Iteration time is everything

# Iteration time is everything

Thu
06
Sep 2018

I still remember Demobit 2018 in February in Bratislava, Slovakia. During this demoscene party, one of the talks was given by Matt Swoboda "Smash", author of Notch. Notch is a program that allows to create audio-visual content, like demos or interactive visual shows accompanying concerts, in a visual way - by connecting blocks, somewhat like blueprints in Unreal Engine. (The name not to be confused with nickname of the author of Minecraft.) See also Number one / Another one by CNDC/Fairlight - latest demo made in it.

During his talk, Smash referred to music production. He said that musicians couldn't imagine working without a possibility to instantly hear the effect of changes they make to their project. He said that graphics artists deserve same level of interactivity - WYSIWYG, instant feedback, without a need for a lengthy "build" or "render". That's why Notch was created. Then I thought: What about programmers? Don't they deserve it too? Shorter iteration times mean better work efficiency and higher quality of the result. Meanwhile, a programmer sometimes has to wait minutes or even hours to be able to test a change in his code, no matter how small it is. I think it's a big problem.

This is exactly what I like about development of desktop Windows applications and games: they can usually be built, ran, and tested locally within few seconds. Same applies to games made in Unity and Unreal Engine - developer can usually hit "Play" button and quickly test his gameplay. It is often not the case with development for smaller devices (like mobile or embedded) or larger (like servers/cloud).

I think that iteration time - time after which we can observe effects of our changes - is critical for developers' work efficiency, as well as their well-being. We programmers should demand better tools. All of us - including low-level C and C++ programmers. Currently we are at the good position in the job market so we can choose companies and projects to work on. Let's use it and vote with our feet. Decision makers and architects of software/hardware platforms may think that developers are smart, so they can work efficiently even in harsh conditions. They forget that wasting developers' precious time means wasting a lot of money, not to mention their frustration. Creating better tools is an investment that will pay off.

Now, whenever I get a job offer for a developer position, I ask two simple questions:

1. What is the typical iteration time, from the moment when I change something in the code, through compilation, deployment, application launch and loading, until I can observe the effect of my change? If the answer is: "Usually it's just a matter of few seconds. Files you changed are recompiled, then launching the app takes few seconds and that's it." - that's fine. But if the answer is more like: "Well, the whole project needs to be rebuilt. You don't do it locally. You shelve your changes in Perforce so that build server picks it and makes the build. The build is then deployed to the target device, which then needs to reboot and load your app. It takes 15-20 minutes." - then it's a NOPE for me.

2. How do you debug the application? Can you make experiments by setting up breakpoints and watching variables in a convenient way? If the answer is: "Yes, we have debugger nicely integrated with Visual Studio/WinDBG/Eclipse/other IDE and we debug whenever we see a problem." - that's fine. But when I hear: "Well, command-line GDB should work with this environment, but to be honest, it's so hard to setup that no one uses it here. We just put debug console prints in the code and recompile it whenever we want to make a debug experiment." - then that's a red light for me.

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