The Hard Part of Software

I've been writing build system tool that allows users to specify concurrent build processes using a lightweight, Python-based system that minimizes overhead.

Progress is decent. I hope to use this to replace a hodgepodge of fabric and Makefile for my work and personal projects. I have a decent spec (3 hours), an initial implementation of the internal parts (3 hours,) a good first draft at a command line utility (1.5 hours,) internal/APO documentation (10 hours,) and none of the unit tests and procedural and conceptual documentation. In essence the hard stuff.

Basically what happened, is I spent a lot of time thinking about the problem, a little bit of time coding, and if all goes according to plan a lot of time writing rather droll code and good if uninteresting documentation.

Which is, all things considered, what all software boils down to.

Writing the core implementation is (often) this intense impassioned process that is necessarily flow-like, because there's a bunch of state that you have to keep hot in your mind while solving hard problems, and if your attention drifts too far, you start breaking things.

Not that flow-like states are the best or only way to write code for core functionality, but it works and it's enjoyable.

Everything else, is different:

  • Writing documentation is an exercise in context switching: you have to read code, or poke at a running program to figure out how it works, and then turn that information on its head so you can tell people how to use it.

    It's fun, but it's much more fussy.

  • Writing tests is similarly hard: it's also about balancing "how it works" and "how its used," but rather than describing something for future users, tests are about defining what constitutes "correctness" and what's incorrect. [1]

    Writing test-code is intellectually challenging work, and requires many of the same base skills as writing implementation-code but requires a different kind of focus and thinking.

  • There's a lot of code that remains once the core logic exists, including: user interfaces, logging, test, managing edge cases, optimization, and tuning the parameters of the behavior (business logic tweaks.)

Which isn't to say that any particularly portion of the work is more or less difficult or important. But, if you don't work in this world every day it's easy to see the hard initial work as being "the real part of software development," and allow all the other work to sort of fade into the background. Which is unfair, and I think is representative of a larger misunderstanding of how software works and gets made.

Another project for another day.

Onward and Upward!

[1]This assumes that you're not writing code in a test-driven manner, which is I think is probably statistically likely, if somewhat in-ideal.
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