How To: Debugging and Isolation

There’s a number of skills that I think are critical to being a good engineer. Although my 20-year-old self would have scoffed at the idea, “clear, correct and concise communication” is probably the most important one. As a team gets larger, this gets harder – for everyone. Sharing ideas and knowledge, communicating across groups that do things differently, or just even have a different focus, can be, and often is, a challenge.

One of the places I see this is in the boundary between folks who’ve written or created some code (and implicitly know how some or all of it works) and folks who are trying to use the same – but without the knowledge. They’re learning, trying things out, getting confused, often asking for help.

A conversation often solves that pain point, but someone needs to have that knowledge to have that conversation. Or maybe, it’s not working the way you expected, and you’re now in the state where you need to figure out how someone else got a surprising result. You need a way to do this learning. That is where debugging and isolation come in – techniques to do this learning.

Here’s the dirty little secret: almost nobody, developers and creators of the systems included, keep perfect knowledge of how a system works in their heads. Everyone uses this technique, even if they don’t call it as such. Knowing it, knowing about it, and using it intentionally is a skill every engineer should have.

In my head, I call this “The game of figuring out how this thing works”. It’s a kind of game I’ve loved since I was a kid, which probably goes a long way to explaining me. Truth is, we all do this as kids, although wrapping some names and a formal process around it isn’t something that most folks do. Point is, you already know how to do this – it’s just a matter of practice to get better and applying it.

Playing this game is simple, here’s how it works:

  • describe the thing you’re trying to figure out
  • make a guess (create a hypothesis) about “if I do XXX, then YYY will happen”
  • try it and see!
    • if it didn’t work, make another guess
    • if it did work, add that to your knowledge
  • rinse and repeat, cook until done, etc

This first sequence is the portion called debugging. It works, but getting to a full description of everything you can do, and every reaction that could come out, is and can be a time consuming affair. What you’re doing in your head is building up a model of how this works – in essence, you’re reverse engineering to figure it out. And yeah, if you clued in that this is exactly the same thing as the “scientific method“, you’re on the right track.

Note that I called it “simple”, not “easy”. This particular game can be very frustrating, just as it can be incredibly rewarding. There are doctoral thesis and research papers on ways to do this better, specific techniques to use in specific situations, etc. In the software engineering world, there’s also tooling to help get you the information you’re after in an easily consumable form. But that’s not always there, and things like the tooling aren’t distributed evenly. Recognize that this can be hard and difficult. It is worth calling that out, because it frequently seems like anything simple should also be easy.

In the debugging I described at the top of this article, you’re doing this as a precursor to figure out to make something work the way you expected it to work, instead of the way it is currently working. Or maybe you’re trying to reproduce what someone else saw, but doesn’t happen for you. Whatever the specific goal you are trying to achieve, the basic process is the same.

So what’s this isolation? Isolation is a way to make debugging easier and faster, and makes things a bit easier to generally figure our problems. The whole idea behind isolation is that you can often take a problem and break it down into subproblems that can be solved independently. Or said another way, most “things” are made up of components that are assembled together, and you can often use this structure to reduce the scope or what you’re guessing about.

Most things we build are like this, and we tend to naturally think about things in hierarchies and layers. Sometimes there is the trick of even figuring out what something is made of (that would be why we’re smashing atoms together: to break them apart and figure out what they’re made of), but when you’re working on figuring out a software problem you have the benefit of having some nice clean boundaries on that problem. Well, hopefully clean boundaries. Often it’s written done, or you can ask someone, or if it’s open source, you can read the code.

I go back and forth between isolation and debugging techniques. I start off making sure that I understand how something is put together by coming up with my tests and verifying them, and when something doesn’t work as I expected, then I break it down into the smallest piece of the puzzle that isn’t working the way I expected.

Keep a piece of scrap paper around while you’re doing this. It’s my cheap version of a scientists lab notebook. I personally love butcher paper and a few colored pens, or a good whiteboard – but I mostly make do with a legal notepad and whatever pen happens to be at hand. Draw the diagrams of what you’re thinking the system is broken down into. Then draw how they’re interacting. Don’t try to keep it all in your head. Just the act of drawing it out and scribbling on a piece of paper can help organize your own mental model of what is happening and how they are connected.

There is a side bonus to scribling down notes and diagrams as well: when it comes time to communicate with someone else, you have something you can share. I’m a very visual person – I like to describe with diagrams, and sometimes a prodigious amount of hand waving – showing movement, focus of conversation, etc. In general, sharing a visual representation of what you’re talking about with others can be a great way of helping explain what you’ve learned to someone else.

There are plenty of formal ways to do this drawing (UML diagrams such as layer diagrams, sequence diagrams, etc).  While you are doing this for yourself – draw in a way that is meaningful to you. Writing the notes is for you first and foremost – if you want to share this information, you can clean it up after the fact. Bubbles and lines connecting them is one I like to use – scrawling graphs if need be. Sometimes layers and boxes makes more sense. And most of the time I’m doing this sort of thing, it’s the interactions between components – their sequences and what happens next – that you’re diagramming and trying to figure out (this is where different colored pens come in handy, plus who doesn’t like lots of colors in the diagram!)

At the end of this process, you are probably trying to share this detail with someone else. I would encourage you to use the adage that was drilled into me by physics professors in college: show your work. There is nothing wrong with taking a photo of your notebook page where you figured out where something wasn’t working as you expeced, and including that with writing describing what you found, and what you’re after.

Most systems these days make it easy to include pictures as well text – bug reports and pull requests in github, for example. I have a set of employees who just aboslutely adore putting this kind of thing in powerpoint. Honestly, whatever works and you can share with someone else is good. There is a whole set of skills around communicating clearly, but just getting the process started is more than half the battle.

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