Learning Java, Programming, TDD, Clean Code - which order?

Recently, Marcus Biel asked me to review and comment on his “Free Java Clean Code Beginner Course”.

I’m quite flattered that anyone would ask my opinion, so naturally I gave him some feedback. I think the concept of Marcus’ project is valuable, especially considering the large community (9-10 million) of Java programmers, and the number of would be programmers, and the current state of the quality we - as a profession - provide. Just take a look at some of the questions asked on LinkedIn’s Java Developers group.

One of the key hurdles, I think, is that Marcus wants it all: Teach Java, Programming, OOP, TDD, and Clean Code. While these are all good things to know, I find it quite a lot all at once. That said, what should be left out in the beginning? How should you structure learning programming? The easiest way is to use imperative style - but that is hardly the “right” for Java. Starting out with too much OOP will also lead to highly coupled classes.

If you simply teach Java and programming, you’re bound to fail at only good OOP and Clean Code practices because Java sometimes enforces you to do things in a bad way.

TDD is having its own troubles - as debated by DHH, Fowler and Beck in “Is TDD Dead?”

Rich Hickey compares TDD to “driving a car around banging into the guard rails”, and Donald Knuth says something along the lines of tests are good for probing and figuring out an otherwise unknown domain. This blog has links to both.

Ward Cunningham created Fit, which Uncle Bob built Fitnesseon top of, so I believe that they are quite happy with repeatable testing. Uncle Bob at least writes about it in Clean Code

Edsger Dijkstra said: “Program testing can be used to show the presence of bugs, but never to show their absence!” - but then he was likely into proving correctness using Hoare triplets - the pre and post condition proofs.

In “Working Effectively with Legacy Code”, Michael Feathers says that legacy code is code without tests, and that tests makes it safe to refactor code.

I really like Hickey’s notion. The tests only shows the code in the exercises the tester had in mind. If the tester is the developer, then it is likely a proof of concept rather than an attempt to disprove working software,

I also really like Feathers’ concept - it’s really nice to have exercises for a section of code making sure that a change in the section will not misbehave, when swapped out with an equivalent. At least it is nice to have tests for the modules you depend upon, to be able to check than an upgrade does not cause any bad things. Basically, we use what Dijkstra said - making sure that we are not introducing previously known bugs again.

Knowing programmers, we’re likely to not be modest nor follow the scientific method: Observe, Think, Hypothesize, Create testable predictions, Test, Refine, General theory, nor Deming’s circle: Observe, Plan, Do, Check, Act. It is often more: Hack, Observe, Repeat - using a Waterfall approach it is sometimes more like: hack, hack, hack, observe, wtf!, repeat.

Dijkstra, Hickey, and Knuth seem to have their own disciplined framework in place, and TDD is a formal way trying to introduce discipline to the masses, though often being misunderstood, and due to our bias for confirming our beliefs (”Don’t believe everything you think” by Thomas Kida) we make poor tests more often than good tests. Sometimes we even make tests just to get a high test coverage, because someone, somewhere heard that this was a good metric.

Can you learn Clean Code without knowing programming? I don’t think so, and quite likely, then Clean Code should be left after Patterns - which isn’t currently part of Marcus’ course.

Should you learn Clean Code before creating your own ugly mess? Would you know the difference if taught from day one?

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