Thursday, October 18, 2007


Giles Bowkett recently asserted: Debugger support considered harmful. It seems this has been going around for years. See this old post of mine: Am I a Bad Programmer?. Nothing new. The assertion is that if you have tests, you don't need a debugger. Interesting. I'm heavy into testing my code. Anything I write even for fun has a test to go with it. And yet, I still use my debugger quite a bit.

Why? Well, it depends on what I'm doing. I use the debugger for exploratory programming, when sinking into the depths of someone else's code (especially if they didn't write tests), during code reviews, and when faced with a nasty bug. Even though I write my code in small pieces (small classes and small methods), I am not perfect. When everything is combined and put into production, strange things happen to my code. The code doesn't change; the environment does. A situation occurs that I didn't think of and thus it is not tested. This is the realm of the debugger especially if the bug is nasty and hard to find. Any piece of complex software has these hidden. We are human. Let's embrace that. A world without debuggers is a weird sci-fi perfect world with monsters lurking beneath the surface.

Debuggers are great for exploratory programming when you are just trying out a new framework and seeing how it works. I like to walk line by line. I did this when I was learning Seaside and it was better than any documentation. Besides, watching beautiful code unfold in your debugger is nothing short of reading a great book. And when you're dealing with some ugly code, a debugger has shown me things that my eyes deceived me on when just looking at the code. Why dissect the dead animal when I can see how its organs work while it is still alive?

An expressive debugger saves time as well. I remember when I came back to Smalltalk after doing Java for several years. I had forgotten that you never need to restart your programs. I wrote a simple Seaside application and only restarted the web server once. I coded live in the system and when I saw a problem (that my tests didn't catch) in the debugger, I could change it right there. It was amazing.

I guess all of this talk of no debuggers or that debuggers is a crutch for bad developers. It can enable the "get it running once" mentality instead of thinking of all the cases and your design. Like any tool it can be abused, but that doesn't mean we should get rid of all tools. Duck typing can be abused as well and I wouldn't trade it for the world.