As a software engineer and architect, I have navigated countless debugging mazes to resolve elusive issues in codebases spanning a multitude of programming languages, frameworks, and technologies. A key lesson learned during this journey is that debugging skills, which arguably form the backbone of effective software development, seldom receive the attention they deserve. If anything, I hear and read folks discussing the tools and what to do with them. Here, I share a handful of my own debugging practices in hopes that a tidbit might be beneficial to you when you're neck-deep in code, frustrated and mentally drained.
Embrace the Scientific Method: Observe, Hypothesize, Experiment, Record
Debugging is more science than art. Adopting the scientific method of making observations, developing hypotheses, conducting experiments, and recording outcomes can keep your debugging structured and productive. Any change you make, any outcome observed, should be recorded - whether in a digital note-taking app, on a piece of paper, or in the form of comments in your code.
Treat Assumptions as Hypotheses
All developers form assumptions while debugging. Assumptions aren't bad, but remember to treat them as hypotheses that require validation. Assume nothing, question everything. This leads to the next point.
Validate Your Assumptions
Begin with what you think you know and put your assumptions to the test. If there's a shred of doubt, don't ignore it. Let your curiosity drive you to validate until every doubt is either ruled out or turned into a confirmed fact.
Adjust Based on New Facts
When you encounter new facts or findings, pause and recalibrate. Revisit your previously validated facts and assumptions to see if anything needs rechecking or additional validation based on your new knowledge.
Make One Change at a Time
Stick to one change per experimental cycle. It could be a local code change, a config adjustment, or anything else - just ensure you make only one modification per attempt. This avoids the chaos of not knowing which change led to a certain outcome.
Debugging can be a demanding task, both physically and mentally. Be kind to yourself. Pay attention to your posture, take breaks, get some fresh air, and maybe even catch a few rays of sunlight. The brief distraction might just spark the solution you need.
Talk to Yourself, or a Rubber Duck
Walking through your problem aloud can provide fresh insights. If talking to yourself seems awkward, try Rubber Duck Debugging. Explaining the issue to an inanimate object (or a willing colleague) can help untangle your thoughts and provide a new perspective.
Don't Hesitate to Ask for Help
Debugging doesn't have to be a solo journey. Asking for help can bring fresh eyes to the problem, often resulting in quicker solutions. Even the most experienced developers can benefit from a fresh perspective.
Simplify the Reproduction Steps
If the issue requires a convoluted process to reproduce, pause and think if it can be simplified. Don't hesitate to tweak the upstream code locally for making reproduction easier and quicker.
Use Separate Code Repository Branches for Each Foray
Having a new local branch for each attempt can be a lifesaver when you need to revisit a previously discarded trial. This prevents the dreaded scenario of having to recreate changes you've painstakingly undone.
Celebrate the Small Wins
Each little discovery that helps shed light on the issue is a win. Celebrate it by walking away. Allow your mind to absorb the information as you shift your focus for a bit before diving back in.
Debugging isn't about being magically quick at finding impossible problems. It's about staying organized, not being afraid to question everything, and remembering to look after yourself and tap into the collective brainpower around you. Use these tips to up your debugging game, solve those tricky software problems faster, and really shine a light on the art of debugging.