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Ask Slashdot: Transitioning From 'Hacker' To 'Engineer'? 446

antifoidulus writes "I'm about to get my masters in Computer Science and start out (again) in the 'real world.' I already have a job lined up, but there is one thing that is really nagging me. Since my academic work has focused almost solely on computer science and not software engineering per se, I'm really still a 'hacker,' meaning I take a problem, sketch together a rough solution using the appropriate CS algorithms, and then code something up (using a lot of prints to debug). I do some basic testing and then go with it. Obviously, something like that works quite well in the academic environment, but not in the 'real world.' Even at my previous job, which was sort of a jack-of-all-trades (sysadmin, security, support, and programming), the testing procedures were not particularly rigorous, and as a result I don't think I'm really mature as an 'engineer.' So my question to the community is: how do you make the transition from hacker (in the positive sense) to a real engineer. Obviously the 'Mythical Man Month' is on the reading list, but would you recommend anything else? How do you get out of the 'hacker' mindset?"
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Ask Slashdot: Transitioning From 'Hacker' To 'Engineer'?

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  • Reading List (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:16AM (#38887333)

    Add Code Complete to the reading list as well as The Pragmatic Programmer

    • Re:Reading List (Score:5, Interesting)

      by dutchd00d ( 823703 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @03:41AM (#38888345) Homepage

      Add Code Complete to the reading list as well as The Pragmatic Programmer

      Replace Code Complete with "The Practice of Programming" by Kernighan and Pike (yes, that Kernighan. Yes, that Pike) and you've got something. You can keep Code Complete for when you can't sleep (IMHO, YMMV).

    • Re:Reading List (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Chatsubo ( 807023 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @04:24AM (#38888575)

      I scrolled down just to see if someone suggested Pragmatic Programmer, AC deserves a +1 billion mod. If you read just this one book, and apply it, you'll be head and shoulders above most of the industry in one foul swoop.

      Secondly, you already know this answer by the way you phrase your question: Stop doing prints for debugging and use a debugger, that's it's job. You'll remove years of pain and anguish from your working life. Anecdotally: our "debug by print" hire gave up trying to keep up with the "debugger guys" after only a few months and left the company voluntarily, despite our suggestion that his debugging methodology is painfully slow.

      Test driven development. Hackers say "but it takes more time to write the tests", I say: "But it saves me a butt-load of time tomorrow, it's a net win that will keep on giving". Moreover, TDD tends to result in cleaner designs anyway. I take this a bit further: If I have to write a new concept into a huge system, be it big or small, the first thing I do is write a smaller test with the new concept, iron out all the bugs and kinks until I understand the problem and solution properly, only then I dig into the "big code". Once again it's about saving myself time and headaches. (and, of course, try to write a module or component I could re-use in a similar situation)

      Learn as much as possible about dependencies. Also the difference between library code and application code, and what bits of code go into which of these. (Pragmatic Programmer's "do not repeat yourself")

      Basically your thinking has to shift from the short term to the long term: "I have to maintain this, possibly for many years to come, lets save my future self a lot of pain by doing some planning and doing things right the first time" (yet more pragmatic programmer).

      Anything you get on this post though, is going to be a bit of a "learn C++ in 21 days" thing. We can tell you all about what we've learned and you can try to assimilate it all, but at the end of the day to get 10 years experience you usually need.... 10 years, but not the kind of 1 year x 10 experience lots of folks have. I found it very hard at first to "catch up" with mountains of information being shoved down my throat all at once, but...

      Find a good environment above all else. Work with and for people who are highly experienced, highly critical, and aren't afraid to show it. Work with people who will gladly review all your code and blast it to bits for you. This is emotionally uncomfortable but pushes you up a steep learning curve very quickly. Programming can be a very social and cooperative learning activity in the right environment (look up agile while we're here). I'd say that way you can gain 2 years experience for every 1 on the job, possibly more. The trick is to tell the guys you shouldn't be listening to from the ones you should, and it may take a job-hop or two to find them.

      • Re:Reading List (Score:5, Interesting)

        by snowgirl ( 978879 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @07:46AM (#38889559) Journal

        Debuggers work fine if you can run your code repeatedly. However, if you have a massive existing workflow that you're also supporting the tools for, then you want as extensive logging as is possible. This is also "debug by print". The big difference though, is that I can let it run all the time, and when something goes wrong, I can then pull up the log, and figure out what went wrong without having to start up a debugger, or redo the process at all... which is very important for intermittent bugs.

        All that said, while I tend to eschew debuggers, and use "debug by print", both do not accurately describe the way I debug. I white-box debug code. That is I read the code and understand how it works. Sometimes, I need to know which path was taken or not, and I add debug printing lines. Why do I do things like that? Because I tend to work with virtualization and emulation, where in for example, I had a bug with an emulator that only manifest its behavior a second after the bad opcode was executed. With a ~4 MHz processor being emulated, that means that about 1 million opcodes had executed (~4 cycles per opcode) prior to the the behavior manifesting itself. The behavior also only demonstrated itself at least about 4 million opcodes in. It's a needle in a haystack to find the correct point at which to break the debugger, and intractable to step through the debugger.

