What Every *Good* Developer Should Know

I came across this guy’s blog post titled “10 Things Every Good Web Developer Should Know.” The post is geared toward web developers, but it did get me thinking a bit about the more general questions. I’ve noticed shortcomings among developers (myself included) for a many years. What are some of the things that all GOOD developers SHOULD be expected to know? This list is hardly comprehensive, but I can think of a few things right away:

1. Linux/Unix

If you can’t do basic editing in vi you may find yourself in for a world of hurt at some point. I’ve known many programmers who attempt to write software in the safety of their IDE running on Windows only to find severe problems when it comes time to deploy on the server (and the server is typically some flavor of Linux). I recall a fellow software engineering student in my college days saying of his code, “It all works, it just won’t compile!” It sounds silly, right? Assuming software that is written, build and deployed in Windows will built and deploy just fine in another OS is equally as silly (yes, this goes for Java as well).

2. How to debug

Duh, right? Not so. I have helped many, many engineers with basic debugging. I don’t know if it is that I am particularly good at debugging (I’d like to think so), or that (some) others are particularly poor at it, but for most of my career I’ve heard, “Matt, this isn’t working, can you help?”

Generally this question is asked by an engineer who has spend a fair amount of time staring at the screen hoping to gain some diving inspiration and fix a bug. It never works this way. You have to be willing to dig into the code and actually find where the error is. Look through that stack trace! Run the debugger! When all else fails, start sticking print lines all over your code! Staring at the screen will rarely reveal a complex bug. A compile error, sure, but a bug, no.

3. Basic knowledge of C/C++ and or Assembly

In the day of virtual machines, powerful IDEs, scripted languages, OOAD and encapsulation on top of encapsulation on top of encapsulation, it can be too easy to write code and never understand exactly how much stuff has to happen for that code to work its magic. I have not written anything in assembly since college, and I have not written C code for 10 years, but I rely on my knowledge of the low-level “stuff” every time I write code. It helps to understand fundamentals of computer science, optimization, memory handling and what exactly makes all the magic of a 4GL come together. Many people get by without knowledge of assembly language, sure, but these people will not be “superstar” engineers… They’ll be programmers.

4. Version Control

There’s no excuse for not using version control. I would say it borders on negligent not to.

5. HTML, CSS, Javascript
This one may seem like another no-brainer, but I have run into many developers over the course of my career who simply do not have anything more than the most basic understanding of HTML.

6. System Administration

Just the other day sendmail quit working for me. I use sendmail to alert the team about project activity in Redmine, Subversion and Jenkins CI. I run project management software that is served using Ruby and Rails, Apache and Tomcat. I have written perl scripts for handling batch jobs and specialized email alerts. I have written bash scripts that tie in to various subversion triggers. I have installed Ant, Maven, Git, Subversion, Tomcat, Apache, GTK, GCC… You name it… All with NO help from a Linux administrator. Like it or not, these activities become the responsibility of the lead software engineer. If you embrace it and enjoy it, life will be easy. If you are lost, and waiting for the help of a system administrator, you may be in for a very long wait!

7. Database Design

EVERY good programmer MUST understand things likes normalization, joins, foreign keys, natural keys, sequences, race conditions, locking, and on and on. We cannot rely on a database designer. Even the largest companies I have worked for have, the ones with database administrators, have little if anything to say about database design. Database design is the responsibility of the software engineer. A poor design can cripple what may otherwise be good software.

8. Quality Assurance

Our goal as engineers it to deliver a high quality product with no defects. We all know that there will be defects, but this fact does not change the goal.

9. Communication, Documentation, Technical Writing

Even if your company does have the means to hire a dedicated technical writer, that employee will have no idea what your code is doing. Strong documentation is on the engineer (us). I never had to take a technical writing class in college. Fortunately, writing is something I enjoy. For the engineer who hopes to never have to write a document, he or she is likely to be very annoyed in this career.