Visual Programming and Mental Constructs

I saw yesterday live the Apple keynote on the WWDC. I am far from an Apple developer, but I use OS X and iOS everyday, and I’m interested on new stuff. There was a full section devoted to developers, which is great (well, it’s supposed to be a developer’s conference, after all), and, arguably, the most interesting stuff on that part (for a developer’s perspective) was the release of a new programming language, Swift.

It was announced with an (irrelevant) comparison with Python in terms of speed (I actually have plans to write a post about “why Python is not really slow“, but I digress), as well as a lot of other details that (IMO) are completely pointless in terms of what makes a good or bad programming language.

Most pointless benchmark ever
Most pointless benchmark ever

I am generally skeptic about the announcement of new languages. Almost as much as new web frameworks. Sure, it adds a new flavour, but I’m not that sure about real advancement in tech. Creating a new language, full with proper “clean and beautiful” syntax is not really that difficult. The difficult part is to create a vibrant community behind it, one that loves the language and works to expand it, to push the boundaries of current tech, to make amazing applications and tools, to convince other developers to use it and to carry on the torch. The target of a language are developers. “End customers” couldn’t care less about how the guts of their products are done. “Ruby sharp? Whatever, I just need that it help us increase our sales

Interestingly enough, languages get a lot of character from their communities, as they embed their values on the relevant modules and tools. A great example of that is “The Zen Of Python“. There’s nothing there about whitespaces, list comprehensions or classes, but it reflects a lot of the ideas that are common on the Python world, values of the Python Community. Using a language is not just writing code, but also interacting with other developers, directly or even just reading the documents and using the APIs.

As mandatory as honor
As mandatory as honor

Obviously, Apple is a very special situation, as it can force developers to use whatever they like for their platform. Hey, they managed to create an Objective-C ecosystem out from nowhere, which is impressive. For what is worth, they can even tailor a language for their platform, and not to worry about anything else. iOS is a platform big enough for devs to have to learn the language and official IDE and use it. And I am pretty sure that in this case it will be an improvement over the previous environment.

But the one part that I am most skeptic about is the “visual programming” stuff. One of the “wow” announcements was the possibility of creating “playgrounds”, to show interactively the results of the code. That means that, for example, a loaded image will be available, or that a graph can be displayed showing the results of a function. And that’s the part that I’m not really that sure that is interesting or relevant at all.

Does it look cool? Absolutely. May it be interesting once in a while? Sure. But I think that’s the kind of process that, in day to day operation, is not really that useful in most kinds of programming.

Programming, more than anything else, is creating a mental image of code. Code can be a very complex thing. Especially on a big application. But normally we don’t need to keep the whole code in our mind. We only have to keep certain parts of it, allowing to focus in a problem at a time. That’s the main principle behind modules, classes and other abstractions. I can use OS calls to open a file, to draw some pixels on the screen, or to make a call to a remote server. All of that without having to worry about file systems, graphic drivers or network protocols. And I can also use higher level modules to search on files, create 3d models or make HTTPS calls.

And the amazing power of programming is that you are coding on the shoulders of giants. And on the shoulders of regular people. And on the shoulders of your co-workers. And on your own shoulders. That’s a lot of shoulders combined.

But a lot of that process deals with the unavoidable complexity of the interaction. And being able to move from an abstracted view to a more specific one, to look inside and outside the black box, is crucial. It may not be evident, but the mental process of programming deals a lot with that sudden change in perspective. This is one of the reasons of multiparadigm being a useful thing. Because you can move between different abstractions and levels, using the proper one on each case (especially for leaky ones).

And there are lots of those processes that are not easily represented with graphs or images. They are constructs on your mind: loops, flexible structures, intuitions on the weak points of an algorithm, variables changing values, corner cases… Showing all intermediate results may be detrimental to that quick change in perspective. Too much information.

There has been experiments with visual programming, trying to represent code as visual blocks in one way or another, since a long time ago (at least 25 years). They are useful in certain areas, but they are far from a general solution. There are also interactive notepads to allow easy display of graphs and help with the interactivity. iPython Notebook is an excellent example (and a very similar idea to the playground). But, again, I feel that those are specialised tools, not something that is that useful in most programming contexts.

I’m just skeptic. All of this doesn’t necessarily means that Swift is bad, or that those tools are wrong. Maybe the new X-Code will have a lot of amazing tools that will help create fantastic applications (I still don’t like IDEs, though). There are already people checking the docs and giving a try to the new language.  But I think that it has to show up how good or bad it is for itself, and by the developers that decide to use it. So far, it is just an announcement. I just feel that most that was said on the keynote was not relevant to determine whether it’s a good working environment or not, but was just a gimmick. Yes, obviously these kind of announcements are publicity stunts, but in this particular case it looks especially so.

