Building Software Together

a student's guide to being a compassionate programmer

Three books changed my life as a programmer. Kernighan1981 taught me that I could do more than just write software—I could design it—while Glass2002 taught me that we could investigate software and software development scientifically, and by doing so discover what actually works and what doesn't.

In between those two books I read Hunt1999, as did many other programmers of my generation. For many of us, it was the first time someone had described the craft of software construction in a way that made sense. When I began supervising undergraduate projects at the University of Toronto in the early 2000s, I referred to it over and over again.

Looking at it and at its twentieth anniversary edition Thomas2019, I am struck by how useful it continues to be, but also by what it doesn't discuss. How do you run a meeting in a way that ensures decisions actually get made and everyone is heard? After working in tech for forty years, I believe that is the most important skill I ever learned. Why and how do tech companies build products that people don't want? Why do they marginalize women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community despite all the evidence showing that more diverse teams are more productive? And given how online platforms have fueled radicalization and disinformation in ways that threaten us all, shouldn't every guide to being a better programmer at least mention the problem?

If you are an undergraduate student embarking on a semester-long software project as part of a team, this book will give you tools that will help you succeed. Some of these are purely technical, like a version control system or an IDE; others are guidelines to help you form teams, manage people who aren't pulling their weight, cut features when time runs short, and understand who owns the things you produce.

Our aim is to teach you how to be a compassionate programmer: one who cares as much about the well-being of their colleagues and users as they do about their own. This focus is not entirely altruistic—everything you do to help others also helps your future self—but now that we all know how much harm software can do, we hope you'll be interested in some practical idealism.

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