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Friday, September 21, 2007

Book Review: Code Complete 2nd ed by Steve McConnell

Code Complete Second Edition, A practical handbook of software construction, Steve McConnell, Microsoft Press, ISBN 0-7356-1967-0.

Code too Complete? The emphasis in this book is said to be practicality, as opposed to academic and theoretic articles. However, it's apparent that Steve McConnell lost track of that goal and perhaps really wants to be a real academic software hotshot, like Edsger Dijkstra. The book is 862 pages, not including 21 (twenty-one) pages of bibliograhpy citing approximately 450 references.

Just about every statement in the book has a reference (McConnell 2004). There are literally hundreds of citations of various research results, all which goes to prove the various points the author wants to make. Did you for example know that researches have found that the optimal number of white space in indentation lies between 2 and 4 spaces? (Miaria et al. 1983). Do you really care that much that you want a reference to a detailed study?

Code Complete suffers greatly from an attempt to be too precise - it's not a bad thing per se to be careful in keeping opinions and researched facts apart. But too much of a good thing can actually hide the important message that's there. And there is one! Code Complete should perhaps be labelled 'Catalog Complete' - because it is a pretty much complete catalog of proven software construction practices, and that's a very good thing, as it goes.

Looking behind the veils of the semi-academic format, Code Complete does indeed contain an enormous amount of information and good advice on how to construct great software. There is absolutely nothing new in this book, this is not a landmark that will be referenced like the beginning of something new in the future, it's a statement of the current state of the art. However, since it's also a fact (reference ignored) that the majority of current software projects and current software developers do not work at the level of the current state of the art, it's very useful to get a complete exposé like this for some, but not all.

I read this book cover-to-cover, every page, every word (except some cross-references in the margins). Don't do that. Skim it, browse it, and stop and read when you find something of personal interest.

Code Complete should probably be read by first-line software development managers and developers with 10 years plus of experience. I really don't think that it's useful for less senior people. There are sure to be more accessible and inspring texts on the subject matter, all of which likely are referenced in Code Complete. So if you're a manager or a senior designer or architect, read it, pick your 10 favorite things from it, make a note of references that sound relevant for your co-workers and then go out and buy them those.

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