        Using a debugger is simply not always the best choice. It is commonly the best choice, but it certainly is not an omni-tool.

  • Other than possibly a more thorough job of testing, the only thing I would add is user acceptance testing. Does the program do what the user thinks it should?
  • Don't worry (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jawtheshark ( 198669 ) * <slashdot@ja w t h e s h a r k . com> on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:17AM (#38887349) Homepage Journal
    Don't worry. You don't seriously think you'll get to do any "software engineering" when you start, do you. You'll start -like everyone- programming fontends/GUIs, and let the more interesting parts to the more senior people.
  • Be a hacker (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cryfreedomlove ( 929828 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:17AM (#38887351)
    I'm not sure you should try to get out of the 'hacker' mindset. Iterative innovation and continuous integration is much more rewarding than any waterfall approach. Good luck and follow your heart.
    • by rachit ( 163465 )

      Not only that, but the pure fact that he realizes that what he's been doing isn't exactly the same as what you'd do in a regular job means that after few months at a "real job", he would be well on his way on being an "engineer".

  • Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Gorobei ( 127755 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:18AM (#38887357)

    If you can actually design a solution, throw together a suite of unit tests (that ideally show the basic API,) and deploy it to production, you are already ahead of 95% of the "software engineers."

    • by adolf ( 21054 )


      The guy is describing a process that actually produces things that work.

      He should just stick with that, adjusting as he goes and keeping an open mind. If a more complex process is needed to get a reliable and working result, it will avail itself.

    • Re:Huh? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by starfishsystems ( 834319 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:53AM (#38887681) Homepage
      Adding to this, I'd observe that most of the time, especially when starting out, you'll find that you have to work within the prevailing procedures and resources and organizational culture that define your workplace. If they do waterfall, guess what? You do waterfall.

      It's great to end up somewhere that wants you to lead the way forward, but even then you have to develop the social skill of bringing people along with you by earning their respect and trust. Most people want to see you "do it their way" first in order to prove yourself.
  • by mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:19AM (#38887371) Journal

    An "engineer" is somebody who takes the time to understand a problem, and creates something to solve that.

    Having done software from scales ranging from "quick shopping cart application" to enterprise scale organizational relationship management software, the only real difference between the two is that with the latter, you create a large number of smaller projects roughly the size of the aforementioned shopping cart application, except that the "users" are often other pieces of the same system. In larger systems, you'll be talking with other developers who have built or manage the pieces your parts will communicate with. You'll read more documentation, and it will be generally of higher quality than the shopping cart scripts.

    Don't *ever* lose the "hacker" mentality - exactly what you described is what software engineering is. The toughest part IMHO is getting to an understanding of what the end user actually needs. That's far and away harder than all the other stuff, which boils down to implementation details once you understand the algorithms.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:31AM (#38887469)

      I would add that the big difference between "hacking" and an engineering approach is a structured understanding of the problem. (As several people pointed out, you actually need an engineering degree and possibly a certification to be called an engineer.) Part of that involves using standard and well understood processes for problem solving, inventing and documenting new repeatable processes, measuring performance, and using that to inform the continued development of your processes.

      • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @02:16AM (#38887829)

        I would add that the big difference between "hacking" and an engineering approach is a structured understanding of the problem.

        I may assume that the CS masters study has taken care of that "structured understanding" part. In other words: hacker + CS degree = software engineer.

        • by claar ( 126368 )

          I've never been so glad to see something scored +5 Funny. Gives me hope in Slashdot again.

      • by Nursie ( 632944 )

        Let me know when the IEEE has come up with a certification for software engineers, and I'll take it.

        Until such time I'm going to continue to call myself a Software Engineer, because it's the title that one of the world's largest computer and tech firms gives me, and it's the role I perform.

        • MSCE et al (Score:4, Interesting)

          by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @03:47AM (#38888375)
          Go with it, just like the guys that call themselves Architects, Gurus, Batman or whatever, just don't try to pretend like some of the others above that it makes you equivalent to a professional engineer.
          I'm not an engineer. I used to be an engineer. I've worked in power stations, oil refineries, offices etc and helped educate engineering students at a university and been a member of IEAust and ASTM. However, due to a lack of jobs a bit over a decade ago and a career change now that I run the computer systems for a company and write a bit of code every now and again I'm not an engineer anymore. You can call yourself whatever you like and are perfectly justifed to use the title given to you but don't expect everyone to take it seriously, especially since professional engineers have a code of ethics that you do not have to stick to.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by sigmabody ( 1099541 )

      I'd upvote this more if I could. As someone who both codes for a living and hires engineers to do the same, what you are describing is exactly what I look for in an engineer. You can become familiar with more tools and methods, but at the end of the day, you [just] need to be able to solve problems well. The only additional challenge in the "real world" is breaking down larger problems, and solving them in "better" ways (ie: fits better with the rest of the system, is maintainable, is flexible, etc.).

