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A kata above

The code kata is a method software craftspeople use to practice their craft. The idea is that you take a problem you understand, like FizzBuzz or Conway’s Life, and build an application that implements it. Then build another one. And another. Pretty soon, you should be quite good at building a thing with well-understood requirements.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Our professional time can be split into two parts:

  • the part where we don’t think we quite understand what we’re meant to be doing.
  • the part where we are wrong.

So what’s the point of being good at implementing well-understood requirements effortlessly? A partial answer is that being able to do so frees up our minds to think about the real problem, which is understanding the real problem. I’m sure our customers will be happy to hear that the only way we have to practice that is to take their money and pretend that we know what we’re doing.

What are the causes of not knowing what we’re doing? I can think of at least two: not knowing what the requirements actually are (which includes knowing what everyone thinks they are but not knowing how fulfilling those will change them), and having an existing system to adapt to the new requirements. A lot of the time, both of these are unknown.

We already have plenty of “work with legacy code” katas. We call them open source issue trackers. Find a project, find a bug, dive in and fix it. Practice working with code that’s new to you, and already solves most of its problems.

You’ll find that with open source and free software, the two extremes of bugfixing get practiced a lot. At one end, people are willing to fix trivial bugs that mean inserting one if into the existing code. At the other end, people will do complete rewrites, throwing away working code and its bugfixes to introduce “clean”, though not necessarily working, code. It’s the expanse of space between these, where you need to make substantial changes but without throwing out the beneficial existing behaviour, where there’s space for legacy code katas.

But maybe we also need the “requirements kata”. Think of one of your interests that isn’t programming, and find a forum on it. Locate a thread where someone has asked a question that’s led to either no answer or a convoluted process to solve their problem, and think about how you could design a software system to solve that, and what other information you’d need to specify it well. Think about how you’d validate that the derived system actually solves the problem.

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