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Visualizing Code

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Visualizing Code

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When writing software we’re working at two levels:

  1. Creating an executable specification of exactly what we want the machine to do
  2. Creating a living document that describes the intent of what we want the machine to do, to be read by humans

The first part is the easy part, the second part takes a lifetime to master. I read a really great post today pointing out signs that you’re a bad programmer. Whether you’re a bad programmer or just inexperienced, I think the biggest barrier is being able to quickly and accurately visualize code. You need to visualize what the application actually does, what happens at runtime; but all your IDE shows you is the raw, static, source code. From this static view of the world you have to infer the runtime behaviour, you have to infer the actual shape of the application and the patterns of interaction; while closely related, the two are separate. Given just source code, you need to be able to visualize what code does.

What does it mean to visualize code? At the simplest level, it’s understanding what individual statements do.

string a = "Hello"; 
string b = "world";
a = b;

It might sound trivial, but the first necessary step is being able to quickly parse code and mentally step through what will happen. First for basic statements, then for code that iterates:

while (stack.Count() > 1)
    var operation = stack.Pop() as IOperation;
    var result = operation.Execute(stack.Pop(), stack.Pop());

Where you need to understand looping mechanics and mentally model what happens overall not just each iteration. Then you need to be able to parse recursive code:

int Depth(ITreeNode node)
    if (node == null)
        return 0;
    return 1 + Math.Max(Depth(node.Left), Depth(node.Right));

Which is generally harder for inexperienced programmers to understand and reason about; even though once you’ve learned the pattern it can be clearer and more concise.

Once you’ve mastered how to understand what a single method does, you have to understand how methods become composed together. In the OO world, this means understanding classes and interfaces; it means understanding design patterns; you need to understand how code is grouped together into cohesive, loosely coupled units with clear responsibilities.

For example, the visitor pattern has a certain mental structure – it’s about implementing something akin to a virtual method outside of the class hierarchy; in my mind it factors a set of classes into a set of methods.

public interface IAnimal
    void Accept(IAnimalVisitor visitor);
public class Dog : IAnimal { ... }
public class Cat : IAnimal { ... }
public class Fox : IAnimal { ... }
public interface IAnimalVisitor
    void VisitDog(Dog dog);
    void VisitCat(Cat cat);
    void VisitFox(Fox fox);

The first step in reading code is being able to read something like a visitor pattern (assuming you’d never heard of it before) and understand what it does and develop a mental model of what that shape looks like. Then, you can use the term “visitor” in your code and in discussions with colleagues. This shared language is critical when talking about code: it’s not practical to design a system by looking at individual lines of code, we need to be able to draw boxes on a whiteboard and discuss shapes and patterns. This shared mental model is a key part of team design work; we need a shared language that maps to a shared mental model, both of the existing system and of changes we’d like to make.

In large systems this is where a common language is important: if the implementation uses the same terms the domain uses, it becomes simpler to understand how the parts of the system interact. By giving things proper names, the interactions between classes become logical analogues of real-world things – we don’t need to use technical words or made up words that subsequent readers will need to work to understand or learn, someone familiar with the domain will know what the expected interactions are. This makes it easier to build a mental model of the system.

For example, in an online book store, I might have concepts (classes) such as book, customer, shopping basket, postal address. These are all logical real world things with obvious interactions. If I instead named them PurchasableItem, RegisteredUser, OrderItemList and DeliveryIndicationStringList you’d probably struggle to understand how one related to the other. Naming things is hard, but incredibly important – poor naming will make it that much harder to develop a good mental model of how your system works.

Reading code, the necessary precursor to writing code, is all about building a mental model. We’re trying to visualize something that doesn’t exist, by reading lines of text.

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Published at DZone with permission of David Green, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.


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