    • An "engineer" is somebody who takes the time to understand a problem, and creates something to solve that.

      In an ideal world, you bet, the above is true.

      But we live in the real world, and in THIS real world that we live in, there are simply too many people who call themselves "engineer" who never take any time to understand any problem

      The many years I've lived in this real world tells me that I don't want to be known as an "Engineer" even when I am more qualified than 99.99% of those so-called "engineers" out there

  • Hacker vs engineer (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CruelKnave ( 1324841 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:20AM (#38887381)
    I never considered the two to be mutually exclusive.
  • Learn to bullshit about development methods like agile, waterfall, etc. Learn to estimate project costs before a project starts. Expect to spend lots of time making these estimates without getting paid for them only to be told that your estimate is too expensive and you've been beat out by some 'hacker' from Asia or Eastern Europe where the cost of living is a fraction of yours.

    If you play your cards right, you will graduate from programmer of the line to 'system architect' or something like that where yo

    • by rastos1 ( 601318 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @03:39AM (#38888327)

      or Eastern Europe where the cost of living is a fraction of yours.

      You know, things have changed in East Europe during last decades. Electricity 0.14 EUR/kWh here vs. 0.15$/kWh in USA. Gas 1.4 EUR/l vs 1$/l in USA (caused mostly by taxes but that doesn't matter). Chicken meat 2 EUR/kg vs 2$/kg in USA. House property 1300EUR/m2 in Slovakia [] vs 200$/m2 in USA [].

      Perhaps I've picked wrong sources or wrong goods. I challenge you to provide your numbers and I'll tell you the prices here (where the average income is less than 800EUR/month). I'm damn sure, that cost of living here is NOT a fraction of cost of living in US.

  • Good Start (Score:5, Informative)

    by orlanz ( 882574 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:21AM (#38887389)

    But really, that's for project management.

    1) Go read up on the industry standard IDEs & debuggers for the programming environment you will be working in.
    2) If your job is really consistent and stable (ie: Java programs day in day out), then go master your IDEs & debuggers. Learn their customization capabilities.
    3) Learn to organize your personal code library and build up your core tool set in a way that is functionally reusable and searchable.
    4) Learn to program your work in a way that adds to and complements #3.
    5) Learn to document your code and processes.
    6) Read a book on communicating to management (sry someone else will need to provide a good example), this will set you apart from your companions.

    I meant to give you my 2 cents, but dropped a nickle... keep it. Good luck.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Well.. You need to find some real good engineers to work with and learn from them. :)

    There are a lot of good coding examples open-source (Linux kernel) and you can learn from them too.. Practice makes things perfect.. Practice good coding habits.. Think more, code less, debug less. :)

    Good luck..

    ~Self-learned Jack of all trades

  • Predictability (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Okind ( 556066 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:24AM (#38887421) Homepage

    Being a software engineer instead of a hacker is all about predictability:

    • Predictable planning: have it done when you say it will be.
    • Software quality: use Test Driven Design to ensure your code behaves as it should.
    • Predictable deployments: practice and simplify deploying your code for systems.
    • Document the structure of your code, so the next guy knows what he's looking at.

    There's more to each of these items, of course, but it's all about making it simple (KISS) and predictable. This sets a software engineer apart from a mere hacker.

  • You get a job (Score:5, Insightful)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:25AM (#38887431) Journal
    For experience, there is no substitute for working 8 hours a day, week after week, trying to write programs and make them better. Always be thinking about how you can improve the program you are working on (even if you don't actually have the time to do it), and you will quickly improve.

    Even if you are just stuck debugging someone else's code (90% of what I've done over the last year), the process of doing that 1,600 hours a year will really improve your skills.
  • Well, other than know your shit and stop whining, I don't know. You haven't said what your title will be or what you will be doing. Maybe by learning operations as much as you can and about how things work today rather than try to design new pie in the sky systems. Everything needs to be gradual. Also, learn how to document for gods sakes. Try to keep things simple, yet effective. Re-use proven concepts. Managing projects is always a trade off a effectiveness and efficiency, many people forget when they des
  • by unity100 ( 970058 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:27AM (#38887437) Homepage Journal


    Since my academic work has focused almost solely on computer science and not software engineering per se, I'm really still a 'hacker,' meaning I take a problem, sketch together a rough solution using the appropriate CS algorithms, and then code something up (using a lot of prints to debug)

    this is what you will be doing throughout your entire career. time constraints, budget constraints, legal constraints, XYZ constraints - there will always be something effecting you to have to do it the hack way.

