Thursday, September 14, 2017

Programming with Maturity

As a computer engineering student, you learn multiple languages in your college.

You understand the syntax and concepts of this language.

You work on a few assignments to understand some unique features of this language.

Most of the focus in these assignments and studies is on getting it done. Implementing quick sort an sorting an array, or  traversing a tree in pre/post/in-order.

But what about the qualities of software?

Beyond the customary paragraph on each of the software qualities, how do you learn about those? How do you acquire the right taste in software? Because at the end of the day, its not about whether you can implement it. Of course, you can, any so-called software developer can. But its about whether you can implement it with the best qualities. That is what sets your deliverable apart. Once you join an organisation this will happen through your mentors at the organisation. But what can you do while you are still a student?

One interesting way to develop this taste is to track open-source projects in your domain of interest. These are treasure troves of knowledge, from some of the most experienced folks in the world. Imagine being able to read the source code of the Linux Kernel which powers almost everything, from the OS in your phone, to large-scale servers.

And what do I mean by track an open-source project?

  • In its simplest form, try to understand a small enough module from that project. And document it for the world (this also acts as a good milestone to work against). You will have to read multiple files and cross-references in the process. And when you finish one module, try a more complex one. Not only this exercise make you good at reading code, but also the best practices and the development philosophy of that project starts rubbing on you.

  • As a next step, subscribe to the project's development mailing list, or their git repositories pull/merge requests. Read about the various proposals contributors make, the arguments against these proposals. You might not understand everything, but you start understanding what members of that project care about beyond functionality.

  • Best yet, pick a small portion of the TODO list of that project and send out a patch for inclusion. While reading has its benefits, doing it yourself exposes you to a world of other questions, that you hadn't considered before. And the comments on your work, that's golden. 

If you are interested in System Programming, track the Linux Kernel. Or if its too large for you, track Zephyr.

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