Career and skills advice

It feels a little odd even to write this post, but I receive quite a few emails asking me for advice on how to get better at programming, how to get through interviews, whether it’s better to be a generalist or a specialist etc. I want to make it very clear right from the start, I am not a career guidance expert. I have very little evidence that this is good advice, and it may well not be good advice for you even if it’s good advice in general. Oh, and don’t expect anything shockingly insightful or original, either. You may well have heard much or all of this advice before.

So, with those caveats out of the way, my random thoughts…

Communication, communication, communication

Software is all about communication, whether you’re writing a design document, answering questions on Stack Overflow, giving a talk at a user conference, being grilled at an interview, or simply writing code. In fact, writing code is about communicating with two different audiences at the same time: the computer (compiler, interpreter, whatever) and whoever is going to read and maintain the code in the future.

In fact, I see improved communication as one of the primary benefits of Stack Overflow. Every time you ask or answer a question, that’s an opportunity to practise communicating with other developers. Is your post as clear as it can be? Does it give just the right amount of information – nothing extraneous, but everything that’s relevant – in a coherent way? Does it strike the right tone with the reader, suppressing any frustration you may currently be feeling either at the problem you’re facing or the perceived flaws in someone you’re replying to?

Stack Overflow is just one way you can improve your communication skills, of course. There are many others:

  • Write a blog, even if you think no-one will read it. You may be surprised. If you write about something you find interesting – and put time into writing about it well – it’s very likely that someone else will find it interesting too. If you enjoy this enough, consider writing a book – there are plenty of options for publication these days, from traditional publishers to online-only approaches.
  • Find opportunities to give presentations, whether that’s at user groups, conferences, or at work. I do realise that not everyone likes presenting to large groups of people, even if I find that frame of mind hard to empathise with. (Who wouldn’t want to be the centre of attention? Yes, I really am that shallow.)
  • Take pride in your communication within code. Spend a little bit longer on documentation and comments than you might do normally, and really try to think about what someone reading it might be trying to discover. (Also think about what they ought to know about even if they weren’t aware that they needed to know it.)
  • Read a lot, and reflect on it. While we’re used to commenting on the quality of fiction and perhaps blog posts, we don’t tend to consciously consider the quality of other written work. Next time you’re reading the documentation of some library you’re using, take a moment to ask yourself how effective it is and what contributes to the quality (or lack thereof).

You may well find that improving your communication also improves your thought processes. Clarity of ideas and clarity of expression often go hand in hand.

Coding and reflecting

Write code and then look back on it – ideally after significantly different periods of time. Code that appears "cool" today can feel immature or self-serving six months later.

Of course there are different kinds of code written under different constraints. You may find that if you’re already a professional software engineer, you aren’t given enough time for critical evaluation… but you may have the benefit of code reviews from your peers. (Code reviews can often be regarded as a chore, but if you approach them in the right frame of mind, you can learn a lot.) If you’re contributing to an open source project – or perhaps creating one from scratch – then you may find you have more opportunity to try multiple approaches, and look back at the code you’ve written in the past.

Reading other people’s code can be helpful too, though I find this is one of those activities which is more talked about than actually done.

Specialist or generalist?

Eric Lippert has written about how he was given advice to pick a subject and become a world expert on it, and I think there’s a lot of sense in that. On the other hand, you don’t want to be so constrained to a niche area of knowledge that you can move in the wider world. There’s a balance to be struck here: I’m a "generalist" in terms of having relatively few skills in specific business domains, but I’m a "specialist" in terms of having spent significant time studying C# and Java from a language perspective. Similarly I’m very restricted in terms of which aspects of software I’m actually competent at: I’d like to think I’m reasonable at library or server-side code, but my experience of UI development (whether that’s web or native client) are severely limited. I’m also familiar with fewer languages than I’d like to be.