  • GOF Design Patterns (Score:4, Informative)

    by binarstu ( 720435 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:31AM (#38887461)
    I'd recommend reading the classic software design book Design Patterns by the "Gang of Four" (Gamma, Helm, Johnson and Vlissides). I know that "design patterns" has become something of an overused buzzword, but that book is without a doubt one of the best books about software architecture I have ever read. It helps you learn how to think about designing object-oriented software in ways that result in re-usable, understandable code. I don't think I really saw the power of good object-oriented design until I read Design Patterns.
  • by Sipper ( 462582 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:33AM (#38887481)

    I think the main difference between "hacker" and "engineer" is the level of detail and concerns on corner cases that you want your code to be able to handle and/or tolerate. Having worked as an engineer for some years, basically I boil down the job to three things -- 1) good clear communication of what the problem to solve actually is, 2) solving the problem such that the solution "meets spec", 3) trying to make sure that the solution continues to work within tolerance in any typical adverse conditions the solution needs to handle. Occasionally you may need to do some kind of formal verification that the solution will be wtihin tolerance in typical adverse conditions. With programming this verification might involve a test suite, code review, fuzzy input testing, memory leak testing, security audit, etc.

    But in your particular situation it sounds like you're going to learn what you need on your own on the job one way or the other, so for now I'd say just relax and figure out what you need when you get there. i.e. I think you might be over-thinking this right now. ;-)

  • This is purely anecdotal experience, but people from academia tend to write code that is a bit more "ugly" than seasoned "software engineers". By "ugly", I mean the code works, but it's relatively less readable and harder to maintain and extend.

    Other than that, it's pretty much the same thing, IMHO. There's nothing so magical/mythical about "software engineering", and practices between companies can be very different.

    • Sadly I think there is some truth to this.

      Writing clear, readable code that was modular and extensible doesn't mean too much in the academic world (unless writing the code in that way is your primary reason for writing the code).

      Looking back at some of the code I wrote as a student, as well as code from other students and faculty members that I encountered I have to admit that there was very little future-proofing involved. Rewrites were very common (due to code often being written to just do one thing).


  • When you work in a team, try to put yourself into other people shoe to try and understand how they see the project you are working on. This will let you learn about how software is perceived by others and the place it has in a business environment. It will also teach you to play nice with others, which is a great quality.
  • Get a mentor (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mia'cova ( 691309 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:35AM (#38887509)

    Find someone in your new office to show you the ropes. Every major piece of software tends to have its own issues. For server software you might be looking at analyzing piles of log output. For gaming it might be real time perf metrics. Chances are, the biggest thing to get comfortable with is your debugging->fixing->building->testing->checkin cycle. Make sure you figure out how to get the road blocks out of your way. If you're working on something painful where there's a ton of time wasted rebuilding to try out your ideas, maybe there's a better way to build/patch in a more granular way. Your peers will also be interested in any process improvements. If you can optimize and speed up a process that makes you more effective, share it with the team. People really respect and appreciate anyone who can make their life easier.

    And *really* spend some serious time trying to learn your software's object model, lifecycles, and data structures. When you start there will be an overwhelming amount of information. You need to accept that. But once you've got a bit of a foothold, CONTINUE learning. You want to be an expert. It takes discipline to get a broad and deep enough understanding to truly be efficient and effective. Be interested in the work of your closest peers. Chances are, what they have learned over the years can be incredibly helpful to enhancing your efficiency. At the end of the day, you'll be primarily judged on reliability and throughput. Whatever you can do to meet your goals, the better! And never be afraid to get help. It doesn't matter if someone helps you finish something. All your manager cares about is that the task is done. If they assign it to you, you are responsible for driving that task to completion. If you don't have an a clear idea of how to do something, that's your cue to immediately find someone to brainstorm with.

    And career-wise, it's easier to advance in the earlier years. So when optimizing towards success and a happy retirement, a lot of it comes down to how quickly you can advance in your early years. Down the road, it's as much time as ability. To start with, it's all work ethic. Put in that extra 10% to be the hardest worker and you'll be getting promotions year after year. Work through those lower levels as fast as you can so you can enjoy the rest.

    Good luck :)

  • by Crash McBang ( 551190 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:36AM (#38887527)

    Engineering a house:
    1. Gather requirements
    2. Write a spec
    3. Design house to spec
    4. Build house to design

    Hacking a house:
    1. Nail boards together
    2. Step back
    3. Is it a house yet?
    4. No, go to 1

    Both methods work, but I'd prefer the former to the latter...

    • And professional software development is usually more like the latter than the former.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by wvmarle ( 1070040 )


      The big difference with house vs. software is that when you nail some boards together it's quite permanent, and hard to remove and redo. I admit to do programming mainly alone the second line, but usually with something like a plan, and working quite targeted to it. More like:

      1. Nail boards together.
      2.Step back.
      3. Location correct, all straight up and aligned with the rest? goto 6.
      4. Redo latest board, and/or adjust previous boards.
      5. goto 3.
      6. Looks like a livable house? end.
      7. goto 1.

