Read This Book

I'm midway through Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code, and I can unabashedly recommend it to anyone who likes a good yarn. Yes, it's about software development, and you'll need a fair bit of technical exposure -- not experience, just exposure -- to navigate the references. But anyone who is reading this, including my not-so-technical friends, should be able to understand it, enjoy it, and even learn from it.

The book covers the start of the Chandler project, and does a fantastic job of describing both the social and technical aspects of a large, (over)ambitious software development effort. Rosenberg has done an excellent job of setting up the problems inherent in software projects, and his description of the contesting software development paradigms -- cathedrals, bazaars, mosh pits, etc. -- is well written and quite comprehensible. While I haven't finished the book yet, I know where the project is today, and I know that I will be disappointed at the ending of the book -- yet after reading the first half of this book, I would be shocked were it to turn out any other way: the whiff of doom is already quite palpable.

My background in software goes back a fair bit. I started really programming in high school in the late '80s, when I learned C and roughed out a simple Nethack clone on a PC. Soon thereafter I got a UNIX account from Mark Galassi, wrote a 'talk' clone called 'ring', and participated in 'dominion' development. This led inexorably to a variety of projects, including some of the first Avida digital life software, several conference organization systems that took me through Perl/CGI/hashes, Tcl/Oracle, and ultimately got me into Python/PostgreSQL around 2001. After that I bounced around, working for a company or two, and slowly getting into better and more serious development practices. Now I develop and maintain a dismaying variety of projects: Cartwheel/FamilyRelationsII for bioinformatics, twill/scotch/figleaf for (Web) testing, and a ton of cute little one-off projects for research and testing and general open-source mayhem.

These experiences with software development are why I enthusiastically and wholeheartedly recommend this book. This world -- the world of Python, Open Source, desktop and Web programming -- is a world I visit on a regular basis. Rosenberg's descriptions of the projects, the people, the technical decisions, the thought processes, and above all the social component of software development are spot on.

Unless the book's quality takes a dramatic downturn, I'm seriously thinking of trying to use it as the cornerstone of a software testing course at MSU. The problems encountered by the developers of Chandler, and the narrative that Rosenberg builds around them, could be used to neatly demonstrate step by step just how much a "test-driven" development technique can buy you. In fact, if there's one thing that I'm puzzled by, it's just how the Chandler team could screw up so badly in 2002. These are intelligent, educated people who are up on the latest software development practices; where were the acceptance tests, for example? While I acknowledge that this could be a blind spot in the author's book, or simply blind faith in my test-infected opinions, I have a hard time understanding a process that focused on designing for abstract feature sets without any hard customer-facing tests. Why were they building prototypes without encoding the lessons learned in acceptance tests? Heck, why has the word "test" yet to be mentioned seriously?

Yes, we all see the books we read through the lens of our own biases, our own experiences, and our own inclinations. And yes, my enjoyment of this book is probably partly motivated by the belief that I could have done better -- and, honestly, that's a pretty hubristic belief. But regardless of whether you have the same reaction, it's a ripping good tale, and it's definitely one of the best books on software engineering that I've read lately.

Read it. You'll enjoy it.


p.s. Yes, Grig, you can borrow my copy.

Legacy Comments

Posted by Grig Gheorghiu on 2007-01-30 at 14:57.

Nice review! You should get it published in DDJ or somewhere similar.
And yes, I do want to borrow your copy :-)    Grig

Posted by Paul Boddie on 2007-01-31 at 06:41.

Random post from the past about Chandler:    <a href="http://online.ef">
3_04_01_archive.htm#chandler</a>    It would be interesting to
"superimpose" this onto the narrative of the book in order to see
where the developers felt they were at that point, I suppose.

Posted by John Nielsen on 2007-02-07 at 11:20.

Wow, I remember playing dominion w/Mark Galassi and company. It was a
very cool game for the time. Thanks for bringing back that memory!
Are you a Civ IV fan by any chance?

Posted by Titus Brown on 2007-02-07 at 12:10.

John,    I'm trying to avoid games at this point ;).  I'm already
completely hooked on Galcon, which at least doesn't take up **too**
much time...

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