StackOverflow programming

Ever since I found this MS/Bing page about internet search engine aided code completion and read about this NSF grant given to Penn for computer aided programming, I wanted to write a post about my friend, John. He is not really called John, but his name is unique enough that he could be identified if I would use it. He is one of the people I would call StackOverflow programmers (they existed before SO but nowadays almost all results are from SO).

John is a professional coder, that is, he makes a living, a very good living, by writing code. Even more interesting, his annual income is a 6 figure number. Very impressive for a self employed coder who doesn’t do any sales himself and depends on his code to work 24/7. His productivity is on a very high level; he manages to write websites,  mobile apps & games at a speed which is frightening, especially for a programmer like myself and especially considering this guy does not know what he is doing when he is writing software.

He does not understand what arrays are, does not, in fact, really understand the concept of variables. Loops are some sort of magic. Classes are convenient, but how they work exactly… Recursion? Well. Who needs that anyway right? He understands some parts of coding, because he can ask questions in enough detail to know what he has to implement and he usually understand about where  to add/change code. I have not found yet where the knowledge begins / ends.

I have seen ‘his code’ and I have seen him ‘code’. The basic process is like this:

  1. Think up what you want to create
  2. Find some tutorial or open source (free or paid) project which does something close to what you need (pro tip: don’t care what language / framework / tech it is in; that’s easier to find)
  3. Find a HOWTO/tutorial on how to install the software you found
  4. Find a video how to install the development environment for the tech behind the software you found
  5. Find the missing features in the existing software; make a list
  6. Take a feature and search on internet, ask the software creator or ask on IRC ‘how to add the feature’
  7. Collect enough concrete snippets to implement the feature
  8. Change the code to match the naming of the code surrounding where you copy/pasted the snippets in (the Bing code completion does that for you)
  9. Create a new StackOverflow feature with the snippets ‘you tried’ and ask on IRC
  10. Go to 6  until done

I have seen him do this with Objective-C, PHP, Perl, HTML, Javascript and CSS.

Unlike most programmers who are well versed in computer science, language theory, functional programming etc, John has been making a small fortune for the past 9 years selling licences and traffic with products he wrote himself while not really understanding most of anything of what he was doing, but rather by using his business brain and a lot of copy/pasting, tinkering and working at a very hasty pace.

Is this a good or a bad thing? As someone who is very interested in formal verification of software and who is afraid of code like this I can only say, yes it mostly is, especially when someone has to maintain the code after the initial coding spree is over. There is a reason for me saying that though.

Before there was Google and most of the internet and definitely far before StackOverflow, I worked with someone who was the predecessor of a StackOverflow programmer, however it was more the ultimate copy/paste programmer. The procedure worked quite differently than searching the internet; in a Turbo Pascal book, he found the basics of what he needed and he manually copied that to the Borland TP editor under DOS. When it worked a bit like what he wanted on one screen, he proceeded to copy/paste that code literally all over the place to make 100s of programs which sold very well and the follow ups still sell well. Containing things like:

  1. a1=1
  2. a2=2
  3. a3=3
  4. a4=4
  5. a5=5

up to over a500, showing, again a lack of what an array is. The programs had to be split up in units and use Overlay because the way of programming took too much memory to compile and run.

When Windows 3.1 and later on 95 appeared on the market, the applications and the then younger me was the one who was going to port them and support them.  Instead of rewriting them I thought, in my infinite wisdom, that it would be better to write a Windows wrapper around the TP sources instead of rewriting everything to something much smaller and more efficient. Big mistake. Supporting so much manual copy/paste labor which was basically puzzled together by only searching in what there already was (a very small StackOverflow the original programmer made himself).

The code bases from John and the other programmer look at lot a like, as do the gaping holes in their programming knowledge. Funnily enough, both do very well commercially; the latter has been doing very well since the 80’s like that. I know at least two other guys who are doing very well in their jobs employing the StackOverflow search procedure outlined above.

Every since I met John, I have been thinking that it should be possible to use Google to do this automatically. But even further than what MS did with Bing. Maybe Watson and Google (to search StackOverflow) as standalone AI + Watson and IRC to get people to make the details work could get somewhere in the future. The question is of course; what would be the input spec to something like that if there is no human to figure that out in the process. Maybe something to that will win me an award in an obfuscated coding contest!

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