      But then without

  • Maintainability (Score:5, Insightful)

    by spiffmastercow ( 1001386 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:36AM (#38887531)
    Ignore the assholes. Debates about the meaning of 'Engineer' aside, what you really need to learn is maintainability, testing, and patience. Writ code that you wouldn't mind maintaining if you weren't the original author. Don't repeat yourself. Follow coding standards. And most of all, learn to work with others and leave your ego at the door. That's what separates a 'hacker' from a professional.
  • by NotSoHeavyD3 ( 1400425 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:37AM (#38887539)
    To make your code readable. I mean so that if you came back to your code in 6 months you wouldn't have to completely reverse engineer it to figure out what it does.(Since I'm guessing you effectively threw away any coding efforts you did for your projects about 30 seconds after it got graded.) If you write your code with that in mind after a while you'll be fine.(Because believe me, either you'll be coming back to your old code or you'll be coming back to somebody else's old code and it sucks when it looks like the app was put together with figurative chewing gum and duck tape.)
  • Learn to read code (Score:4, Interesting)

    by donscarletti ( 569232 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:38AM (#38887545)

    Welcome to the farse of "Software Engineering", the sooner you realise that the way things happen in the real world is just (as you say) hacking stuff together and debugging it the better. The only added fun that you will have no idea what 70% of your codebase does and neither does anyone else.

    While Software Engineering never provided any credible way of _building_ the systems, what it used to do is provide ways where you could find out exactly what you need before you start building it. These days we have Agile instead, so we don't do that, we just pick an idea at random and hope to god it's either right or we can change it.

    My advice: Learn to read code. Learn to find out what the system actually does, not what the comments says it does. Learn to read it then work out how to slowly change it into what you need. It's the difference between the respected senior guy who fixes the problems and the detested junior guy who creates them. I work with a commercial 3D game engine and the fact I know every line of it is worth far more to anyone than how many lines I can myself write in a day.

  • by Fastolfe ( 1470 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:38AM (#38887549)

    You say you've done some "basic" testing, but one of the biggest challenges for me upon entering a "real" software development role was adapting to test-driven development. Even if you don't take this all the way and write up all of your unit tests before you start coding, you do have to completely re-think how you structure your software so that it can be testable at all. This means breaking up your functions not just into parts that make it more readable, but into parts that can be independently tested. Usually this means breaking out your dependencies into interfaces, so that they can be mocked out (oh, and learning how to mock things), avoiding side effects, that sort of thing.

    Also focus on writing readable code. I usually make one or two passes after I think I've gotten everything written and refactor with an eye toward making everything readable and understandable.

  • by Surt ( 22457 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:41AM (#38887573) Homepage Journal

    That's more of a management book. If you want to get better at coding practices, you want a different library entirely. Try reading something like code complete or refactoring to patterns.

  • by Tony Isaac ( 1301187 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:42AM (#38887587) Homepage

    Your contrast is not really hacker vs. engineer, but agile vs. waterfall.

    If you think building software is like building a building (spec it out in detail before you start, write tons of documentation, resist any change orders)--that's "waterfall" methodology, what you are referring to as "engineering."

    If you want to start with a software sketch, show the sketch to your customer, and then incrementally improve it until the shape develops into something really useful and valuable--that's "agile" methodology, what you are referring to as "hacking."

    Both are totally legitimate forms of software engineering. But waterfall-style "engineering" is cumbersome, slow, extremely expensive, and tedious. If you love programming, pick a small company with an agile mentality. I've done both styles, and I don't ever want to work in a large software shop again!

    • Disagree.

      In fact, I'd actually say that the terms engineer and hacker are somewhat orthogonal.

      How much of a hacker someone is is a matter of passion.

      How much of an engineer someone is is a matter of discipline.

  • Fewer bugs?
    setting good deadlines and meeting them?
    Happier users?

    There are lots of different software development "methodologies". To me that's what you're talking about. Which one is right for you depends on a number of factors. Whatever organization you end up working for might already have one and your job will be to learn it. If you're in a position where you are the one to decide what your process is going to be, then you've got some research to do.

    Not all methodologies are appropriate for all a
  • Engineer (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Wolfling1 ( 1808594 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:44AM (#38887617) Journal
    Sounds like you already did.

    The biggest problem most techs face is their own arrogance. Your desire to mature as an engineer sets you apart from many of your peers.

    Perhaps on a more practical note, I'd suggest that you plan to spend six months to a year working in a beauracracy nightmare shop (eg a bank).

    If and when you come out of the end of that experience, you will be much better positioned to apply the theoretical knowledge, and you will also be sufficiently jaded with process overkill.

    However, my strongest suggestion would be to keep doing what you're doing. Allow a little time each week to continue developing your expertise. That habit distinguishes the masters from the journeymen.
    • > The biggest problem most techs face is their own arrogance.

      Bingo. Don't look down on your peers. You are not better than them just because you like vi.

  • Academic concentrate on the finding out where his solution works. Engineer mostly concerned with situations what to do if it doesn't.
  • I think experience on commercial projects allows you to develop better coding practices and develop skills for estimating project size. It usually takes 6 months to a year for one of our fresh masters level graduates to become fully productive.

    At our company, we won't hire you unless we are pretty sure you can do the job. It is our responsibility to make sure you learn the skills to be productive.