You’ll need to work out what’s right for you here – but it’s worth doing so consciously rather than simply drifting. Of course, making deliberate decisions isn’t the same thing as executing them: a few months ago I decided it would be fun to explicitly concentrate on application development for a while (WPF, Windows Store, Android and iOS via Xamarin) but so far there have been precious few results.

Sometimes people ask me which technologies are good in terms of employment. That can be a very local question, but my experience is that it doesn’t really matter too much. If you find something you’re passionate about, then whatever you learn from that will often be useful in a more mundane but profitable environment. Technology changes fast enough that you’re almost certainly going to have to learn several languages and platforms over your career, so you might as well make at least some of those choices fun ones.

Interviews

A lot of advice has been written about interviews by people with far more experience than myself. I haven’t actually been an interviewee very often, although I’ve now conducted quite a few interviews. A few general bits of advice though:

  • Don’t exaggerate too much on your CV. If you claim you’re an expert in a language and then forget how to write a method declaration, that leaves a bad impression.
  • Find out what the company is looking for beforehand, and what the interview is likely to consist of. Are you likely to be asked to code on a whiteboard or in a text editor? If so, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to practise that – it feels quite different to writing code in an IDE. If you’re likely to be asked questions about algorithmic complexity but university feels like a long time ago, brush up on that a bit.
  • Be interesting! This often comes down to being passionate about something – anything, really. If the only motivation you can give is "I’m bored with my current job" without saying what you’d find interesting, that won’t go down well.
  • Listen carefully to what the interviewer asks you. If they specifically say to ignore one aspect of coding (validation, performance, whatever it might be) then don’t justify your answer using one of those aspects. By all means mention it, but be driven by the guidance of what the interviewer has specified as important. (The balance may well shift through the interview, as the interviewer tries to evaluate you on multiple criteria.)
  • Communicate as clearly as you can, even while you’re thinking. I love it when a candidate explains their thinking as they’re working through a difficult problem. I can see where their mind leads them, how intuitive or methodical they are, where they may have weaknesses – and I can guide them with hints. It can be worth taking a few seconds to work out the best way of vocalising your thoughts though. Oh, and if you do write on a whiteboard, try to make it legible.

Conclusion

So that’s about it – Jon’s entirely subjective guide to a fun and profitable software engineering career. If you choose to act on some of this advice, I sincerely hope it turns out well for you, but I make no guarantees whatsoever. Best of luck either way!

Casting vs "as" – embracing exceptions

(I’ve ended up commenting on this issue on Stack Overflow quite a few times, so I figured it would be worth writing a blog post to refer to in the future.)

There are lots of ways of converting values from one type to another – either changing the compile-time type but actually keeping the value the same, or actually changing the value (for example converting int to double). This post will not go into all of those – it would be enormous – just two of them, in one specific situation.

The situation we’re interested in here is where you have an expression (typically a variable) of one reference type, and you want an expression with a different compile-time type, without changing the actual value. You just want a different "view" on a reference. The two options we’ll look at are casting and using the "as" operator. So for example:

object x = "foo"
string cast = (string) x; 
string asOperator = x as string;

The major differences between these are pretty well-understood:

  • Casting is also used for other conversions (e.g. between value types); "as" is only valid for reference type expressions (although the target type can be a nullable value type)
  • Casting can invoke user-defined conversions (if they’re applicable at compile-time); "as" only ever performs a reference conversion
  • If the actual value of the expression is a non-null reference to an incompatible type, casting will throw an InvalidCastException whereas the "as" operator will result in a null value instead

The last point is the one I’m interested in for this post, because it’s a highly visible symptom of many developers’ allergic reaction to exceptions. Let’s look at a few examples.

Use case 1: Unconditional dereferencing

First, let’s suppose we have a number of buttons all with the same event handler attached to them. The event handler should just change the text of the button to "Clicked". There are two simple approaches to this:

void HandleUsingCast(object sender, EventArgs e) 

    Button button = (Button) sender; 
    button.Text = "Clicked"
}

void HandleUsingAs(object sender, EventArgs e) 

    Button button = sender as Button; 
    button.Text = "Clicked"
}

(Obviously these aren’t the method names I’d use in real code – but they’re handy for differentiating between the two approaches within this post.)

