Accidentally in Code

10 Tips for Beginner Programmers

Posted on: November 8, 2009

This week I’ve spent a lot of time debugging other people’s code, and we had some fun bugs in class too. This was my favorite bug (I refused to fix it, but she worked out how). I’ve helped people in C, VB, and Maple – none of which are my favorite languages (I didn’t know Maple at all), and don’t have the great debugging capabilities of Java in Eclipse. As a result, I’ve come up with some tips for beginner programmers as a result of the common errors I’ve seen.

  1. Don’t take your code not running personally. Your code (or your instructor) is not out to get you! Debugging requires calm and rational thinking, the more you get upset that your code isn’t working, the less able you’ll be to fix it.
  2. Google is your friend. Lots of people learning to code have had the exact same problems you’ve had, if you can search you’ll often find potential solutions (just be careful – they may not be good, or exactly what you’re looking for). Online is also where you may be able to find that function you need.
  3. Read error messages. I’m losing track of the number of times that someone calls me over to look at a program, shows me how a compilation error pops up and then hits enter before I can read it. Read the error messages! Even if you can’t fix them yet, once you’ve learned what they mean you’ll know what to look for and be better able to fix them in the future.
  4. What are you declaring and why? Think about your variables – what to you need? What do they do? The type of the variable (String/Integer/Boolean etc) is important.
  5. Frame your problem in terms of behavior. If someone frames their problem well, I know exactly what kind of bug I’m looking for. Explain it briefly, then let me look at the code.
  6. Print statements! So useful to see what’s going on inside in the code. Don’t be afraid to use them – you can always delete them later.
  7. Small things can cause big problems. My friend spent hours trying to fix something in her code yesterday – the problem? She was using assignment equals (=) rather than logical equals (==) in an if statement (you can do this in C). Small distinctions can be really important – pay attention to them.
  8. Turn the monitor off. A blank text-editor filling your screen can distract you from the problem itself. Writing code should be the last step in solving the problem – not the first. Turn off the monitor, think about the problem, and break it down into it’s component parts. Then code it in the parts (but don’t be afraid to break them down again if necessary).
  9. The computer will do exactly what you tell it to do, in exactly the order you tell it. A lot of people forget this, but it’s so important. When the computer is not behaving the way you want it to, reflect on this. It’s important to be clear on what you want to happen first, or what you want to repeat (or don’t want to repeat) in a loop, for example.
  10. If you’re lucky enough to have a TA or friend willing to help you – take advantage of that!

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know!

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