Basti's Scratchpad on the Internet
20 Jul 2014

Working and Learning

At the university, I have a big advantage: I can program. So many of my fellow students are programming as their main means of doing science, yet clearly never learned how to program efficiently. It is saddening to see them "fight Matlab" for days, for things that would take a programmer hours.

So how did I get to this point? After all, I went to the same university and studied the same topics they did. My first introduction to programming was our Introduction to Programming in the first semester. We learned how to write simple text-based programs in C.

My own blogging engine

At the time, my fellow students and I wanted to organize our lecture notes, copied exams, and assignments on our own website. Not knowing any better, I picked up PHP and set out to write a little website for this. It turned into a little CMS, all hand-written in PHP, HTML and (almost no) CSS.

This happened about four weeks into the introductory programming course, so I only knew a few bits of C and didn't appreciate the differences between programming languages yet. Many bad things have been said about PHP, but it allowed me to hack together a blog, file browser, gallery, and calendar with knowing little more about programming than branches and loops.

It scares me to look at the ease with which I picked up PHP at the time. With more experience, I seem to become more reluctant to try out new things. This might be a very bad thing.

C programming at the university

In my third semester, a professor offered me a job as an undergraduate research assistant. As my first assignment, he wanted me to program a MIDI interface for Matlab. The idea was to use the Matlab-C interface Mex to connect portmidi to Matlab. At this point, I had had two programming courses (C and C++/Matlab), and had read The Pragmatic Programmer.

I remember the professor telling me to stop obsessing about that piece of code. He said "You are an engineer, 95% is good enough for engineers". Yet, reading through this code now, it is some fine C code. Everything is well-commented, the implementation is clearly split into one Matlab-related part and one portmidi-related part, and there even is an (informal) test suite! To my mind, those extra 5% make an incredible difference! It is astonishing how much my early career has been influenced by The Pragmatic Programmer.

Another project concerned extending a C program that simulated small-room acoustics. It took me eight months to admit defeat. Every week, I would spend ten hours staring at my screen, trying to understand that program. Every week, I would fail in frustration. After eight months, I told the professor that I couldn't do it. A few months later, I told the professor that I would have another go at the project. This time, I read the research paper associated with the program first. After that, the project was completed in one afternoon. Sometimes, just reading the code is not enough. (This is probably more true in academia than anywhere else).

Qt and Cocoa and OpenGL

I wrote my bachelor's thesis for a small company in southern Germany. At my university, the thesis was supposed to take half a year, and should be written at some company, so students would get some first-hand experience of the real world outside the university.

The basic algorithm for the thesis was working after a few weeks. Since my boss was more interested in a commercial result than in more research, he proposed that I write a desktop application for it. This is how I was introduced to Qt. Qt is an incredibly complex framework. Luckily for me, it is also an incredibly well-documented framework! As a newcomer to programming, API docs can be a very daunting thing, filled with jargon and implementation detail. This was the first time I learned something mostly from reading the API docs, and I am grateful that I happened to pick Qt for that.

After finishing my thesis, I worked remotely for the same company, writing another GUI application. This time, the program was to be written in Objective-C/Cocoa. In contrast to Qt, I needed the book to learn Cocoa. Working through the book was a very different experience than learning Qt from API docs. The book not only described the API, but also things like best practices and programming patterns. As a result, my final program was much easier to understand and extend than the Qt program I wrote earlier.

Cocoa and Qt show two very different styles of documentation. The Qt documentation is very complete, and very well-written. It is a rare feat for a framework this complex to be learnable from the documentation alone! Doing the same thing with the Cocoa documentation instead of the book would have been painful. The book really went much further than pure API documentation can reasonably go, and my experience was better for it! (By the way, I also learned and used OpenGL during that time. The less said about the OpenGL documentation, the better).

