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Mike Riley

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The Productive Programmer Book Review

September 15, 2008

Like many of my fellow DCT Gurus, I have been writing software for many years and have learned some valuable lessons along the way.  Fortunately technologists like Neal Ford, author of The Productive Programmer published by O'Reilly, have captured a great deal of sage advice for fellow programmers seeking additional enlightenment about their craft.  Read on to learn how Neal's book compares to previous programming productivity books.

The book is divided into two nearly equal parts: Mechanics and Practice.  In Part 1, Mechanics, the five chapters through Acceleration, Focus, Automation and Canonicality.  Part 2 continues with 11 more chapters on Test-Driven Design, Static Analysis, Good Citizenship, YAGNI (You Ain't Gonna Need It), Ancient Philosophies, Question Authority, Meta-Programming, Composed Method and SLAP (Single Level of Abstraction Principle), Polyglot Programming, Find the Perfect Tools and concludes with the author urging readers to contribute to the book's sparse (at least at the time of the posting of this review) MediaWiki-based website at productiveprogrammer.com their own discoveries on the path to programming nirvana.  A single appendix covers installing Cygwin for Windows and a crash course on popular Unix terminal applications used in the book such as the cat, find and grep commands.

While the author does cover a lot of ground, there was very little in the 'new and improved idea' categories that were disclosed.  Much like popular books on management and selling, the book is a compilation of sensible ideas that are easy to identify but not always as easy to practice.  While no specific development methodology was advocated, the book is most definitely Agile-oriented.  Additionally, various code snippets are nearly all written in Java with test cases written for JUnit.

The author calls upon many well-known quotes and tips made by others over the years, from shaving yaks, Occam's Razor and Fred Brook's Mythical Man Month to The Pragmatic Programmer's recommendation to keep things DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself) and even recalling one of Dave Thomas' more memorable keynotes entitled "Angry Monkeys and Cargo Cults" with its "question authority" punchline.  Oddly enough, references by one of the modern day sages whose ideas and opinions on software development I highly respect, Joel Spolsky, is missing from these pages.  Is it because Joel is a .NET fan and Neal is a Java fan?

Neal even comes up with an occasional insight of his own, such as "Eye candy looks good but isn't nutritious", "Repetition is the single most diminishing force in software development" and "Find your perfect editor and learn it inside and out."  Speaking of which, Neal missed a golden opportunity to really let the readers know what he thinks by stating which editor *he* uses.  Instead, he took the less inflaming 'here are some options' approach, knowing how religious programmers are when it comes to their favorite editors.  There is a fine line between engaging your audience and enraging them, but the author lacked enough risky assertions to be thought provoking and, in my case, convincing enough to alter my established behaviors.

Perhaps old-timers like me are not the book's target market, and it is instead intended for greenhorns and middle managers who have yet to read all the classics and see how such ideas work in practice.  While Neal certainly pulled many ideas from recognizable sources in today's software development world, I would have preferred a few  more personal war stories and how he applied the insights he advocates in his book to his own work.  Perhaps the harshest criticism against the book is its cover price.  I have purchased other books (even those published by O'Reilly) that were packed with even more valuable information and four times the page count for less money.  The Productive Programmer comes off looking like a very well produced, albeit expensive blog reprint.  

To be fair, there are a couple good reminders in the book and it may indeed be enlightening for the less experienced crowd, but for most seasoned veterans, there may be very little new here that has not already been promoted in some previously published print or online reference.

The Productive Programmer
Price: US $39.99

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