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Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction, Second Edition 2nd Edition
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About the Author
Steve McConnell is recognized as one of the premier authors and voices in the development community. He is Chief Software Engineer of Construx Software and was the lead developer of Construx Estimate and of SPC Estimate Professional, winner of Software Development magazine's Productivity Award. He is the author of several books, including Code Complete and Rapid Development, both honored with Software Development magazine's Jolt Award.
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Top customer reviews
The Good: McConnell deserves credit for writing the first (and only?) readable encyclopedia of best practices on software quality, covering topics such as how to build classes, use data and control structures, debug, refactor, and code-tune. Yes, it would be nice if the book was updated to include substantive material on languages like Ruby or Python (cf. p. 65, Python "also contains some support for creating larger programs") but, in the words of Gertrude Stein, "Not everything can be about everything" -- though Code Complete does come pretty close. This book contains an astonishing number of practical points on a variety of topics. Here is a quasi-random selection: a) don't use booleans as status variables (chs. 5, 12), b) when you feel the need to override a function and have it do nothing, don't; refactor instead (ch. 6), c) when choosing variable names, avoid homonyms (ch. 11), d) if you decide to use a goto, indenting your code properly will be difficult or impossible (ch. 17), e) trying to improve software quality by increasing the amount of testing is like trying to lose weight by weighing yourself more often (ch. 22), f) make your code so good that you don't need comments, and then comment it to make it even better (ch. 32), and finally the oft-repeated g) you should try to program into your language, not in it (ch. 34). McConnell also sprinkles the text with classic words of wisdom, e.g. "The competent programmer is fully aware of the strictly limited size of his own skull" (Edsger Dijkstra), "Never debug standing up" (Gerald Weinberg), "Copy and paste is a design error" (David Parnas), "Any fool can defend his or her mistakes -- and most fools do." (Dale Carnegie). It is important to point out that even though this volume is encyclopedia-like, it does have both a sense of humor (e.g. "the encryption algorithm is so convoluted that it seems like it's been used on itself") and a clear authorial voice (e.g. "Though sometimes tempting, that's dumb."). Another example of the latter: in ch. 33, after quoting Edward Yourdon at length, McConnell adds "This lusty tribute to programming machismo is pure B.S. and an almost certain recipe for failure".
The Bad: overall the writing is very good, but the occasional infelicity reminds us that McConnell is human (e.g. p. 369 "A loop-with-exit loop is a loop in which", p. 809 "A program contains all the routines in a program."). In a technical book of this breadth, minor mistakes are bound to creep in. For example, in ch. 10 McConnell mentions the different possible levels of a variable's scope in C++, and then adds that in Java and C# one can also use namespaces, thus effectively ignoring the existence of the namespace concept in C++ (which is baffling, given that he then discusses precisely that topic in ch. 11). Another example, this one more serious, is McConnell's recommendation that you should use a pointer - not a reference - if you want to pass by reference in C++ (ch. 13), something which is contrary to C++ best practices (see e.g. Sutter & Alexandrescu, "C++ Coding Standards", Item 25). A less technical point: in ch.2 McConnell criticizes Frederick Brooks for writing (in 1975): "Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow". I found this to be bizarre, given that in the 1995 edition of "The Mythical Man-Month" Brooks states in no uncertain terms that he has changed his mind on this: "This I now perceive to be wrong" (p. 265). Given that Code Complete 2 was published nearly 10 years later (in 2004), criticizing Brooks for his publicly repudiated former opinion seems improper. On a different note, although some of the on-line accompanying material is fascinating (e.g. the links to the original Dijkstra and Lawrence articles in ch. 17) many of the links are just electronic versions of McConnell's checklists or bibliographies, while some are simply disappointing. To name only a couple of these, as of this writing the link on p. 856 on the economics of XP is a dead link, while the one on p. 76 is downright embarrassing (it links to a google search for "emergent design"). Finally, even though the book has a dedicated website, no list of errata is provided there. If you dig deeper, you can find one on the O'Reilly website, but that is woefully inadequate, e.g. it contains no information on separate printings.
The most common criticism one hears about this book is that any decent software developer should already know the material covered in it. Ironically enough, this is true. To quote Dr. Johnson: "People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed".