Why Software is paid for

In the meantime, the company had been bought by a foreign investor. While this meant that my program would never see actual users, it also meant that they could offer me a proper job. And like every good engineering student, I needed Matlab, Photoshop, and Microsoft Office. And like every cliché foreign investor, they replied with "This is too expensive, here is a link to the Pirate Bay".

This did not sit well with me. After a bit of soul-searching, and my most interesting and obviously soon-deleted Stack Overflow question, I realized that I could not pirate software any longer. My own livelihood depended on people paying for the code I wrote. There was no way I would use other people's code without paying for it.

And thus we used Inkscape instead of Illustrator, and Python instead of Matlab. Mere weeks later, I discovered that Inkscape produces (mostly) standard-compatible SVG files that could be opened with any regular text editor, and manipulated with any regular XML parser! It soon became apparent that the open nature of this file format enabled us to use Inkscape for so much more than mere vector graphics! While in retrospect, it was not such a bright idea to use a vector graphics program as a GUI layout editor, it really drove home the value of open file formats and reusability! A lot of the later work on the project would have been impossible had we used Illustrator and Matlab.


We were working with a British company on a new digital mixing console at the time. Our team was mostly responsible for the software side of the project, while the British company was mostly concerned with the hardware. One big issue was that in order to get a testable system going, one had to compile some software, run some converter scripts on some files, zip some other files, set up the prototype hardware correctly, then send all the files to the prototype in the right order. Forget one step, or take an outdated version of something, and the system would not work.

It was a disaster. We would lose days debugging nonexistent issues, only because we had forgotten to update such-and-such library, or renaming some debugging file. It would be easy to blame this on my colleagues. But the reality is, no-one had ever done a project this large before, and our tools were utterly incapable of build automation of this kind.

In the end, I wrote some crazy Rube Goldberg Machine that integrated GNU make with Visual Studio, and delegated all the packaging and converting to makefiles. It would even download a large set of Unix tools and a full installation of Ruby if need be. I can't say I'm proud of this wild contraption, but anything is better than wasting days debugging non-issues. To its credit, there have been zero issues with wrongly packaged files with this system in place. I can not tell you how much stress and conflict this simple act of automation relieved. Never have a human do a machine's work.

Lua and DSLs

When I started on the job, a colleague of mine handed me a copy of "Programming for Windows 95", and told me to read it since he had modeled the internal GUI library after it. This was 2010. I was very unhappy about this. In the following years, I would rework many a subsystem within this library. But the more I changed, the more I had to take responsibility for the library. Before long, I had taken official ownership of the library, and I had to answer to questions and feature requests.

This turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gave me a great deal of freedom and authority in my own little world. On the other hand, I didn't really care for responsibility for this much legacy code in an application domain I was not particularly interested in. Thus being motivated to change things had its upsides though, and I learned a lot when implementing a font rendering engine, a bitmap caching and memory allocation system, and various configuration mechanisms on an embedded platform.

But, at the end of the day, there is only so much you can do with a bad code base in a bad subset of C++ (largely due to compilers, not people). In another slow-going week when GUI work was not particularly important, I investigated implementing a scripting layer for our framework. We were not very optimistic about this, since the scripting engine had to run on a terribly slow embedded processor that was already running almost at capacity.

We chose the scripting language Lua for the job, since it was tiny, and easy to embed (in both meanings of the word). Lua turned out to be a stellar choice! As scripting systems often go, the Lua code took over most of the frontend work in the application. Before long, all the GUI layout was done in a Lua DSL instead of XML. Imagine creating 200 buttons in a two-line for loop instead of 200 lines of XML. Also, I consider the book Programming in Lua one of the pivotal books in my programming career!

All the GUI and hardware interaction was done in Lua. The mixing console had some 40000 parameters, and a terrifying number of hardware states. I daresay that it would have been all but impossible to implement the complex interplay between all of these states in a less dynamic environment than Lua. Years later, one of the later maintainers of the product told me how this system had saved his sanity many times. This was one of the proudest moments in my career!

