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 Sunday, November 22, 2009
Book Review: Debug It! (Paul Butcher, Pragmatic Bookshelf)

Paul asked me to review this, his first book, and my comment to him was that he had a pretty high bar to match; being of the same "series" as Release It!, Mike Nygard's take on building software ready for production (and, in my repeatedly stated opinion, the most important-to-read book of the decade), Debug It! had some pretty impressive shoes to fill. Paul's comment was pretty predictable: "Thanks for keeping the pressure to a minimum."

My copy arrived in the mail while I was at the NFJS show in Denver this past weekend, and with a certain amount of dread and excitement, I opened the envelope and sat down to read for a few minutes. I managed to get halfway through it before deciding I had to post a review before I get too caught up in my next trip and forget.

Short version

Debug It! is a great resource for anyone looking to learn the science of good debugging. It is entirely language- and platform-agnostic, preferring to focus entirely on the process and mindset of debugging, rather than on edge cases or command-line switches in a tool or language. Overall, the writing is clear and straightforward without being preachy or judgmental, and is liberally annotated with real-life case stories from both the authors' and the Pragmatic Programmers' own history, which keeps the tone lighter and yet still proving the point of the text. Highly recommended for the junior developers on the team; senior developers will likely find some good tidbits in here as well.

Long version

Debug It! is an excellently-written and to-the-point description of the process of not only identifying and fixing defects in software, but also of the attitudes required to keep software from failing. Rather than simply tossing off old maxims or warming them over with new terminology ("You should always verify the parameters to your procedure calls" replaced with "You should always verify the parameters entering a method and ensure the fields follow the invariants established in the specification"), Paul ensures that when making a point, his prose is clear, the rationale carefully explained, and the consequences of not following this advice are clearly spelled out. His advice is pragmatic, and takes into account that developers can't always follow the absolute rules we'd like to—he talks about some of his experiences with "bug priorities" and how users pretty quickly figured out to always set the bug's priority at the highest level in order to get developer attention, for example, and some ways to try and address that all-too-human failing of bug-tracking systems.

It needs to be said, right from the beginning, that Debug It! will not teach you how to use the debugging features of your favorite IDE, however. This is because Paul (deliberately, it seems) takes a platform- and language-agnostic approach to the book—there are no examples of how to set breakpoints in gdb, or how to attach the Visual Studio IDE to a running Windows service, for example. This will likely weed out those readers who are looking for "Google-able" answers to their common debugging problems, and that's a shame, because those are probably the very readers that need to read this book. Having said that, however, I like this agnostic approach, because these ideas and thought processes, the ones that are entirely independent of the language or platform, are exactly the kinds of things that senior developers carry over with them from one platform to the next. Still, the junior developer who picks this book up is going to still need a reference manual or the user manual for their IDE or toolchain, and will need to practice some with both books in hand if they want to maximize the effectiveness of what's in here.

One of the things I like most about this book is that it is liberally adorned with real-life discussions of various scenarios the author team has experienced; the reason I say "author team" here is because although the stories (for the most part) remain unattributed, there are obvious references to "Dave" and "Andy", which I assume pretty obviously refer to Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt, the Pragmatic Programmers and the owners of Pragmatic Bookshelf. Some of the stories are humorous, and some of them probably would be humorous if they didn't strike so close to my own bitterly-remembered experiences. All of them do a good job of reinforcing the point, however, thus rendering the prose more effective in communicating the idea without getting to be too preachy or bombastic.

The book obviously intends to target a junior developer audience, because most senior developers have already intuitively (or experientially) figured out many of the processes described in here. But, quite frankly, I think it would be a shame for senior developers to pass on this one; though the temptation will be to simply toss it aside and say, "I already do all this stuff", senior developers should resist that urge and read it through cover to cover. If nothing else, it'll help reinforce certain ideas, bring some of the intuitive process more to light and allow us to analyze what we do right and what we do wrong, and perhaps most importantly, give us a common backdrop against which we can mentor junior developers in the science of debugging.

One of the chapters I like in particular, "Chapter 7: Pragmatic Zero Tolerance", is particularly good reading for those shops that currently suffer from a deficit of management support for writing good software. In it, Paul talks specifically about some of the triage process about bugs ("When to fix bugs"), the mental approach developers should have to fixing bugs ("The debugging mind-set") and how to get started on creating good software out of bad ("How to dig yourself out of a quality hole"). These are techniques that a senior developer can bring to the team and implement at a grass-roots level, in many cases without management even being aware of what's going on. (It's a sad state of affairs that we sometimes have to work behind management's back to write good-quality code, but I know that some developers out there are in exactly that situation, and simply saying, "Quit and find a new job", although pithy and good for a laugh on a panel, doesn't really offer much in the way of help. Paul doesn't take that route here, and that alone makes this book worth reading.)

Another of the chapters that resonates well with me is the first one in Part III ("Debug Fu"), Chapter 8, entitled "Special Cases", in which he tackles a number of "advanced" debugging topics, such as "Patching Existing Releases" and "Hesenbugs" (Concurrency-related bugs). I won't spoil the punchline for you, but suffice it to say that I wish I'd had that chapter on hand to give out to teammates on a few projects I've worked on in the past.

Overall, this book is going to be a huge win, and I think it's a worthy successor to the Release It! reputation. Development managers and team leads should get a copy for the junior developers on their team as a Christmas gift, but only after the senior developers have read through it as well. (Senior devs, don't despair—at 190 pages, you can rip through this in a single night, and I can almost guarantee that you'll learn a few ideas you can put into practice the next morning to boot.)