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How I write software

June 01, 2010

JackCrens-June 01, 2010

In the two decades or so that I've been writing this column, we've covered a lot of topics, ranging from the best implementation of abs(x) to CRC algorithms to logic theory, Karnaugh maps, and electronic gates, to vector and matrix calculus to Fourier and z-transforms to control theory to quaternions, and lots more. I even wrote about whether or not the ancient Egyptians really built the values of π and Φ into the Great Pyramid (they did. And , too).

Almost all of the topics involved math, but they also required software, either for embedded systems or just to illustrate a given algorithm. But I've never talked much about the way I write software. I thought the issue of my own personal software development methodology would be, at best, a distraction from the topic at hand and, at worst, a subject of great hilarity.

I've always known that the way I write software is different from virtually everyone else on the planet. Is this true for everyone? I don't have a clue.

That's why I thought it would be fun to share with you the way I write software. If you do it the same way, that's great. It would be nice to know that there are other folks who share my approaches. On the other hand, if it's not the same way you do it, we have three possible outcomes. Either you'll learn from me, and decide that some of my approaches have merit; I'll learn from you, and decide that I've been doing it wrong all these years; or my revelations will serve as a subject of great hilarity. Any of those outcomes, I submit, would be good. It's a win-win-win situation.

The environment
Let's begin with the software development environment. In my time, I've used some really rotten development environments. I've worked with systems whose only I/O device was a Teletype ASR-33. We got so tired of emptying the chad-catcher on the paper tape punch, we just let it flutter to the floor. (At the end of the day, guess who got to sweep it up.)

I worked on one program where my only "compiler" was a line-by-line assembler (meaning that it didn't accept mnemonic names, only absolute addresses). The bulk storage device was an audio cassette. Just so we're clear, this wasn't a homebrew system I cobbled up out of old Intel 4004s. paper clips, and chewing gum. It was a system built up by serious, if boneheaded, managers in a very large corporation.

Perhaps because of these nightmare environments, I really appreciate a good one. I especially love using integrated development environments (IDEs), in which all the tools are interconnected, preferably by a lovely and fast GUI interface. I know, I know, real men don't use GUIs or IDEs. Some folks much prefer to use only command-line interfaces. and to write ever more complex and inscrutable makefiles.

If that's you, more power to you. Whatever works. But I can't hide my view that such an approach is an affectation, involved more with earning one's credentials as a software guru than on producing good code. I'm sure that there are good, valid reasons to write a makefile rather than let the IDE do it for you. I just can't think of one, at the moment.

So what do I do when I'm told that I must use the environment the project managers already picked out? First of all, I'd ask them (always discretely, of course, in my usual, ultra-tactful manner) why on earth they chose the development environment without discussing it with those of us who had to use it. Second, I'd campaign mightily for an environment more suited to my approaches.

As an aside, I used to teach a short course in the development process for embedded microprocessors. I told the management folks that they should plan to give their software folks every possible computer tool available--hang the expense. I pointed out that software development is very labor-intensive, so the front-end cost of good tools would be quickly made up by increased programmer productivity.

Needless to say, sometimes I'm successful in changing the managers' minds. More often, I'm not. So what do I do then? I make do as best I can, but I discreetly tweak the system and my approach to make the environment behave more like an IDE. For example, I might add script files, hot keys, etc., so that pressing a single button would invoke one tool from another.

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