  • by SplashMyBandit ( 1543257 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:58AM (#38887721)
    Learn about Test Driven Development (TDD). You don't need a book on it, simply use Google and learn about its importance for software quality, and learn how to use JUnit. Adopting TDD will change your development process and the way you develop software. Your software will be more correct, more reliable, you'll have an automated suite for maintaining it and your software will be better designed and more modular (required to be more testable). Once you get the "testing religion" your view on good development style will change (and you'll see that a lot of the software development "orthodox" wisdom is actually counter-productive to testing and what really matters when developing reliable software quickly).
  • by Swampash ( 1131503 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @02:05AM (#38887769)

    So you don't get confused with a real, actual engineer.

  • by tigersha ( 151319 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @02:14AM (#38887823) Homepage

    I have a hotshot hacker working for me right now who thinks he knows everything, but he is just a stupid little hacker who thinks his dick grows every time he uses vi. Don't be like that.

    You are already on the right path: You recognized in yourself that you need to grow professionally and that you need to get away from the little dark screen and see how it fits into the world.

    Three points:
    * See the first for the trees
    * Have the balls to say "I don't know"
    * Education, education, education

    Here is the most important thing to remember: A hacker sees his own little thing that he hacks on. An engineer see how that thing fits into the world and people who uses it. See the forest that your little tree grows in.

    All companies and industries have standards, habits and a culture that it uses and the people are almost always NOT used to or interested in the little details that fascinate a hacker.The people out there will not change their entire culture to fit your hacking needs. The job of any technology and the engineers that build it is to facilitate the and simplify the lives of other people.

    Professionality means that you take responsibility for your work. That includes taking responsibility for the interface to the users.

    Read this:
    The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers (

    Number two: You cannot know everything. Accept it.

    There is nothing wrong with expanding your horizons and going past your field, but when you are in a terrain where you are uncomfortable make sure your peers know it and make sure you have a mentor and listen to him. Or delegate to an expert. People will have a much higher esteem for you professionally if you have the balls to say "I don't know" instead of lying. It can be hard sometimes, but it beats being known as an arrogant little know-it-all.

    Point number three: Education, education, education. Always assume you know nothing. Read up about your industry outside of the computer part. Computers are just a tool to make the gears turn. You will be a much better engineer if you know what the gears look like.

    Good luck. You already took the first step and you will make it.

  • by Frans Faase ( 648933 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @02:23AM (#38887897) Homepage
    Most software developement takes places in teams, which means you have to learn to deal with people and code written by others. That means having to deal with colleagues who use a different coding style than what you would prefer. Who use a different way of formating code, naming conventions that you are used to. You will have to resist the temptation to reformat all the code that you encounter. Also you will encounter strange code constructions that you think are wrong. And often they are also wrong, but they work (for the moment), and you have to learn to resist the temptation to start refactoring the code. Especially if you are working with a code manangement system, do not make any unneccessay changes to the code, because you are creating extra work for those who review your checking, because they have to spend extra time, and they don't like this. Also don't feel hesistated to make 'stupid' questions, and listen to the answers you get. Sometimes, you will be told that something is there for historical reasons, and that is often the only reason that it is there. And there will be colleagues that you will get around easier than others. Actually the whole messages burns down to: learning to adapt to the style of others and having the right attitude. Software enginering is often a group effort against an individual effort as you have been doing now. For the rest it is still 80% hacking the way you have been doing it.
  • If you're good at something, enough that someone will pay you to do it, then go for it.

    We need some people with the "hacker" mentality, they're like the blueberries in a blueberry muffin. Sure, you can make a muffin without them, but it's just not going to be as good.

    • Sadly, managers would probably accept the muffin without the blueberries because it's cheaper and it kinda does the work (i.e. stuff you sufficiently). Sure, it would be better with blueberries, but ... well, there's a budget to keep.

  • by forkfail ( 228161 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @02:30AM (#38887937)

    It's all about time and experience.

    As long as you know that growth is possible, and worth striving for, and keep that as part of your outlook, the maturity will take care of itself.

  • First off, a rant (Score:4, Informative)

    by notandor ( 807997 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @02:38AM (#38887983) Journal
    First off, a rant. Either your Computer Science program/dept does not truly deserve the name or you did not fully attempt to master the curriculum as it is intended. I know it sounds harsh, I am mostly annoyed by the constant misconceptions about CS that pop up here on /. from time to time.

    A masters degree in Computer Science builds upon the basics of theoretical CS (theory of computation, languages, grammar, logics, discrete math...), technical CS (microcontroller, assembly) and applied CS (functional, OO and logic programming) from a undergraduate CS degree and extends it with topics about Networks (Sockets, Protocols, OSI Layers, Routing), AI (both classical AI with logic, planning and formal systems as well as machine learning), Operating Systems (for instance reimplementing parts of and studying Tannebaums Minix, Filesystems), Databases (Tuple relational calculus, OO databases, inductive databases, knowledge discovery) and also, and this is what I think you definitely missed out on, Software Engineering. This would involve developement models (V-model, Waterfall, extreme programming), UML, testing, maybe software verification, refactoring and so on.

    Note that there is not much hacking (in a positive or negative sense) involved here. Great hackers do not necessarily need to be computer scientists, and competent computer scientists definitely do not need to be or leave the university as any from of hackers (be it some low level C pointer wizards or some OS file system experts).

