employee, you need to use your power to state that the deadline can not move due to the amount of work required, or that scope cannot be increased without increasing the number of resources. Consultants tend to be allowed to manage a project differently than employees, and it is our job to change that.

I know there are a bunch of other ideas that keep running through my head, but this is the best list I can create for now. What other rules would you include for software engineers?

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About Rob Diana
Rob is a software engineer, database developer, web developer, social media user, programming geek, avid reader, sports fan, data geek, and statistics geek. He does not care if something is new and shiny. He wants to know if it works, if it is better than what he uses now, and whether it makes his job or my life easier. Rob is also the author of RegularGeek.com and Founder of YackTrack.com, a social media monitoring and tracking tool.

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