In both cases, when the value of "sender" genuinely refers to a Button instance, the code will function correctly. Likewise when the value of "sender" is null, both will fail with a NullReferenceException on the second line. However, when the value of "sender" is a reference to an instance which isn’t compatible with Button, the two behave differently:

  • HandleUsingCast will fail on the first line, throwing a InvalidCastException which includes information about the actual type of the object
  • HandleUsingAs will fail on the second line with a NullReferenceException

Which of these is the more useful behaviour? It seems pretty unambiguous to me that the HandleUsingCast option provides significantly more information, but still I see the code from HandleUsingAs in examples on Stack Overflow… sometimes with the rationale of "I prefer to use as instead of a cast to avoid exceptions." There’s going to be an exception anyway, so there’s really no good reason to use "as" here.

Use case 2: Silently ignoring invalid input

Sometimes a slight change is proposed to the above code, checking for the result of the "as" operator not being null:

void HandleUsingAs(object sender, EventArgs e) 

    Button button = sender as Button; 
    if (button != null
    { 
        button.Text = "Clicked"
    } 
}

Now we really don’t have an exception. We can do this with the cast as well, using the "is" operator:

void HandleUsingCast(object sender, EventArgs e) 

    if (sender is Button) 
    { 
        Button button = (Button) sender; 
        button.Text = "Clicked"
    } 
}

These two methods now behave the same way, but here I genuinely prefer the "as" approach. Aside from anything else, it’s only performing a single execution-time type check, rather than checking once with "is" and then once again with the cast. There are potential performance implications here, but in most cases they’d be insignificant – it’s the principle of the thing that really bothers me. Indeed, this is basically the situation that the "as" operator was designed for. But is it an appropriate design to start with?

In this particular case, it’s very unlikely that we’ll have a non-Button sender unless there’s been a coding error somewhere. For example, it’s unlikely that bad user input or network resource issues would lead to entering this method with a sender of (say) a TextBox. So do you really want to silently ignore the problem? My personal view is that the response to a detected coding error should almost always be an exception which either goes completely uncaught or which is caught at some "top level", abandoning the current operation as cleanly as possible. (For example, in a client application it may well be appropriate to terminate the app; in a web application we wouldn’t want to terminate the server process, but we’d want to abort the processing of the problematic request.) Fundamentally, the world is not in a state which we’ve really considered: continuing regardless could easily make things worse, potentially losing or corrupting data.

If you are going to ignore a requested operation involving an unexpected type, at least clearly log it – and then ensure that any such logs are monitored appropriately:

void HandleUsingAs(object sender, EventArgs e) 

    Button button = sender as Button; 
    if (button != null
    { 
        button.Text = "Clicked"
    } 
    else 
    { 
        // Log an error, potentially differentiating between
        // a null sender and input of a non-Button sender.
    } 
}

Use case 3: consciously handling input of an unhelpful type

Despite the general thrust of the previous use case, there certainly are cases where it makes perfect sense to use "as" to handle input of a type other than the one you’re really hoping for. The simplest example of this is probably equality testing:

public sealed class Foo : IEquatable<Foo> 

    // Fields, of course

    public override bool Equals(object obj) 
    { 
        return Equals(obj as Foo); 
    } 

    public bool Equals(Foo other) 
    { 
        // Note: use ReferenceEquals if you overload the == operator
        if (other == null
        { 
            return false
        } 
        // Now compare the fields of this and other for equality appropriately.
    } 

    // GetHashCode etc
}

(I’ve deliberately sealed Foo to avoid having to worry about equality between subclasses.)

