My Red Gate Experience

I’m Colin, and I’ve been an intern working with Mike in publishing on Simple-Talk and SQLServerCentral for the past ten weeks. I’ve mostly been working “behind the scenes”, making improvements to the spam filtering, along with various other small tweaks.

When I arrived at Red Gate, one of the first things Mike asked me was what I wanted to get out of the internship. It wasn’t a question I’d given a great deal of thought to, but my immediate response was the same as almost anybody: to support my growing family. Well, ok, not quite that, but money was certainly a motivator, along with simply making sure that I didn’t get bored over the summer. Three months is a long time to fill, and many of my friends end up getting bored, or worse, knitting obsessively.

With the arrogance which seems fairly common among Cambridge people, I wasn’t expecting to really learn much here! In my mind, the part of the year where I am at Uni is the part where I learn things, whilst Red Gate would be an opportunity to apply what I’d learnt. Thankfully, the opposite is true: I’ve learnt a lot during my time here, and there has been a definite positive impact on the way I write code.

The first thing I’ve really learnt is that test-driven development is, in general, a sensible way of working. Before coming, I didn’t really get it: how could you test something you hadn’t yet written? It didn’t make sense! My problem was seeing a test as having to test all the behaviour of a given function. Writing tests which test the bare minimum possible and building them up is a really good way of crystallising the direction the code needs to grow in, and ensures you never attempt to write too much code at time.

One really good experience of this was early on in my internship when Mike and I were working on the query used to list active authors: I’d written something which I thought would do the trick, but by starting again using TDD we grew something which revealed that there were several subtle mistakes in the query I’d written.

I’ve also been awakened to the value of pair programming. Whilst I could sort of see the point before coming, I also thought that it was impossible that two people would ever get more done at the same computer than if they were working separately. I still think that this is true for projects with pieces that developers can easily work on independently, and with developers who both know the codebase, but I’ve found that pair programming can be really good for learning a code base, and for building up small projects to the point where you can start working on separate components, as well as solving particularly difficult problems.

Later on in my internship, for my down tools week project, I was working on adding Python support to Glimpse. Another intern and I we pair programmed the entire project, using ping pong pair programming as much as possible. One bonus that this brought which I wasn’t expecting was that I found myself less prone to distraction: with someone else peering over my shoulder, I didn’t have the ever-present temptation to open gmail, or facebook, or yammer, or twitter, or hacker news, or reddit, and so on, and so forth. I’m quite proud of this project: I think it’s some of the best code I’ve written.

I’ve also been really won over to the value of descriptive variables names. In my pre-Red Gate life, as a lone-ranger style cowboy programmer, I’d developed a tendency towards laziness in variable names, sometimes abbreviating or, worse, using acronyms. I’ve swiftly realised that this is a bad idea when working with a team: saving a few key strokes is inevitably not worth it when it comes to reading code again in the future.

Longer names also mean you can do away with a majority of comments. I appreciate that if you’ve come up with an O(n*log n) algorithm for something which seemed O(n^2), you probably want to explain how it works, but explaining what a variable name means is a big no no: it’s so very easy to change the behaviour of the code, whilst forgetting about the comments.

Whilst at Red Gate, I took the opportunity to attend a code retreat, which really helped me to solidify all the things I’d learnt. To be completely free of any existing code base really lets you focus on best practises and think about how you write code. If you get a chance to go on a similar event, I’d highly recommend it!

Cycling to Red Gate, I’ve also become much better at fitting inner tubes: if you’re struggling to get the tube out, or re-fit the tire, letting a bit of air out usually helps. I’ve also become quite a bit better at foosball and will miss having a foosball table! I’d like to finish off by saying thank you to everyone at Red Gate for having me. I’ve really enjoyed working with, and learning from, the team that brings you this web site. If you meet any of them, buy them a drink!