Once testing has uncovered problems, the next step is to fix them. Many novices do this by making more-or-less random changes to their code until it seems to produce the right answer, but that’s very inefficient (and the result is usually only correct for the one case they’re testing). The more experienced a programmer is, the more systematically they debug, and most follow some variation on the rules explained below.
The first step in debugging something is to know what it’s supposed to do. “My program doesn’t work” isn’t good enough: in order to diagnose and fix problems, we need to be able to tell correct output from incorrect. If we can write a test case for the failing case — i.e., if we can assert that with these inputs, the function should produce that result — then we’re ready to start debugging. If we can’t, then we need to figure out how we’re going to know when we’ve fixed things.
But writing test cases for scientific software is frequently harder than writing test cases for commercial applications, because if we knew what the output of the scientific code was supposed to be, we wouldn’t be running the software: we’d be writing up our results and moving on to the next program. In practice, scientists tend to do the following:
We can only debug something when it fails, so the second step is always to find a test case that makes it fail every time. The “every time” part is important because few things are more frustrating than debugging an intermittent problem: if we have to call a function a dozen times to get a single failure, the odds are good that we’ll scroll past the failure when it actually occurs.
As part of this, it’s always important to check that our code is “plugged in”, i.e., that we’re actually exercising the problem that we think we are. Every programmer has spent hours chasing a bug, only to realize that they were actually calling their code on the wrong data set or with the wrong configuration parameters, or are using the wrong version of the software entirely. Mistakes like these are particularly likely to happen when we’re tired, frustrated, and up against a deadline, which is one of the reasons late-night (or overnight) coding sessions are almost never worthwhile.
If it takes 20 minutes for the bug to surface, we can only do three experiments an hour. That doesn’t must mean we’ll get less data in more time: we’re also more likely to be distracted by other things as we wait for our program to fail, which means the time we are spending on the problem is less focused. It’s therefore critical to make it fail fast.
As well as making the program fail fast in time, we want to make it fail fast in space, i.e., we want to localize the failure to the smallest possible region of code:
Replacing random chunks of code is unlikely to do much good. (After all, if you got it wrong the first time, you’ll probably get it wrong the second and third as well.) Good programmers therefore change one thing at a time, for a reason They are either trying to gather more information (“is the bug still there if we change the order of the loops?”) or test a fix (“can we make the bug go away by sorting our data before processing it?”).
Every time we make a change, however small, we should re-run our tests immediately, because the more things we change at once, the harder it is to know what’s responsible for what (those $N^2$ interactions again). And we should re-run all of our tests: more than half of fixes made to code introduce (or re-introduce) bugs, so re-running all of our tests tells us whether we have regressed.
Good scientists keep track of what they’ve done so that they can reproduce their work, and so that they don’t waste time repeating the same experiments or running ones whose results won’t be interesting. Similarly, debugging works best when we keep track of what we’ve done and how well it worked. If we find ourselves asking, “Did left followed by right with an odd number of lines cause the crash? Or was it right followed by left? Or was I using an even number of lines?” then it’s time to step away from the computer, take a deep breath, and start working more systematically.
Records are particularly useful when the time comes to ask for help. People are more likely to listen to us when we can explain clearly what we did, and we’re better able to give them the information they need to be useful.
And speaking of help: if we can’t find a bug in 10 minutes, we should
be humble and ask for help. Just explaining the problem aloud is often useful, since hearing what we’re thinking helps us spot inconsistencies and hidden assumptions.
Asking for help also helps alleviate confirmation bias. If we have just spent an hour writing a complicated program, we want it to work, so we’re likely to keep telling ourselves why it should, rather than searching for the reason it doesn’t. People who aren’t emotionally invested in the code can be more objective, which is why they’re often able to spot the simple mistakes we have overlooked.
Part of being humble is learning from our mistakes. Programmers tend to get the same things wrong over and over: either they don’t understand the language and libraries they’re working with, or their model of how things work is wrong. In either case, taking note of why the error occurred and checking for it next time quickly turns into not making the mistake at all.
And that is what makes us most productive in the long run. As the saying goes, A week of hard work can sometimes save you an hour of thought. If we train ourselves to avoid making some kinds of mistakes, to break our code into modular, testable chunks, and to turn every assumption (or mistake) into an assertion, it will actually take us less time to produce working programs, not more.
Take a function that you have written today, and introduce a tricky bug. Your function should still run, but will give the wrong output. Switch seats with your neighbor and attempt to debug the bug that they introduced into their function. Which of the principles discussed above did you find helpful?