Grumpy about Textbooks

September 20, 2016

I definitely need to do more research but I don’t feel that there is a really solid textbook on software engineering. I use Steve McConnell’s Code Complete (second edition) and Making Software for readings.

These are both pretty good. Code Complete is a bible for many people (not for me!) but regardless it’s definitely on a “you should read this if you are a software engineer” list. It has a few problems though:

  1. It’s not written with courses in mind, as far as I can tell. It introduces a lot of stuff and sometimes in a helpful order, but other times not. The “learning objects” are not clear at all.
  2. It’s not super well written. You get a lot of interesting lists (e.g., of program qualities) but they are often not coherent, have some redundancies, are are perfunctorily designed. These often feel revelatory on a first read but if you try to work with them you get a bit grumpy. For example, we have 4 kinds of tests: unit, component, integration, and system. Unit and component test bits of the same size: a unit. The difference is whether the unit is maintained by one team (thus a unit test) or more than one team (a component test). This is bonkers. It’s esp. bonkers to compare with integration or system tests. It could be part of an interesting axis (who’s the owner vs. who’s writing the tests). But there are much better frameworks out there.
  3. It’s a bit dated. The second edition came out in 2004 and is thus 12 years old. This doesn’t invalidate it per se, but given that the book itself has a prominent discussion of the need for life long learning because the fundamentals of software engineering keep changing, it’s a problem. I’d prefer something other than Basic as the “other” example language.
  4. It pretends to focus on code construction, but has just enough architecture, etc. to be almost a reasonably complete text. But the scattershot approach is a bit disorienting.

If you read it cover to cover and absorbed it all with an appropriately skeptical eye and organised it appropriately, then you’d be in great shape.

My pal Mark suggested reoriented on The Pragmatic Programmer, which is another classic and definitely on the must read list. But a lot of my concerns apply to it too. (That there’s a basic divide between those pushing Code Complete and those pushing the Pragmatic Programmer is interesting. The lines I’ve seen is that Code Complete aspires to be encyclopaedic and the Pragmatic Programmer is more opinionated and thus effective. Roughly. They both feel scattered to me.)

I could try both (not this year!). I could go with Pragmatic Programmer because it’s smaller and thus they could possibly read the whole thing.

But neither feel satisfactory as a textbook. The systematicity and pedagogic logic just don’t seem to be there. So I’m left imposing some order on them.

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