Looks cool, but is not particularly relevant to how the mental process of programming works or what makes a language good.

Hmph. Visual blocks. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Developer craves not these things.
Hmph. Visual blocks. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Developer craves not these things.

Compendium of Wondrous Links vol V


Compendium of Wondrous Links vol III


Some characteristics of the best developers I worked with

I had a conversation last November on the PyConEs, when I was on a conversation stating that I am working with truly brilliant people in DemonWare, and then someone asked me: “Do you have problems agreeing in  what to do? Normally great developers have problems reaching consensus on tech discussions”. My answer something like: “Well, in my experience, truly awesome developers know when to have a strong argument and they usually are ok reaching an agreement in a reasonable time”.

So, I wanted to, as sort of follow-up, summarise what are the characteristics that I’ve seen in the best developers I’ve been lucky to work with. This is not a list I am making on “what’s my ideal developer”, but more a reflexion on the common traits I’ve seen on my experience…

    • Awesome developers are obviously smart, but that’s not typically shown as bursts of brilliance, solving really difficult issues with “aha!” moments. In my experience, genius ideas are rarely required nor expressed (though they surely happen once in a blue moon). Instead, great developers are consistently smart. They present solutions to problems that are reasonable all the time. They find and fix typical bugs with ease. They struggle with very difficult problems, but are able to deal with them. They are able to quickly present something that will make you say “Actually that’s a nice point. Why didn’t I think about this?”. They do not typically present something ingenious and never heard of, but deliver perfectly fine working ideas over and over, one day after another.  Their code is not full of mind blowing concepts, but it is logical, clean and easy to follow most the time (and when’s not, there is a good reason). They are able to remove complexity and simplify stuff, to a degree that it almost look easy (but it’s not)
Normally brilliant people on real life do not come with crazy great ideas out of nowhere
Brilliant people on real life do not come with insanely great ideas out of nowhere
  • They keep a lot of relevant information on their minds. They are able to relate something that is in discussion with something that happened three months ago. They seem to have the extraordinary ability of getting out of the hat some weird knowledge that is applicable to the current problem.
  • While they have a passion for coding, it is not the only thing in their lives. They have hobbies and interests, and they don’t usually go home in the weekends to keep working on open source all day, though they may occasionally do.
  • They love to do things “the right way”, but even more than that, they love to make things work. This means that they will use tools they consider inferior to achieve something if it’s the best/most convenient way. They’ll complain and will try to change it, but deliver will be more important that being right. They have strong opinions about what language/framework/way of doing stuff is best, being that Python, Ruby, Haskell, PostgreSQL, Riak or COBOL, but that won’t stop them knowing when it’s important to just stop arguing and do it.
  • They are humble. They are confident most of the times, but far from arrogant. My impression is that they don’t think that they are as awesome as they truly are. They will want to learn from everyone else, and ask when they have questions. They will also catch new ideas very fast. They are also friendly and nice.
  • Communication is among their best skills. They are very good communications, especially, but not limited, about tech issues. They may be a little social awkward sometimes (though this is not as common as stereotypes portrait), but when they have the motivation to express some idea, they’ll do it very clearly.
  • In some of the truly remarkable cases, they’ll be able to fulfil different roles, when needed. I mean different roles in the most broad sense, basically being able to be what’s needed for that particular moment. Sometimes they’ll have to be leaders, sometimes they’ll be ok being led. They’ll know when a joke is the proper thing to do and when to remain formal. They’ll be the person that helps you with a difficult technical question, or the one that will tell you “you’re tired, just go home and tomorrow it will be another day”
  • And they’ll have a great sense of humour. I know that almost everyone thinks that they have a good sense of humour. That’s not totally true.

Again, this is sort of a personal collection of traits based in my experience and on what I consider the best developers I’ve been honoured to work with. Any ideas?

Python Wizard

Elton+John+Pinball+WizardEver since I was a young boy,
I typed on keyboards
From bash commands to Java
I must have code them all
but I ain’t seen nothing like him
In any Hackathon
That nice, nerd and shy kid
Sure codes great Python!

He stands like a statue,
Becomes part of the machine.
Lots of comprehensions
always writing clean
right code indentation
dicts used the most
That nice, nerd and shy kid
Sure codes great Python!

He’s a coding wizard
There has to be a twist.
A coding wizard,
S’got such a supple wrist.

