Sunday, December 31, 2017

Visualizations

In its simplest sense, programming is about assembling a list of instructions for a computer to follow. It has become somewhat more complicated lately because some of these instructions are quite high-level and the underlying details are somewhat convoluted. We like to use badly designed libraries and erratic frameworks to accomplish most of the tasks that we no longer feel obligated to work on ourselves.

That might seem to define programming as just utilizing the knowledge embedded into both the programming language and underlying dependencies. Learn enough of the details and off you go.

But there seems to be another dimension to programming.

In order to fully comprehend the behavior of the code, it helps a great deal if we can visualize the running code. To be able to ‘see’ it in our heads, somehow.

There are plenty of debuggers and techniques for embedding print statements, but these alone, for debugging, are often not sufficient for understanding really complex bugs. And they don’t help at all with design issues. They only show us what is there and step by step, how it runs.

The ability to ‘see’ the running code in our heads, however, allows us to be able to work through the possible corner-cases, instead of having to acquire all of our knowledge from the runtime. Programmers that can visualize their code, can quickly diff their understandings against the actual behavior. It’s this skill that amplifies some programmers to new levels.

The basic underlying act of programming is not particularly creative since generally the problems should be analyzed before the coding began. Most design aspects are fairly routine if the underlying technologies are understood.

But even on an organized and well-thought-out development project, being able to visualize the code before it is being built is a huge advantage. That is, to be able to see the code running in our heads, we need to imagine it in some quasi-tangible way, which needs to be simpler than the actual operation, but not so simple that it doesn’t reflect the reality of the code running. That, because we are human, gives us some internal representations that allow us to understand how we see the code operating versus how it is actually running.

That ability brings creativity back into the mix since it requires imagination, and as it is a slowly growing skill over time it explains why programmers can sometimes accidentally exceed their abilities. That is, someone who is quite comfortable debugging a problem in 5K code might suddenly flounder with a problem that spans 20K. It also explains why a software developer that can design a 50K system might completely fail to design one at 150K or larger. What happens is that they become unable to see these increases in complexity, and if the issues span across the full width of the problem then they are unlikely to make ‘reasonable’ decisions.

What seems true is that visualization size is a very slowly accumulating skill set. It takes plenty of time to keep increasing this ability, little by little. It doesn’t come right away, most people aren’t even aware of its existence and there is no magical way to just hyper-jump it into a broader ability. In that sense, although occasionally an interview question almost taps into it, we generally focus on the exact opposite during interviews. We ask specific ‘definition’ questions, not general visualization questions (a rare exception is Fermi estimations).

There have been plenty of anti 10x programmer movements, where we insist that no such beings exist, but that doesn’t seem to match experience.

If 10x programmers exist, since their ability to type in code is effectively bound then it would be exactly this ability to visualize 10x larger contexts that would separate them from the pack. That makes sense, in that they would be able to see where more of the code should be before they start coding and thus save a huge amount of time by not going down wrong paths. They would also be able to diagnose bugs a whole lot faster and make fewer nasty ones. Both of these account for more of our time than actually typing in the code, which while it comes in bursts is not what usually consumes most programming effort. Someone with stronger visualization skills would obviously be able to work through complicated programs a lot faster than someone with lesser abilities. And it wouldn’t be surprising that this ability rests on an exponential scale, given that increases in code size do as well. Small increases in visualization would give large advantages.

So, it does seem that there is a significant creativity aspect to programming, but it isn’t revolving around finding “creative” solutions when unneeded, rather it is about being able to visualize larger and larger solutions and bind them better to reality.

If we accept this, then it is clear that we need to respond by doing two things. The first is that we need a way of identifying this ability. This helps with interviewing, but it also helps in assigning development work to people. Problems that exceed programmers abilities will not likely get solved well. If we are realistic about the size of our problems, then we can do a better job of matching up the coders to them. We can also assign problems that help push a programmers ability a little bit farther each time. Just a bit beyond their current level, but not far enough that it is demoralizing.

The second thing we should do is find some training methods that help increase this ability. We’ve always focused on simple decomposition methods like data structures or objects, but we’ve never reoriented this approach with respect to how it might help a programmer actually grow their abilities. It’s just considered base useful knowledge. We just drown them with definitions. It also makes a huge amount of sense to learn more alternative means of decomposition and different programming paradigms. These help to strengthen our visualizations by giving us different ways of seeing the same things. Thus we need to revisit the way we are teaching programming with an intent to find new ways to expand this ability.

This issue with visualization may actually help explain both the software crisis and modern bloat. Older programmers always lament that the kids don’t pay attention to the details anymore, and this oddly has been a long-running sentiment for over half a century. That makes sense in that each new generation of tools took some of that cognitive effort away from the coders while exchanging it for the ability to work on larger systems. In this exchange, the underlying visualization requirements are similar but are transferred to different areas. Thus the younger programmers work at a higher level, but what they do spans way more underlying code. So the basic effort stays relatively constant, but for each older generation, it looks like the kids are focussing on the wrong issues.

Indirectly this also aligns with many of Bret Victor’s ideas about reducing the lag between working and results. It is a more explicit external approach to achieving the same goal. It is just that even with his advances in technology, our need to visualize will still supersede them because there will always be a need for some larger visualizations that are beyond the current abilities of hardware. It’s a never-ending problem of growing complexity and context.

The underlying mechanics of programming seem to be fairly straightforward, but we are too focused on the instructions themselves. As we try to build bigger systems, this complexity quickly builds up. In order to cope with it, we develop the skills to visualize the behavior. As we grow this secondary skill, we are able to cope with larger and larger programming issues. This is the ability that gives some programmers an edge over the others. People who can see more of the full solution are far more likely to actually solve a lot more of the problem with fewer resources and better quality.