I vividly remember the feeling of liberation when I transitioned from C++ to Lua. I don't think we would have managed to ship the mixing console in time without Lua. In fact, there was one feature from the old analogue mixing consoles that they never managed to implement in the newer digital consoles, because it was just too hard. With Lua, it was a giant headache, but it worked. Never underestimate the power of a different language when problems seem impossibly hard.

The role of boredom in my job

The Lua experiment started in a time when work was slow, and idle thoughts had the time to mature into ideas. The system automation was started in a similar time. I was lucky to have had a few of those weeks. Some of them amounted to cool projects in the company, others I spent on improving myself.

I always had a bit of a fetish for text editing. I just love the act of feeding thoughts to the computer through a keyboard. To me, it is a much more satisfying experience than using a pencil and a sheet of paper. At the university, I used Vim on Linux, then Textmate on OS X, then XCode. On the job, I was then forced to use Visual Studio, which still holds a special place in my heart, as one of the most miserable editing experience I ever had (though Lotus Notes and Microsoft Word only rank lower because I used them less).

It should come as no surprise then, that I was overjoyed when I discovered ViEmu. It really transformed my work at the time – what was previously a chore was now made enjoyable by the feeling of power conveyed through the Vim key bindings in Visual Studio! And this improved even further when I used another spare week to finally learn how to properly touch-type. These days, I am typing in Emacs, but enough has been written about that already.

I had one colleague who only used his two index fingers for typing. Seeing him type was maddening. But the worst thing was not his typing, but what he was not typing. Naturally, variable names were short, documentation was sparse, and code was optimized for brevity. He even resorted to some graphical code editing monstrosity, just to save himself some typing. I have written a Visual Studio tool that automatically filtered out some of the junk this tool produced, and wrote wrappers around his libraries to make them usable for other people. Seriously, don't be that guy. Typing is a core competency for any developer.

Open Source

Besides all of the GUI work I did for the company, I was actually hired for audio algorithm development. Since we didn't get a license for Matlab, I quickly grew to love Python instead. At the time, Python was right in the middle of the transition from Python 2 to Python 3, and one of the libraries I needed was Python 2 only. In another one of those fateful slow weeks, I set out to translate it to Python 3.

I didn't know much Python at the time, so the result was not exactly perfect. The maintainer of the library however was really nice about this, and helped me figuring out the problems with my code. This was the first time I ever talked to any programmer outside my company! And even better, this programmer seemed to be a professor at MIT, or something, and likely a lot more experienced and intelligent than I was! I was incredibly lucky that this first contact with the open source world was such a kind and positive one.

Not too long after that, I started writing my own open source libraries, and publishing them on the web. And before too long, people began using those projects! And then they started contributing to them as well! In a way, one of my main griefs with working for a company has always been that there are so few people with which you can talk about the things you do all day. And now, suddenly, random people from all over the world are showing interest and help for the things I do in my spare time! I really can't emphasize enough how much this involvement with the open source community and other people has improved my view of the world, and my understanding of the work I do!

My next adventure

This has been a summary of the things I did so far. It has been an incredible journey, and one that never stopped to surprise me. Now I am finishing my master's thesis, and getting ready for a doctorate after that. All the work I did and do is based on the incredible work of people before me. At least for the time being, I want this to be the goal of my further work: To advance the sum total knowledge of the world, if only by a tiny bit.

For this, my most important tool is still programming. Learning how to program is an immensely valuable skill, and doubly so if your job title is not "developer" or "programmer". Programming is not just a tool to talk to the computer and earn a living. We should not forget that programming is also a rich thinking tool for trying out new ideas, and sharing them with other people.

For the moment, I have no desire for being beholden to some company dictating my goals and hiding my achievements. Writing this up has proven to be a very liberating and insightful experience for myself, just the way my research journal is for my day-to-day work. Putting ideas and algorithms in writing is an incredibly useful tool for finding one's place in the world and contributing to its betterment!

Tags: programming
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