TITLE: Notes for Students Working on Projects AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 25, 2009 6:45 PM DESC: ----- BODY: My compiler students are getting to the point where they should be deep in writing a parser for their language. Walking back from lunch, I was thinking about some very simple things they could do to make their lives -- and project -- better. 1. Start. Yes, start. If you read the literature of the agile software development world or even of the life hacker world, people talk about the great power that comes just from taking the first step. I've always loved the old Goethe quote about the power of committing to a course of action. But isn't this all cliché? It is so easy to put off tracing your language grammar, or building those FIRST and FOLLOW sets, or attacking what you know will be a massive parsing table. It is so easy to be afraid of writing the first line of code because you aren't sure what the whole app will look like. Take the first step, however small and however scary. I'm always amazed how much more motivated I feel once I break the seal on a big task and have some real feedback from my client or my compiler. 2. Always have live code. Live code is always better than ideas in your head. Brian Marick tells us so. One of the Gmail guys tells us so:
We did a lot of things wrong during the 2.5 years of pre-launch Gmail development, but one thing we did very right was to always have live code. ...Your code can tell which ideas are good ones and which are bad ones. It can teach you about the app you are building. It can help you learn what your user wants. I hear this all the time from students: "We have a pretty good handle on this, but no code yet." Sounds good, but... Live code can convince your professor that you really have done something. It can also help you ask questions and be submitted on the due date. Don't underestimate the value in that. As Buchheit says from the Gmail experience, spend less time talking and more time prototyping. You may not be Google, but you can realize the same benefits as those guys. And with version control you don't have to worry about taking the wrong step; you can always back up. 3. Don't forget what you know. Okay, I have to admit that this did not occur to me on my walk home form lunch. This afternoon, a former student and local entrepreneur gave a department seminar on web app security. He twice mentioned that many of the people he hires have learned many useful skills in object-oriented design and software engineering, using system languages such as Java and Ada. When they get to his shop, they are programming in a scripting language such as PHP. "And they throw away all they know!" They stop using the OOP principles and patterns they have learned. They stop documenting code and testing. It's as if scripting occurs in a different universe. As he pointed out after the talk, all of those skills and techniques and practices matter just as much -- no, more -- when using a language with many power tools, few boundaries, and access to all of his and his clients' data and filesystem. When building a compiler in class, or any other large-scale team project in a capstone course, all of those skills and techniques and practices matter, too, and sometimes for the first time in student's career. This is likely the largest and most sophisticated program they have ever written. It is the first time they have ever had to depend on one or two or five other students to get done, to understand and work with others' code, to turn their own code other for the understanding and use of their teammates. There is a reason that you are learning all this stuff. It's for the project you are working on right now. -----
Of course none of the code from my prototype ever made it near the real product (thankfully), but that code did something that fancy arguments couldn't do (at least not my fancy arguments), it showed that the idea and product had real potential.