Details Matter

Lining up peasOne of the most common aspects that IT students struggle with initially is how detail oriented one has to be. If you write a program and one of the variable names is off by one letter, your program will not work. If you write an SQL query and you leave out a single quote at the end of a string, your query won’t work. If you enter an IP address and it is off by one number, the computer can’t be reached.
The reason we have to be so precise is that computers are not (yet) capable of inferring your intentions in most situations (there are some tools for specific cases such as autocomplete and code completion) and it has to be exactly told what to do. Naturally, this can be frustrating but I also believe it can turn into a very valuable skill. Here are some of the benefits of paying attention to detail:

  1. You need to pay attention to detail to be successful in IT. I gave some example in the previous paragraph but there are many more, of course.
  2. It musters discipline. Paying attention to detail essentially comes down to being disciplined in several ways. See the paragraph below for some tips on how to get better.
  3. You will come across as more professional. Your emails will look better because there are fewer mistakes. You won’t forget to send thank you notes after interviews. Your software won’t crash in production because you envisioned all possible scenarios that could go wrong. These are just a few examples.
  4. Many important things in life require precision. There are many examples but, for example, you better make sure that you understand all the details in any contract that you sign (e.g., a mortgage).

What can I do to become more detail oriented?
The most important thing is to review your work. This means that before running your programming you read through the code again and check for mistakes. Or before submitting an assignment you proofread it. Or before sending an email that you check for spelling and grammar errors. In addition to reviewing your work, it is also important to work without distractions (e.g., see here). Another way to avoid mistakes is to start early and avoid rushing assignments and stress (e.g., see here).

2 comments on “Details Matter”

  1. Maikel Reply

    Hi Mark,

    You’re right! The devil is in the details. That’s why we use test-driven development and review each others code nowadays. The amount bugs that occur in production are far less than what is used to be.

    Maikel Vlasman
    (from De Kwakel ;D )

  2. Mark Voortman Reply

    Hi Maikel, I did not realize people in the Netherlands were following this! 🙂

    To your point about using test-driven development, I believe it can help but I don’t think it’s a silver bullet. As Dijkstra used to say, testing shows the presence of bugs, not the absence (you can never be sure you covered everything in your tests).

    I can recommend the book the Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks (he also has an essay about no silver bullet in software engineering). It’s a must read for anyone involved in software development. As for code reviews, that is definitely very important and should be part of any development process.

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