Thursday 17 March 2016

The creative process of software development

This week I faced a technical challenge. One of the modules of an application I have developed didn't behave as expected. Well, in one scenario it works as expected, but it fails miserably in another.

So I started isolating and debugging the code the find the root cause. It's a pretty small application so that didn't take very long. But looking at and playing with the code didn't provide me with an easy solution. It felt like a brick wall. All kinds of complex possibilities kept popping up in my head but they all felt out of place. Big. Clunky. Inappropriate for this particular problem.

I was nearing the end of the day so I decided I'd go home and have a good night's sleep. Usually just taking my mind off a problem gives me the answer. Amazing how the brain works!
While it did give me some new insights I still couldn't mold them into a simple, elegant solution.

Had a couple of meetings. Had lunch. More new insights. Still no solution.

That's when I decided I had to really take a step back and take a different approach. So I closed my laptop, took pen and paper, put on some good acoustic rock and started to design this piece from scratch. Withing 30 minutes I came up with a solution that satisfied my search for elegance and simplicity. Within another hour I developed and tested this solution.

So in the end it took me about 90 minutes to design, implement and test this new solution. Should I have started with and pen and paper in the first place? I don't think so. Because I was working at it for about a day already and had a couple of good new insights I had a pretty good view on the various use cases and requirements. Without this previous investigation I wouldn't have gotten to the solution I have now.

Where would I have gotten if this didn't work either? I would have probably started drafting a question on StackOverflow. Drafting a good question takes a lot of thought and preparation. You have to really understand the problem to be able to ask a proper question. And in this process lies the answer. Only a fraction of the questions I want to ask on SO actually end up being asked. Most of the time I come to a solution myself just by the process of investigating the problem to form the question.

The takeaway for me here is that it is indeed a creative process. Sometimes you have to step back to see things clearly. And that is almost always worthwile to research further before implementing that big, ugly solution. Because usually it can be solved more elegantly. And that always pays off in the long run.

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