    I think what you meant to say is that the university did not teach you how to code in an industrial/enterprise setting. And rightfully so, thats the job of a vocational/trade instituion, but not of an university.

    However, let me give you some pointers that helped me to grasp a bit more beyond purely academic programming.

    1. Patterns. As some others have pointed out, this pretty much a must to grok in any OO project. The Gamma book is good, if you are looking for some really good intermediate more applied Java book about this, Effective Java by Joshua Bloch (he developed, among other things, the Java Collections).

    2. Revision control management. One word: git. Anything beyond toy problems should not be touched without revision control. Watch the video with Linus Torvalds (the creator) to get motivated:
    A pretty good git tutorial that I like can be found here:

    3. Read competent peoples code of the language of your choice! github and gitorious are a real treasure. The more you do it, the more you will discover more efficient approaches of how to implement certain concepts. And you will also see a lot of bad code and learn how to spot it.

    4. Testing. JUnit is pretty basic to grasp. Some people swear by TDD (test driven development, write the test case first and then the implementation of what to test), I find this a bit extreme, however unit testing is a must to know.

    5. Program yourself! Pair programming can be very helpful if your mentor is knowledgable and able to teach, otherwise do it yourself. Do not hack for the hell of it (although it can be fun), but focus instead on clean and clear concepts that you want to implement and improve upon. And document your code (doxygen or javadoc are your friends).
  • "Engineer": "Hacker" with enough scars.
  • by Sarusa ( 104047 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @02:52AM (#38888069)

    You've got three broad brush categories, though of course people are often some of each.

    - Programmers code stuff. Whatever you tell them to. Sometimes you can give them a problem and they come up with a solution, but it doesn't keep the entire ecosystem in mind. Often don't understand what they're really doing. Drives me batty when they're called Software Engineers.
    - Hackers solve problems using whatever means necessary, however ugly it is.
    - Engineers are solving problems keeping all the tradeoffs in mind and considering that this is a /product/, even if only an internal product.

    Here's an example: This week a customer asked me for a feature in some PC software that generates files for processing by the embedded system. I know the entire ecosystem, not just the PC part of it, so I was able to tell them it was doable, but would have these negative effects - I can get you something working in the short term with these negative side effects, but we can get rid of them in the long run if we do this and that. They thought it was more important just to have the feature in the short term to show off in the short term and would ask me to make the other changes later if the tradeoffs got onerous. Maybe they'll never need it. This was a good deal for them in terms of what was delivered for what they're paying for my time.

    You mention testing, but that's not really engineering per se, just one of the tools in the belt. A good programmer would (and should) be able to employ testing where necessary. In this case I did only cursory testing because they needed it /right now/ and the demo files I provided worked and were sufficient to show off the feature. And of course I told them this. Now that there's some breathing room I'll add better testing, and more if they decide to move forward on it.

    It's all about knowing your /entire/ system enough that you can weigh the risks and requirements properly. Sometimes we blow a risk assessment or the requirement is wrong or something else goes wrong (customers are often very bad at providing real requirements or information) but at least you started from an educated guess.

    You're a hacker, that's a good start since you're focused on solving the problem, and that's crucial - programmers are often (though certainly not all) bad at that. You are almost certainly more creative than some engineers. But now you need to consider that the requirements and the environment may substantially change how you choose to solve the problem. That thing you did may work, but is it maintainable and sustainable, and will it survive foreseeable new requirements?

    Another example: there's a place in one of our codebases where sometimes you're looking for a string in an array in user time (someone typed something). We don't bother to sort that. Who cares? It's 'instantaneous' for the user either way. Why waste the time and code and complexity sorting it? There's another case where we're constantly looking things up, on the order of 5x a millisecond, so that one is sorted. But not cached since 5x/msec isn't /that/ much of a hit in context

    I went a bit long, but I hope this makes sense. It's all mindset. Engineering is learning everything you can that even indirectly effects your system and solving problems based on ALL the tradeoffs. Realistically you can't know them all, but you can try. Iteration helps, as does time and budget.

    • The most important difference between 'hacking' and engineering is understanding time, and understanding humans (epsecially yourself).

      In a nutshell:

      0) learn the difference between 'clever' and 'smart', and then 'smart' and 'wise'.

      1) code is to your employer as mass is to an aircraft engineer: less is better.

      2) understand how and when to say "no" to your management, or more realistically "how long" and "what it takes" and don't overestimate your total productivity in delivering product as opposed to a caffei

  • Income and paperwork.
  • Don't sweat it. You'll be doing fine. It's commendable that you want to be better but yes, the "piece it together and keep compiling and building 'til it does kinda what it's supposed to do" is pretty much the approach (too) many programmers have to a problem. It's not your problem. It's an industry problem.

    One thing university hardly prepares you for is the reality of programming. You won't start fresh with a project, at least your chances to do that are slim to nil. You will most likely be hired in the mi

  • Tight algorithms are nice to have for most of the people actually using software. Engineering is an applied science. Engineers solve real problems which means clearly identifying the potential for their investment.

