Stack Overflow Driven Development

The rise of Stack Overflow has certainly changed how many programmers go about their trade.

I have recently been learning some new client side web skills because I need them for a new project. I have noticed that the way I go about learning is quite different from the way I used to learn pre-web.

I used to have a standard technique. I’d go through back issues of magazines I’d bought (I used to have hundreds of back issues) and read any articles related to the new technology. Then I’d purchase a book about the topic, read it and start a simple starter project. Whilst doing the starter project, I’d likely pick up a couple of extra books and skim them to find techniques I needed for the project. This method worked pretty well, I’d be working idiomatically, without a manual in anywhere from a month to three months.

Using the old method, if I got stuck on something, I’d have to figure it out on my own. I remember it took three days to get a simple window to display when I was learning Windows programming in 1991. Without the internet, there was nobody you could ask when you got stuck. If you didn’t own the reference materials you needed, then you were stuck.

Fast forward twenty years and things are rather different. For starters, I don’t have a bunch of magazines sitting around. I don’t even read tech magazines any more, either in print or digitally. None of my favourite magazines survived the transition to digital.

Now when I want to learn a new tech, I head to Wikipedia first to get a basic idea. Then I start trawling google for simple tutorials. I then read one of the new generation of short introductory books on my Kindle.

I then start my project safe in the knowledge that google will always be there. And, of course, google returns an awful lot of Stack Overflow pages. Whilst I would have felt very uncomfortable starting a project without a full grasp of a technology twenty years ago, now I think it would be odd not to. The main purpose of the initial reading is to get a basic understanding of the technology and, most importantly, the vocabulary. You can’t search properly if you don’t know what to search for.

Using my new approach, I’ve cut my learning time from one to three months down to one to three weeks.

The main downside to my approach is that, at the beginning at least, I may not write idiomatic code. But, whilst that is a problem, software is very maleable and you can always re-write parts later on if the project is a success. The biggest challenge now seems to be getting to the point when you know a project has legs as quickly as possible. Fully understanding a tech before starting a project, just delays the start and I doubt you’ll get that time back later in increased productivity.

Of course, by far the quickest approach is to use a tech stack you already know. Unfortunately, in my case that wasn’t possible because I didn’t know a suitable web client side tech. It is a testament to the designers of Angular.js, SignalR and NancyFX that I found it pretty easy to get started. I wish everything was so well designed and documented.

Author: Jack Hughes

An experienced software engineer with 20+ years experience writing products for Microsoft Windows based operating systems as well as 12+ years experience hosting websites on Linux and Windows including e-commerce and CMS systems.