Here we know that we really do want to deal with both null and "non-null, non-Foo" references in the same way from Equals(object) – we want to return false. The simplest way of handling that is to delegate to the Equals(Foo) method which needs to handle nullity but doesn’t need to worry about non-Foo reference.

We’re knowingly anticipating the possibility of Equals(object) being called with a non-Foo reference. The documentation for the method explicitly states what we’re meant to do; this does not necessarily indicate a programming error. We could implement Equals with a cast, of course:

public override bool Equals(object obj) 

    return obj is Foo && Equals((Foo) obj); 
}

… but I dislike that for the same reasons as I disliked the cast in use case 2.

Use case 4: deferring or delegating the decision

This is the case where we pass the converted value on to another method or constructor, which is likely to store the value for later use. For example:

public Person CreatePersonWithCast(object firstName, object lastName) 

    return new Person((string) firstName, (string) lastName); 
}

public Person CreatePersonWithAs(object firstName, object lastName) 

    return new Person(firstName as string, lastName as string); 
}

In some ways use case 3 was a special case of this, where we knew what the Equals(Foo) method would do with a null reference. In general, however, there can be a significant delay between the conversion and some definite impact. It may be valid to use null for one or both arguments to the Person constructor – but is that really what you want to achieve? Is some later piece of code going to assume they’re non-null?

If the constructor is going to validate its parameters and check they’re non-null, we’re essentially back to use case 1, just with ArgumentNullException replacing NullReferenceException: again, it’s cleaner to use the cast and end up with InvalidCastException before we have the chance for anything else to go wrong.

In the worst scenario, it’s really not expected that the caller will pass null arguments to the Person constructor, but due to sloppy validation the Person is constructed with no errors. The code may then proceed to do any number of things (some of them irreversible) before the problem is spotted. In this case, there may be lasting data loss or corruption and if an exception is eventually thrown, it may be very hard to trace the problem to the original CreatePersonWithAs parameter value not being a string reference.

Use case 5: taking advantage of "optional" functionality

This was suggested by Stephen Cleary in comments, and is an interesting reversal of use case 3. The idea is basically that if you know an input implements a particular interface, you can take a different – usually optimized – route to implement your desired behaviour. LINQ to Objects does this a lot, taking advantage of the fact that while IEnumerable<T> itself doesn’t provide much functionality, many collections implement other interfaces such as ICollection<T>. So the implementation of Count() might include something like this:

ICollection<T> collection = source as ICollection<T>;
if (collection != null)
{
    return collection.Count;
}
// Otherwise do it the long way (GetEnumerator / MoveNext)

Again, I’m fine with using "as" here.

Conclusion

I have nothing against the "as" operator, when used carefully. What I dislike is the assumption that it’s "safer" than a cast, simply because in error cases it doesn’t throw an exception. That’s more dangerous behaviour, as it allows problems to propagate. In short: whenever you have a reference conversion, consider the possibility that it might fail. What sort of situation might cause that to occur, and how to you want to proceed?

  • If everything about the system design reassures you that it really can’t fail, then use a cast: if it turns out that your understanding of the system is wrong, then throwing an exception is usually preferable to proceeding in a context you didn’t anticipate. Bear in mind that a null reference can be successfully cast to any nullable type, so a cast can never replace a null check.
  • If it’s expected that you really might receive a reference of the "wrong" type, then think how you want to handle it. Use the "as" operator and then test whether the result was null. Bear in mind that a null result doesn’t always mean the original value was a reference of a different type – it could have been a null reference to start with. Consider whether or not you need to differentiate those two situations.
  • If you really can’t be bothered to really think things through (and I hope none of my readers are this lazy), default to using a cast: at least you’ll notice if something’s wrong, and have a useful stack trace.

As a side note, writing this post has made me consider (yet again) the various types of "exception" situations we run into. At some point I may put enough thought into how we could express our intentions with regards to these situations more clearly – until then I’d recommend reading Eric Lippert’s taxonomy of exceptions, which has certainly influenced my thinking.