How do you think he does it?
I don’t know!
What makes him so good?

ain’t got no distractions
semicolons or brackets
Nice packaged modules
produced everyday
Functional programing
when it fits the best
That nice, nerd and shy kid
Sure codes great Python!

I thought I was
The system admin king.
But I just handed
My hacker crown to him.

Even on my favorite system
He can beat my best.
Opens the text editor
And he just does the rest
He’s got crazy vi fingers
no IDE at all
That nice, nerd and shy kid
Sure codes great Python!

Make beautiful Python code (talk at PyCon IE ’13)

Another year, another amazing PyCon. I guess I repeat myself, but I keep being impressed about the quality of the talks and the friendly, vibrant atmosphere. It is always a pleasure to spend some time with people interested in code and technology… There was also an increase in the number attendees, and quite a lot students. I said that on Twitter, but Python Ireland, you guys rock.

Of all the talks I attend to, I’d like to comment two that were especially interesting. The first was one of the keynotes, PRISM-as-a-Service: Not Subject to American Law, by Lynn Root. All this think is pretty scary when you think about it. Definitively worth a read. The other one was The Clean Architecture in Python, by Brandon Rhodes, about ways of designing code and make them data-centric.

I also gave a talk, and other than a problem with the project that made me rush a little, I think it went good. Just in case you’re interested, here are the slides. Here is also the PDF version with notes.

Oh, and another thing. there are launching the pyLadies Dublin group this wednesday 15th October, so if you’re interested, show up.


UPDATE: Added slides for Brandon Rhodes talk

Rockstar programmer and Rockstar teams

There has been some discussion about the so-called Rockstar Programmer. You know, that awesome engineer (also called 10x engineer) that can produce what 10 other, average engineers can.

This post by Scott Hanselman[1] fueled some discussion on Hacker News. What has been overseen about the original post is that he advocates about 10x teams.

That resonates a lot, because I think that we should agree that, while there is people with potential to be ninja programmers, that’s not something that can be achieved without the proper care on the environment.

A good team is one that reinforces the good points of their members while hiding away (or at least mitigating) their weaknesses. It makes not sense to talk about a guru engineer that can come in a parachute in a project (any project), replacing an average Joe on a 10 members team, and simply double their output! And, after a while, she’s probably take her umbrella and fly away to the sunset (to a better payed work, one can only imagine)

If we use a low-level warp bubble around that code, we could reduce its gravitational constant, making it lighter to push!
If I use a low-level warp bubble around that code, I could reduce its gravitational constant, making it lighter to push for the rest of the team!!

Real life just doesn’t work like that. Everything is a little more complex. A toxic team or project can be beyond salvation. A regular programmer can achieve a lot just by giving some motivation and direction. A great engineer can be disastrous working in a particular area.

Do you want to see someone transformed from an x programmer to a Nx programmer? Just take a look on the same engineer the first day in a new job and then again after a whole year. The first day she’ll have to ask lots of questions. After a while, she’ll be committing patches, and, later, she’ll reach a cruise speed much much faster than the first couple of days. Or… maybe she is an x programmer, and during the first days she was a x/N programmer. Mmmm….

I also like how Haselman he approaches the subject talking about “titles” and “loud programmers”.  The Rockstar Engineer idea is more a recruitment-marketing issue. It is used to hype possible hires: “Hey, we are a Rockstar company and we are looking for Ninja developers. Maybe you’re an Stellar Programmer”. It has been so used that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. I’ve even seen a job offer asking for a Python Admiral[2]. It is currently more a way of signalling spam than any other thing. [3]

But there is still the myth of “the 10x programmer”, not as a way of describing that there are obviously people more productive than other (and who can reach high notes), but taking for granted that is mostly a characteristic of the programmer itself, while the truly stelar results are achieved mostly when the environment is the  adequate. A lot of the great results in a team is not a magical increase in productivity by some gifted individual, but more the constant improvements in the good directions or good vision to focus in what’s truly relevant. A single good developer can move quite fast in the good direction not because she’s wildly more productive but because she has a clear view and focus.

Because an average programmer can be at least a 5x programmer when the proper details fall in place, and a great developer can be a 1/5x programmer in the wrong place.

1 – He’s also referencing this very interesting article by Shanley.

2 – Mmm, I have two offers, in one they got good salary, decent benefits. But the other one is offering a fleet command. Tempting.

3 – Not to talk about salaries, of course. We talk and talk about 10x programmers, I’d love to see some place offering 5 times an average salary.