Debugging is a critical skill. More important than the skill is the mindset. The debugger’s mindset is the attitude that you must always understand the why behind a problem; any ambiguities or unknowns are unacceptable. This mindset has the potential to carry you from debugging small functions to solving difficult organizational issues.
The Virtuous Cycle Of Debugging and Understanding
There is a virtuous cycle between debugging a program and understanding a program. 95% of time, you’ll be contributing to a pre-existing codebase. In order to make coherent changes to a repository with a long history and numerous authors, you need put in work to understand the system.
A tried and true way of expanding your understanding is through debugging. Every time you squash a bug, you understand the system a little better. Once you understand the system a little better, you are empowered to debug larger issues. Once you solve larger issues, you begin to understand deeper nuances of the code. This creates a virtuous cycle where both your debugging skills and your comprehension build on each other.
This virtuous cycle is your only option. If you fail to debug a small issue, you have failed to understand a scoped area of the code. Without a basic understanding of the system, you’ll lack the support structures for any further understanding. As the system evolves, you will find it harder and harder to keep up.
Be Scientific About It
Debugging is a science. It’s not guessing. It’s not throwing log statements in random locations. To debug effectively, you need a method. Your actions must be deliberate, your hypotheses must be proven (or disproven), and you must conclusively arrive at solutions.
If you work alongside experienced developers, you may get the impression that they can naturally and effortlessly debug anything. You may feel that they work by intuition rather than science. It’s difficult to pinpoint why their methods are so effective. How can this be?
This “intuition” is just experience. After putting years of coding under your belt, you will begin to leverage past experiences to find heuristics in debugging. You’ll see the same problem manifest itself across many projects. This intuition is the culmination of years spent methodically squashing bugs.
Debugging Has Its Own Scope
Debugging a bug in application code is very different than debugging a complicated distributed system. Similar to your projects, debugging has varying degrees of scope.
When you first start debugging, you will begin by fixing issues in your local domain. This might be checking for an extra edge case or preventing a particular runtime exception. If you’re doing this on a regular basis, it won’t be long before you start debugging larger issues.
As you gain more experience, you will begin to compartmentalize information. You’ll move specific modules into black boxes, each with their specific inputs and outputs. You will begin to focus on interfaces and integrations. You will skim through implementations, only taking a deeper look out of curiosity.
With a growing level of mental organization, the scope of your debugging abilities will increase. You’ll be able to consistently perform process of elimination across a variety of possibilities. You’ll be able to quickly isolate issues to specific modules. Most importantly, you’ll be able to offer robust, practical solutions for the system.
Debugging Skills Extend into Organization Problems
Your debugging skills will extend to different domains. A debugger’s mindset can give you a more sophisticated product sense, assist you with managerial duties, and even enable you to improve business outcomes. No matter which direction you decide to steer your career, debugging is critical.
For example, if you go down the engineering manager’s path, there will be times where you need to debug a dysfunctional team. Similar to a software defect, you must be scientific and diagnose why the team isn’t operating well. The project might be lacking adequate product specification, or perhaps two team members are butting heads. As a manager, you will need to debug organizational issue with the same attitude that you handle software bugs. This means attend extra meetings, reading through contentious code reviews, or taking the extra time to speak with engineers. It’s a different kind of debugging, but it’s still debugging.
The debugger’s mindset is crucial. You must always understand the “why” behind any problem; anything less is unacceptable. This mindset will enable you to solve a variety of problems, constantly reinforce your understanding, and allow you to implement robust solutions. As for your career, these skills will assist you from handling edge cases in functions, to analyzing nuanced system failures, to fixing organizational inefficiencies.