    Identify who is going to use the software. Who is this person? Put together a profile on a couple sheets of paper. Have a face for this person. There may be a few personas that will use the software.

    Given these personas. How do they accomplish the task you intend to improve today? What is

  • Software engineering is more than just coding and testing. It about getting exact requirements from the client; documentation and boring paperwork (always more paperwork!), collaboration, time management...

    You could say software engineering is coding with the fun taken out of it. My advice: try to get a in house job in a tech firm, where the 'client' are technical people who know what they need, and to whom interesting problems and clever algorithms matter. That way you'll spend more time coding and less ti

  • by Assmasher ( 456699 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @09:06AM (#38890077) Journal

    First and foremost, self-discipline. Yes, I know, it is hard.

    Be prepared to go unrewarded for your "extra efforts" which are in actuality basic software engineering tenets.

    Do NOT design at the keyboard. You can be agile without designing at the keyboard, you can be a traditional waterfaller without designing at the keyboard, you can be a spiralist without designing at the keyboard. When you find yourself making design decisions at the keyboard, unless they are truly trivial (and the litmus for this will change with experience) WALK AWAY from the keyboard.

    Ensure that the people who assign you work understand the caveats of what they are currently asking you to do. Even if this makes people think you are being negative, give them the information they don't even realize they need to make better decisions. YOU are the expert on what will happen when implementation happens. For example, if your product manager or account manager or <insert PHP - pointy haired person - here> wants a milestone that includes features that are poorly defined (either through their own recalcitrance or through, most likely, a customer who doesn't know what they really want) it is your responsibility to be the a**hole negative nerd who makes it CRYSTAL CLEAR the implications of doing such a thing. That doesn't mean you don't do it, it means you sacrifice whatever small amount of political capital you have with them to ensure that everyone is on the same page about the potential outcomes. You're going to be shocked by what people can 'pretend' to not recall ;).

    Think about problems in a fashion designed to allow for systemic flexibility because, just like in war, everything goes to plan until the first shot is fired.

    Think about the long term viability and accessibility of the code you write (good variable names - really, I know you've heard it a thousand times probably, but it makes all the difference in the world.) When the choice comes down between 'clever' and 'clear', unless you have a really compelling reason to be 'clever' - go with 'clear.' The codebase isn't a place to show off your 'chops' - it is a place to think about all the people that will or may come into it behind you and they may be clueless or very inexperienced. Comment your code, another 'I have heard it a thousand times' one I know, but people just don't seem to do it because IT TAKES DISCIPLINE.

    If you haven't done much with software patterns, pick up 2 or 3 books about them (both local and network patterns) because, although dry, they often contain the 'wisdom of the ages' for people new to software. Hell, just two weeks ago I was discussing a feature our Services team was implementing for a solution (I run Engineering, we produce products that the Services team [and external parties] uses to implement solutions) and they needed to simulate a physical machine. They were at a total loss about how to accomplish this (no snickering you experienced developers - especially game guys!) When I broached the topic of state machines they all went sort of glossy eyed (like some fish I'd just reeled up from 200 feet down.) After I explained for a few minutes I got a lot of head nodding. The next day I wrote up a little Java applet (yech) that demonstrated a crude approximation of the machine and used a state machine for managing it. Suddenly, everyone in Services is all about state machines (it is pretty funny actually - they have a shiny new hammer and they are wandering around looking for nails.)

    There are dozens of things we could discuss but aside from the final thing I'll recommend below, remember, you don't want to just be a programmer (so it sounds) so to be a software engineer you need to have all the abilities of a programmer but also spend time thinking about the process, efficacy, flexibility, and extensibility of how you will implement solutions to problems.

    The very last thing, and very important although many people who call themselves software engineers ignore it, is to be technol

  • by woboyle ( 1044168 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @12:09PM (#38891975)
    Engineering is all about process. To transition from hacker/cs-grad to software engineer, you need rigorous developmental processes that guide how you specify (requirements), design (modeling), write (coding practices), build (turning code into runable programs), test (unit and system), document (in-line, reference, and user), and preserve (version control and release management) your work. Until you have internalized and utilize such processes, you will remain a "hacker", not an engineer.
  • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @03:26PM (#38894647) Journal

    First off, there is no such thing as Software Engineering. Engineering implies replicable best practices to solve a common problem, e.g. building a bridge. There are standards, licensing, courses, and an apprenticeship which teach the standards and practices.

    Besides, there are two possibilities in software, either the problem has been solved or not. If it has been solved then just buy it. Don't reinvent the wheel. If it hasn't, then you are in the world of research and development. This is where the science comes in. You have no real guides, so you start by sketching out a proto-type. You then try to implement it and test it all the way forward. It's the hypothesis/experiment approach. This is why testing is so crucial in software development. If it doesn't pass the tests, try something different.

    Engineering implies canned solutions. In full scale software development there are no canned solutions.

%DCL-MEM-BAD, bad memory VMS-F-PDGERS, pudding between the ears