Debugging--the practice of programming

With the right attitude debugging can be fun, like solving a puzzle, but whether we enjoy it or not, debugging is an art that we will practice regularly. Still, it would be nice if bugs didn’t happen, so we try to avoid them by writing code well in the first place. Well-written code has fewer bugs to begin with and those that remain are easier to find.

Once a bug has been seen, the first thing to do is to think hard about the clues it presents. How could it have come about? Is it something familiar? Was something just changed in the program? Is there something special about the input data that provoked it? A few well-chosen test cases and a few print statements in the code may be enough.

If there aren’t good clues, hard thinking is still the best first step, to be followed by systematic attempts to narrow down the location of the problem. One step is cutting down the input data to make a small input that fails; another is cutting out code to eliminate regions that can’t be related. It’s possible to insert checking code that gets turned on only after the program has executed some number of steps, again to try to localize the problem. All of these are instances of a general strategy, divide and conquer, which is as effective in debugging as it is in politics and war.

Use other aids as well. Explaining your code to someone else (even a teddy bear) is wonderfully effective. Use a debugger to get a stack trace. Use some of the commercial tools that check for memory leaks, array bounds violations, suspect code, and the like. Step through your program when it has become clear that you have the wrong mental picture of how the code works.

Know yourself, and the kinds of errors you make. Once you have found and fixed a bug, make sure that you eliminate other bugs that might be similar. Think about what happened so you can avoid making that kind of mistake again.