You don’t need the tool

When I was a young programmer, a colleague was writing an engine-test system to run on a minicomputer. The only available high-level language was FORTRAN II.

Edsger Dijkstra had just published his “Go-to statement considered harmful” paper, and there was much talk about how you could not code in FORTRAN without GOTOs, since it was not a block-structured language. (Modern FORTRAN is a completely different story. As they say, “It’s not your grandfather’s FORTRAN.”)

Unconcerned, my colleague designed his programs using Nassi-Shneiderman structured flowcharts, and coded them using GOTOs only to build the structured-programming constructs he needed. Higher-level languages had block-structured constructs built in, which made structured programming easier, but given sufficient desire and self-discipline, it was possible to achieve similar results. (I used this approach for many years in coding assembly language.)

Object-oriented languages brought us encapsulation, where you can instantiate a class and call its methods, without ever being able to see its internal data. In 1967, George Dodd, of General Motors Research Labs, developed a package called APL (“Associative Programming Language”) for processing computer-graphics data. (Within GM, when someone mentioned APL, the listener immediately responded “Dodd’s or Iverson’s?”) Upon first calling APL, you were given a handle, which you passed in on subsequent calls. The data structures APL used were pointed to by the handle, but they were opaque to the caller. This was encapsulation, a dozen years before Bjarne Stroustrup started his work on C++.

A few years ago I wrote some new code for an assembly-language system, and I wanted to use Test-Driven Development. There was nothing like JUnit or NUnit or UUnit available for assembly language, so I wrote my own simple test harness, and structured my internal routines to facilitate independent testing. I was amazed by the number of small errors I caught during the red-green-refactor process and was happy to discover them now, rather than waiting for a customer to find them. The benefits were definitely worth the effort, even though I would have preferred to use a higher-level language.

In all these cases, it was possible to get by without modern tools. No doubt, tools can make things easier. When you code in an object-oriented language, your focus stays on the problem being solved and the structure of the solution, without getting distracted by which hardware instruction to use (something that modern compilers are more qualified to judge than we are). Test runners like JUnit, NUnit and UUnit take the drudgery out of unit testing, making TDD much smoother. But they are just tools.

Sometimes I think about the cartoons I watched as a child. Today, computers can take a starting and ending pose and fill in all the frames in-between. Back then, each frame, 24 per second, was drawn by hand. It is hard to imagine anything more tedious. But with all that drudgery, they were still able to tell stories.

Tools are good, because they help eliminate mistakes and remove drudgery. Any time you can remove drudgery, you reduce the risk that you will say “I’m really busy, I’ll just skip the tests this one time.” But you don’t always need them.

This applies to agile development tools as well as engineering tools. I get unhappy whenever I hear a Scrum team say “We can’t do this because Version One, or Rally, or RTC, doesn’t support it.” The tool’s job is to make our work easier and better, if we have to bend up what we do to suit the tool, the tool is not doing it’s job, and we need to find, or make, a different tool.

Remember, it’s just a tool.


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