Friday, August 25, 2006

Things that fundamentally improve how you program, Part II

[This was originally posted at]

About a year ago, I posted on Things that fundamentally change how you program, listing several things:

  • Object Oriented Code
  • Unit Tests
  • Regex Expressions
  • Xml
  • Code Generation
  • Consciously seeking Tools

A year later, there are new things I would add to this list:

  • Continuous Integration - Besides just checking in your code to a general repository, there's a huge benefit to have the repository's source code continually tested with a regular build. A simple build may just compile and run unit tests. However, by doing this whenever someone checks in new code, you can catch many errors because they propagate and do real damage. A popular (and free) Continuous Integration framework is CruiseControl.
  • Automation, especially of processes (such as with MSBuild). The point is that complicated processes are two tedious to repeatedly do manually. For example, a build process may take 30 minutes, and with Continuous Integration you may do this 20 times a day. There's simply no way to manage it without automation.
  • CallBacks and Ajax/Atlas related technologies. This changes how websites operate, from the postback model that sends the entire page back and forth, to a asynchronous request that sends just a small packet of data, which enables you to make a rich-UI.
  • Virtual Machines (such as VMWare) - I'm exploring this more, but essentially Virtual Machines let you make a "guest" image of a machine that runs in isolation on a host. This can be great for expanding your build process, testing in different environments, and studying applications with a ton of configuration to them (without messing up the main host machine).
  • Blog Aggregators - In our industry, learning is critical. If you stop learning, not only does the job become dull, you risk losing your job. Blogs are a great way to learn new quick and practical ideas from veterans in the trenches. A blog can publish info much faster than a book. Reading blogs is a great way to inject a bunch of new ideas into your head. The problem is that no one wants to manually check 20 different web pages, so you'll want a way to aggregate all the new blog posts into an easy-to-read inbox (as if they were email). Two free blog aggregators are RssBandit and SharpReader.
  • Visiting Tradeshows or users groups. Anytime you get out of your cubicle, and meet other experts face-to-face in the field, it will make you more confident. User groups are usually free, let you bump shoulders with other real people, and keep you in the loop about new technologies and trends. Along with reading high-profile bloggers, this helps you never to get "surprised" by some sudden technical development that changes how your app functions. It also gives you assurance in knowing how other people implement things.

All of these things are easy to get started, but they will fundamentally improve how you program. If you want to be a better developer, you'll get a high return from investing in these things.

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