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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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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".
Comprehensive Analysis of Software Construction
This book’s scope is the “construction” of software which primarily includes detailed design, coding, debugging, integration and developer testing. According to McConnell, there wasn’t a book written on the construction aspect of programming at the time of writing the first volume (in 1993). Also, according to McConnell, construction is the most important part of programming as it takes up the most time, it must be done, and it has the biggest impact on the success of a project. To sum it up, this book touches on everything you need to know during the construction phase and has a chapter devoted to each topic. My favorite chapters are Chapter 6 (Working Classes), Chapter 21 (Collaborative Construction) and Chapter 33 (Personal Character). Go look at the table of contents if you don’t believe this book is comprehensive.
Objective and Scientific
McConnell backs up most of his claims with scientific evidence (referencing the results of different programming studies) throughout the book. He is also objective and presents dissenting opinions when there isn’t a clear winner. He is also honest when there isn’t much evidence to support his claims (for example, there isn’t actually much evidence backing up his documentation techniques even though they are probably best practice). This builds trust between the reader and the author. We know he has done his due diligence and we don’t need to go fact check everything. His technique of backing up opinions with scientific studies is surprisingly lacking in most software communities. It makes me realize how often we spout opinions without backing them up with hard data.
Well-written and Well-organized
This book might be dry at times, but it’s very well-written and well-organized. You can skip around to different sections and use it more like a reference instead of reading cover-to-cover if you’d like. My favorite parts of its organization are the ‘Key Points’ highlighted throughout the text, the checklists and key points at the end of chapters, and helpful code examples which reinforce his points. Also, I love his metaphor that you should organize your code in a similar logical structure that you would organize a book (with table of contents, sections, chapters, etc.) Some will say the book is repetitive (and it can be), but repetition is important because you rarely remember anything after reading it once. Repetition is the way ideas are reinforced and remembered.
Carries a Lot of Weight in the Industry
Some might argue this shouldn’t be a factor when reviewing a book, but I disagree. When you are newer to the industry (I’ve been programming professionally for around 2 years), you need to learn from the best. The way you identify who is best is by someone’s reputation and status in an industry. This book (and McConnell himself) are held in high esteem by very influential people in the industry. This matters because you can trust the concepts he is advocating and move quicker in your learning.
Overall, this book is a must-read for programmers and will probably have the best ROI for programmers who have been working professionally for 1-2 years (because you’ve seen some of the good and some of the bad practices that McConnell talks about). Yes, this book is long, sometimes dry and repetitive, and some advice is obvious. But it absolutely helps give more confidence when constructing software, when giving code reviews, and when forming a culture of good habits on your team.
The main takeaway is this: your number one goal as a programmer is to manage complexity. Make things easier to understand, more readable and more maintainable - it will save time in the long-run. We spend much more time reading code than writing code. It’s important to think about the programmer who will be reading and maintaining your code (a lot of times it is yourself). We aren’t smart enough to understand entire codebases and we are limited by our brains. Use techniques like abstraction, encapsulation, self-documenting code, and collaboration with other programmers to make your code better.