Wednesday 19 May 2010

The Dying Art of RTFM

The classic stereotype of men is that they don’t read manuals and wont ask for directions when lost. I’m pleased to say that I exhibit neither of these two tendencies – I’ll take all the help I can thank you very much. In fact I find it incredibly frustrating when I see other developers (and let’s face it, rightly or wrongly, they’re mostly men) thrashing around trying to fix a bug or get some code to compile and they’re ignoring the obvious sources of information – the manual (e.g. books/local MSDN) and Google/Bing/Whatever.

Here’s a recent example. A colleague was trying to work out why at runtime a particular C# method in a system class was throwing an exception that neither of us had encountered before but which implied that the behaviour wasn’t implemented. After doing a quick rebuild to make sure the obvious was taken care of I then put the caret on the method name and hit F1. The MSDN help page for the method clearly stated that this method was not supported in the scenario it was being used. Problem solved. Total time time to resolve it: about 3 minutes.

Obviously not all cases are as simple as this, but there have been so many times that fellow developers have done something and I’ve done a quick Google and pointed out a page that sits in the top 3 of the results that provides the same solution. OK, so maybe I don’t get there first time because I don’t know the optimum search terms, but a quick read of a related page or two (especially if it’s a Stack Overflow page) and I can usually concoct the required magic incantation to find the relevant answer. Of course we’re a little bit lazy sometimes and find it easier to ask the person next to us, I’ve done that too. But that doesn’t excuse not taking the most basic steps to solve your own problems.

I believe ‘Google-ability’ is one of the most important skills a developer can have. This sounds like a classic Grumpy Old Man but I didn’t have the Internet as resource when I started out programming. Fortunately the company I worked for at the time soon gained access to the MSDN on CD and had subscriptions to MSJ, DDJ etc. and access to other online services like CiX. Mining the MSDN quickly became a very useful skill as it not only contained manuals, but white papers and previous articles from MSJ that may not have been directly relevant but did point you in new directions. Naturally this skill directly transferred to searching via Alta-Vista/Lycos/etc. (remember them…) and onto this day with Google.

But how do you discover a candidate’s ‘Google-ability’ skill at interview time? I usually ask interviewees about what they’ve read as I find it’s a good indication of how passionate they are about the job and whether they have that desire for learning. The same goes for blogs and and major online resources like Dr Dobbs. Not being able to name any is an ‘interview smell’ but I’ve yet to come across someone who’s a good programmer that doesn’t read around the subject.

Books are a funny thing these days. I’ve probably bought more in the last couple of years than in the decade before. AbeBooks and Amazon’s second hand marketplace means I can easily pick up a copy of a book that I’m only vaguely interested in for just a few quid – and that’s including shipping it across the Atlantic! I really can’t get on with e-books and reading large volumes of text on screen; blogs are about the limit of my screen based reading. But then I’m a self confessed toilet reader – my technical library is in the downstairs toilet – much to my wife’s chagrin. It’s like vinyl records; there is a ceremony involved with selecting a book from the bookshelf and flicking through the pages, just like removing the vinyl from the sleeve and carefully depositing it on the turntable.

Perhaps this is where that investment in moving the Unconscious Incompetence to mere Conscious Incompetence that I blogged about recently pays off. Is my ability to easily find stuff in the MSDN and via Google just because I have lots of vague terms and concepts floating around in my noggin so that I am more aware of what information is actually out there – whether that be in book form, magazine or on the web? Or is it just that I’m not a real bloke? Should I in fact be feeling inferior because I don’t ignore assistance and just slog on relentlessly instead…

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