97 Things Every Programmer Should Know

September 07, 2009

Jack Ganssle-September 07, 2009

In an attempt to codify a knowledge base for developers, long ago the IEEE created the SWEBOK - the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge - which is being revised for 2010. There's a lot to like about their efforts to bring so much information in to a single package, but SWEBOK strikes me as more of a review document than an encyclopedia.

Now the folks at O'Reilly are soliciting contributions for their own version of a fundamental body of knowledge for software folks, titled "97 Things Every Programmer Should Know" (click here to read the Introduction and here for their List of 97 Things).

As I write this, 88 of the eventual 97 have been edited and posted. O'Reilly's rules are far less organized and considerably more ad hoc than the SWEBOK, but quite a bit more fun.

Some of the rules are, to embedded people at least, truly trite. For instance, one submissions encourages programmer to "consider the hardware." In the bloatware world of PCs this is indeed good advice, but to those of us cramming five pounds of specs into 1K of flash, this is like saying "turn on the computer before firing up the IDE." (In fairness, the posting concludes with a tip o' the hat to embedded people.)

Some are interestingly philosophical, and equally appealing. "Do lots of deliberate practice" advises actively stretching ones bounds, all of the time.

Others are frustrating short on details. "Improved testability leads to better design" is a great idea! But the suggestions lack depth. "Hard work does not pay off" makes a great point, but how does one sell the idea to panicked management whose heads are ready to explode since the project is already six months late?

But there are a lot of great aphorisms. "The boy scout rule" suggests always leaving the code cleaner than when you started working on it. "The professional programmer" advocates acting as true professionals that take responsibility for their work.

The list is interesting, infuriating, thoughtful, incomplete, full of spurious thoughts but fun. It's worth a gander.

(Editor's Note:. Jack's Embedded Poll Question this week: Is a single body of software know-how needed? To participate go to the Home Page.)

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at His website is

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