Enter the maze

Christopher Strachey and the secret of being a Wizard Debugger

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

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Elite computer programmers are often called wizards, and one of the first wizards was Christopher Strachey, who went on to be a pioneer of the development of programming languages. The first program he wrote was an Artificial Intelligence program to play draughts: more complicated (and fun) than the programs others were writing at the time. He was not only renowned as a programmer, but also as being amazingly good at debugging - getting them actually to work. On a visit to Alan Turing in Manchester he was given the chance to get his programs working on the Ferranti Mark I computer there. He did so very quickly working through the night to get them working, and even making one play God Save the King on the hooter. He immediately gained a reputation as being a "perfect" programmer. So what was his secret?

No-one writes complex code right first time, and programming teams spend more time testing programs than writing them in the first place to try and find all the bugs - possibly obscure situations where the program doesn't do what the person wanted. A big part of the skill of programming is to be able to think logically and so be able to work through what the program actually does do, not just what it should do.

So what was Strachey's secret that made him so good at debugging? When someone came to him with code that didn't work, but they couldn't work out why, he would start by asking them to explain how the program worked to him. As they talked, he would sit back, close his eyes and think about something completely different: a Beethoven symphony perhaps. Was this some secret way to tap his own creativity? Well no. What would happen is as the person explained the program to him they would invariable stop at some point and say something like: "Oh. Wait a minute..." and realise their mistake. By getting them to explain he was amking them work through in detail how the program worked. Stracheys reputation would be enhanced yet again.

There is a lesson here for anyone wishing to be a good programmer. Spending time explaining your program is also a good way to find problems. It is also an important part of learning to program, and ultimately becoming a wizard.