Software Creation Mystery -

How Tools Frame Programmer’s Mindset


Thomas J. Bing and Edward F. Redish of University of Maryland analyzed how physics students work on assignments using computer programs:

Symbolic calculators like Mathematica are becoming more commonplace among upper level physics students. The presence of such a powerful calculator can couple strongly to the type of mathematical reasoning students employ… Mathematica plays an active role in focusing and sustaining their thought around calculation. These students still engage in powerful mathematical reasoning while they calculate but struggle because of the narrowed breadth of their thinking. Their reasoning is drawn into local attractors where they look to calculation schemes to resolve questions instead of, for example, mapping the mathematics to the physical system at hand.

These computer tools affect thinking and how students frame and focus their work.

Can we find similarity with the way tools affect programmer’s mindset ? In essence, software programming is operation on ideas and knowledge. We translate people ideas into the source code. But we cannot do it effectively without programming platform and tools – editors, compilers, debuggers and may others. And they have profound effect how we approach and solve customer needs. Our platforms and tools could frame and alter our thinking. PHP, Visual Basic, Java, .NET, Ruby On Rails programmers with the same level of experience will build not only technologically different solutions, but in the most cases solve problems different ways.

Programmer’s platforms and tools affect our mindset in three ways:

  • Tools could prevent normal flow of idea implementation. Inconvenient tools, cumbersome environments and long feedback cycles stagnate productivity and lead us to the path of the least resistance, often far from optimal.
  • Tools could make ineffective implementation strategies more attractive, affecting how we frame customer ideas. For example, UI-oriented programming environments could shift programmer’s mind to think about the problem in terms of screen elements and UI events (Smart UI) instead of reflecting in the code domain concepts, relations and ideas (Domain Driven Design).
  • Tools could shift focus to the implementation perspective from the big picture and broader context of the problem at hand. Narrow focus on implementation and technology has negative impact. Often redefinition of the problem, analysis of alternatives or refining of concepts could bring much better results. Inexperienced programmers (and even experienced) often get into this trap, concentrating on tools the same way as novice drivers are more concentrated on the handling a car instead of observing the road and finding the better way.

What qualities should effective programmer tools have?

  • Usability – enhance flow of programmer’s ideas or at least don’t impede and interrupt this flow. Tools should be convenient, easy-to-use and aligned with the way programmers work. Programmers should put most of their mental energy to think about customer ideas and much less how to deal with these tools.
  • Representation – enable easy for understanding and modification representation of the structure, ideas and domain concepts in the code. Tools should provide a convenient solution view, organization and navigation for understanding, parsing and manipulation with components, classes, relations and concepts. Modern source-based project organization could benefit from tools like Resharper. Martin Fowler blogged about more radical approaches as repository-based code and Language Workbenches. UML, MDA and code auto-generation tools didn’t prove to be useful for effective code representation.
  • Agile development friendly – support evolutionary design, short delivery cycles, refactoring, unit testing and other agile practices.

What do you think? What are the best tools for the programmer to enhance concentration on the problem, unobtrusive flow of thoughts and effective implementation of ideas?

Link: Symbolic Manipulators Affect Mathematical Mindsets, Thomas J. Bing, Edward F. Redish

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[…] always thought that we built tools to take boring repetitive parts of the work and automate it. How Tools Frame Programmer’s Mindset has a very different view. Definitely something to think […]

Pingback by LinkLog: Software « Dorai’s LearnLog | February 29, 2008 12:31 am

I think the golden rule is to for tools that programmers barely notice they are using. For example intellisense is so ubiquitous that I find I miss it when writing word documents. This also fits nicely as it’s a tool that can be ignored if needed. When something can be ignored, but you can intuitively start using to increase productivity gets my vote.

Comment by Doolwind | May 7, 2008 6:19 am

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