I bought my copy of the first edition of Code Complete in 1997, and I was immediately fascinated. I had never read anything like it before - a book that concentrated on the actual writing of the code. For example, it had a whole chapter on if- and case-statements, and another chapter on the naming of variables. I had no idea there was so much to learn about these seemingly straight forward activities. It was immediately useful to me, and I started to apply as much as I could of what I learnt from it.
Although it concentrated on coding, it covered a broad spectrum of activities around coding, from requirements and design to testing, debugging and optimization. It also had a great reference section with suggestions of further reading in the area of software engineering. This became my starting point for finding lots of other good books to read, like Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition) and Programming Pearls (2nd Edition).
So this summer I decided to re-read this seminal book, partly to see what's new in the second edition, and partly to see if still think it is such a great book.
To answer my own question - yes, it is still the number one book on writing code. It is near encyclopaedic in its coverage of the nuts and bolts of programming. There are chapters on the naming of variables, on organizing straight-line code, on conditionals, on loops, on lay-out, on good commenting and on how to write good methods.
In it, there are frequent references to scientific studies that support the advice given in the book. For example, how long should variable names be? Instead of just giving us his opinion, McConnell summarized the findings of several scientific studies on the subject.
Each time there is reference to a study, there is a little "hard data" symbol in the margin. There are other symbols in the margin as well, "Coding Horror" for code examples of what not to do, and "Key Point" for, well, key points. The margin is also used for cross references to other chapters, and for quotes related to the subject discussed. For me, this works really well. It is both useful and makes the text easier to read. In general, the book is very well laid out.
Some of my favourite advice from the book (all of which I remember from reading the first edition) are:
Chapter 7.1 Valid Reasons to Create a Routine - for example: Reduce complexity, Introduce an intermediate understandable abstraction, and Avoid duplicate code (there are 6 more valid reasons in this chapter). The second part of the chapter is called Operations That Seem Too Simple to Put Into Routines and contains a great example of why it can be good to put even a one-line calculation in a routine - the code becomes more readable, and small operations tend to turn into larger operations.
Page 172 (and 264 for variables) Use opposites precisely. When naming "opposite" methods and variables, be careful to use the correct pairs, like add/remove, begin/end, create/destroy etc. This makes the relationship between them clear and obvious.
Page 433 Break complicated tests into partial tests with new boolean variables. This is such a simple thing, but it makes the code a lot more readable.
Page 754 "Make the incompleteness of a statement obvi". For example, when breaking up a logical and over two lines, end the first line with && - that way, it is clear that the statement continues on the next line.
Even though the book truly is great, there are a few things to complain about. In the first edition, the chapters on layout and comments came right after the chapters on the different control structures. But in the second edition, these two chapters have been moved further back. To me, that doesn't make sense, since they too are related to how you actually write your code. Now there are chapters on testing, debugging, optimization and refactoring in between.
And talking about refactoring: while this is an important subject, I don't feel the chapter on refactoring is particularly good. This chapter is new in the second edition. The summary of refactoring is OK, but a good part of the chapter consists of just listing different kinds of refactorings.
Overall though, the second edition is a nice face lift. The code examples are now mostly in Java, C++ or Visual Basic (in the first edition they were in Pascal, C or Ada). But since all the major themes of the book were already present in the first edition, it does not make a big difference if you happen to read the first edition instead of the second edition.
Code Complete is thick - 862 pages (not counting the bibliography and index). If that feels like a lot to read, then I suggest you start by just reading one or two chapters, for example "Using Conditionals" or "Layout and Style". They (and pretty much any chapter in the book) can easily be read without first reading the preceding chapters, and these will give you a sense of what you can expect from the other chapters. Even if these are all you read, you will still get a lot of value from the book.
However, if you are a programmer and care about how you write code, you owe it to yourself to read the whole book. It is considered by many (including me) to be the best book available on programming, and it will almost certainly make you a better programmer. Highly recommended.
Ultimately Code Complete 2 is good stuff and deserves 6 stars. Recommend, based on proliferation of technology, for any concerned with general advancement in management or specialized introductions to Project & Risk Management for digital information systems.