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7 timeless lessons of programming 'graybeards'

Peter Wayner | March 10, 2015
Heed the wisdom of your programming elders, or suffer the consequences of fundamentally flawed code.

In one episode 1.06 of the HBO series "Silicon Valley," Richard, the founder of a startup, gets into a bind and turns for help to a boy who looks 13 or 14.

The boy genius takes one look at Richard and says, "I thought you'd be younger. What are you, 25?"

"26," Richard replies.

"Yikes."

The software industry venerates the young. If you have a family, you're too old to code. If you're pushing 30 or even 25, you're already over the hill.

Alas, the whippersnappers aren't always the best solution. While their brains are full of details about the latest, trendiest architectures, frameworks, and stacks, they lack fundamental experience with how software really works and doesn't. These experiences come only after many lost weeks of frustration borne of weird and inexplicable bugs.

Like the viewers of "Silicon Valley," who by the end of episode 1.06 get the satisfaction of watching the boy genius crash and burn, many of us programming graybeards enjoy a wee bit of schadenfraude when those who have ignored us for being "past our prime" end up with a flaming pile of code simply because they didn't listen to their programming elders.

In the spirit of sharing or to simply wag a wise finger at the young folks once again, here are several lessons that can't be learned by jumping on the latest hype train for a few weeks. They are known only to geezers who need two hexadecimal digits to write their age.

Memory matters

It wasn't so long ago that computer RAM was measured in megabytes not gigabytes. When I built my first computer (a Sol-20), it was measured in kilobytes. There were about 64 RAM chips on that board and each had about 18 pins. I don't recall the exact number, but I remember soldering every last one of them myself. When I messed up, I had to resolder until the memory test passed.

When you jump through hoops like that for RAM, you learn to treat it like gold. Kids today allocate RAM left and right. They leave pointers dangling and don't clean up their data structures because memory seems cheap. They know they click on a button and the hypervisor adds another 16GB to the cloud instance. Why should anyone programming today care about RAM when Amazon will rent you an instance with 244GB?

But there's always a limit to what the garbage collector will do, exactly as there's a limit to how many times a parent will clean up your room. You can allocate a big heap, but eventually you need to clean up the memory. If you're wasteful and run through RAM like tissues in flu season, the garbage collector could seize up grinding through that 244GB.

 

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