You learn math by solving problems. Problems frame the way you learn, give you a tangible proof that you’re progressing, give you a sense of meaning and achievement. How do you learn physics? By studying the books of course, but then solving physics problems is very important. How do you learn to play deep games such as chess or go? By playing, mostly. And then by pondering and solving problems. Electronics? Chemistry? Building science? Genetics? The books on these subjects are full of problems.
How do you learn good software design? I don’t know. The books that I’ve read explain principles, and provide examples. Rarely I’ve seen books that contain problems, exercises, or challenges. (Notable exceptions: William Wake’s Refactoring Workbook and Ka Iok Tong’s Essential Skills for Agile Development.)
I propose that we assemble a collection of problems meant to develop and discuss software design. A good problem for this goal would problem *not* have a single correct answer, for design and engineering are always a matter of compromises. A good problem should be a means to discuss the various choices and tradeoff, and worse and better ways to solve it. A good problem should be a small framework.
Let’s start! Here is a problem that I find interesting. The good old Fizz-Buzz problem goes like this:
Write a program that prints the numbers in order from 1 to 100, with the exception that when a number is a multiple of 3, it prints “Fizz”. When a number is a multiple of 5, it prints “Buzz”. And when a number is multiple of both, it prints “FizzBuzz”. In all other cases, it just prints the decimal representation of the number.
There is an obvious way to solve this exercise, of course. It’s a very simple problem, from the point of view of programming. I would have the student solve it however they like. Most solutions contain a 3-way IF. I would then ask students to remove duplication. Early XP books were strong on removing duplication, for a good reason. It takes a bit of training to see how much duplication can creep in even such a small bit of programming.
The usual objection I get at this point is that it makes no sense to go this deep in removing duplication for such a small and trivial example. They also will say that the 3-IFs version is more readable than any version where duplication is removed. This is the crux of the matter.
I then continue the exercise by adding the requirement that
For multiples of 7, the program prints “Bang”.
Easy, they say. Add a fourth IF. Not so fast, I say :-)
For multiples of 7 and 3, the program prints “FizzBang”. For multiples of 5 and 7, the program prints “BuzzBang”. For multiples of 3, 5, 7, the program prints “FizzBuzzBang”!
Now we have an exploding number of IFs. If the next requirement is of the same sort as this one, we see how the IF-chain solution becomes untenable :-) Now solve this!
- I got the idea of using FizzBuzz as a design example from Giordano Scalzo, who presented it at the Milano XPUG and posted a solution on slideshare
- Other sources of problems, in no particular order: the Refactoring to patterns book by Joshua Kerievsky. The list of katas by Dave Thomas. The Refactoring in Ruby book by William Wake and Mike Rutherford. The Ruby Quiz site. I’m not merely looking for programming problems. I’m looking for design problems. The difference is that I don’t just want a problem that requires a correct or efficient solution. I want a problem that requires a solution that is easy to understand and change.