Programming for the People: A FutureTalk With Women Who Code

by New Relic
June 22, 2015

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By Christian Sinai

With 25,000 members in 15 countries, Women Who Code is a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. For our latest FutureTalks event, New Relic joined forces with Caterina Paun, co-director of Women Who Code’s Portland chapter, to host a Networking Night that featured half a dozen software engineers talking about their innovative work. Covering a broad range of topics and deploying a wide array of animal photos, the presenters entertained as they educated, making the night a tremendous success.

Code is for people

It’s a simple truth, but one sometimes forgotten when you’re deep in the trenches of the coding process: Code is for people. And no matter whether your project is personal, internal, or potentially global, it’s important to keep that fact in mind.

That was the advice offered by Emily Hyland, senior software engineer at New Relic. A Ruby and JavaScript specialist, Emily believes in “programming for humans.” Or, more specifically, in prioritizing the user experience (UX). Critically, she’s not just talking about the eventual user of your software or app, but also the fellow programmer who may wind up working with your API.

“Your computer doesn’t care what your code looks like,” says Emily, “but your colleagues do.”

A positive UX depends on simplicity. Also, the user’s ability to form an emotional connection with the code. Sound a little strange? Not to Emily. The more elegant the code—the moresense it makes to the programmer as they navigate its unique components and protocols—the more pleasure they take from working with it. And happy programmers are a whole lot more effective than unhappy ones.

Does your code make sense?

Emily believes in the principle of “affordance”—the way in which specific qualities or properties of an object define or clarify its intended use. For example, the handle on a coffee cup provides an affordance for holding. When writing code, the terms you use might make perfect sense to you in that particular moment, but may prove incomprehensible to your colleagues later on. By paying attention to the affordance of your code, you can increase its usability down the road.

Why? Because when people can tell what something’s for, they’re less afraid to jump in and play with it. Because a consistent interface lets users apply things they’ve already learned, rather than keeping them guessing about what to do. And because when they sense that you designed your API with their personal happiness in mind, they’ll be inspired to make your great work even better.

Imagine the end user

This all sounds terrific in theory. But how does someone put it into practice? Emily offers a few suggestions, including taking a moment before you dive into the coding process to imagine the eventual users and their goals. Better still, write the README file before you write the code—doing so forces you to think about how the software will actually be used, not just how it will be implemented.

If that’s not possible, it’s never too late to think in terms of UX. Step back every so often during the coding process to consider your approach. If you’re in the review phase, you’re in the perfect frame of mind to reflect on what you’ve written. Consistency, simplicity, compliance with established conventions—all are great to prioritize in your mission to make your code as people-friendly as possible.

Emily’s was just one of five fascinating presentations you can watch in the video below. The others include

  • Alice Goldfuss on why Docker is so great
  • Katie Leonard and Zoe Kay on the perks and pitfalls of upgrading Ruby on Rails
  • Ashley Puls on monitoring and delivering performance
  • Katherine Wu on moving from ActiveRecord to a service

To learn more from these Women Who Code, watch the full FutureTalk presentation.

 

For more information about our FutureTalks series, make sure to join our Meetup group, New Relic FutureTalks PDX, and follow us on Twitter @newrelic for the latest developments and updates on upcoming events.

About the Author

Christian Sinai manages the FutureTalks speaker series at New Relic. He is a former architect (emphasizing sustainable design) and tech startup entrepreneur. View posts by Christian Sinai.

 

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