Why Do Developers Prefer Certain Kinds of Tools?

In my experience, software developers generally prefer some flavor of programmer’s tools when it comes to getting things done. We like plain text, text editors, command line programs, source control, markup, and shells. In contrast, non-developer computer users generally prefer WYSIWYG word processors and GUIs. Developers often have somewhere between a distaste and a revulsion to WYSIWYG editors.

Why is this? What are programmers looking for that other users aren’t? What I believe it really comes down to is one simple idea: clean state transformations. I’m talking about modifying data, text or binary, in a precise manner with the possibility of verifying the modification for correctness in the future.

Think of a file produced by a word processor. It may be some proprietary format, like a Word’s old .doc format, or, more likely as we move into the future, it’s in some bloated XML format that’s dumped into a .zip file. In either case, it’s a blob of data that requires a complex word processor to view and manipulate. It’s opaque to source control, so even merging documents requires a capable, full word processor.

For example, say you’ve received such a document from a colleague by e-mail, for editing. You’ve read it over and think it looks good, except you want to italicize a few words in the document. To do that, you open up the document in a word processor and go through looking for the words you want to modify. When you’re done you click save.

The problem is did you accidentally make any other changes? Maybe you had to reply to an email while you were in the middle of it and you accidentally typed an extra letter into the document. It would be easy to miss and you’re probably not set up to easily to check what changes you’ve made.

I am aware that modern word processors have a feature that can show changes made, which can then be committed to the document. This is really crude compared to a good source control management system. Due to the nature of WYSIWYG, you’re still not seeing all of the changes. There could be invisible markup changes and there’s no way to know. It’s an example of a single program trying to do too many unrelated things, so that it ends up do many things poorly.

With source code, the idea of patches come up frequently. The program diff, given two text files, can produce a patch file describing their differences. The complimentary program is patch, which can take the output from diff and one of the original files, and use it to produce the other file. As an example, say you have this source file example.c,

int main()
    printf("Hello, world.");
    return 0;

If you change the string and save it as a different file, then run diff -u (-u for unified, producing a diff with extra context), you get this output,

--- example.c  2012-04-29 21:50:00.250249543 -0400
+++ example2.c   2012-04-29 21:50:09.514206233 -0400
@@ -1,5 +1,5 @@
 int main()
+    printf("Hello, world.");
-    printf("Goodbye, world.");
     return 0;

This is very human readable. It states what two files are being compared, where they differ, some context around the difference (beginning with a space), and shows which lines were removed (beginning with + and -). A diff like this is capable of describing any number of files and changes in a row, so it can all fit comfortably in a single patch file.

If you made changes to a codebase and calculated a diff, you could send the patch (the diff) to other people with the same codebase and they could use it to reproduce your exact changes. By looking at it, they know exactly what changed, so it’s not some mystery to them. This patch is a clean transformation from one source code state to another.

More than that: you can send it to people with a similar, but not exactly identical, codebase and they could still likely apply your changes. This process is really what source control is all about: an easy way to coordinate and track patches from many people. A good version history is going to be a tidy set of patches that take the source code in its original form and add a feature or fix a bug through a series of concise changes.

On a side note, you could efficiently store a series of changes to a file by storing the original document along with a series of relatively small patches. This is called delta encoding. This is how both source control and video codecs usually store data on disk.

Anytime I’m outside of this world of precision I start to get nervous. I feel sloppy and become distrustful of my tools, because I generally can’t verify that they’re doing what I think they’re doing. This applies not just to source code, but also writing. I’m typing this article in Emacs and when I’m done I’ll commit it to Git. If I make any corrections, I’ll verify that my changes are what I wanted them to be (via Magit) before committing and publishing them.

One of my longterm goals with my work is to try to do as much as possible with my precision developer tools. I’ve already got basic video editing and GIF creation worked out. I’m still working out a happy process for documents (i.e. LaTeX and friends) and presentations.

Have a comment on this article? Start a discussion in my public inbox by sending an email to ~skeeto/public-inbox@lists.sr.ht [mailing list etiquette] , or see existing discussions.

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Chris Wellons

wellons@nullprogram.com (PGP)
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