Programming is not one skill - it's a large conglomeration of skills. Some people are not very good programmers because they aren't very good at imagining their way through an algorithm. Others have great ideas and imagination, but it's painful to watch them type and they can't be bothered to learn how to use their tools (editors, etc) so they just take twice as long as everyone else to create the code. Still others are doing fine until their code does something unexpected, and then things fall apart, because they can't figure out what's going on. They step too soon, spend ages stepping through code that couldn't possibly cause the problem, then get impatient and end up skipping right past the problem. Worse, they don't seem to understand the capabilities of the debugger. I've watched people spend over 5 minutes patiently stepping into so that when they reach a particular line, they know how control reached it. Then I show them the Call Stack window and they say "oh".
I've blogged before about conditional breakpoints and tracepoints, hit counts, and so on. There is so much to the Visual Studio debugger that it is very hard to know it all. But the more you know, the better you are. And what's more, being a great debugger has more value than some of the other programming skills, because so much debugging happens at urgent times, is unexpected, and needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The difference in impact between being good and great is very large.
So how to be a better debugger? Partly, it's practice, especially practice with someone who's really good. That person can say "hey, what are you doing? Here's a way easier way to get there!" Even practice alone can motivate you to learn how to do something and get you reading the documentation or searching the web. You could buy a book, if anyone even buys books any more. You could take a debugging course, and spend a day or a week with someone who really knows every speck of this enormous tool. Of course, that costs money, travel time, and so on. Some of you will do it, and benefit from it tremendously.
But ALL of you can benefit from watching John Robbins' latest set of videos on Channel 9. It's in three parts and they total about three and a half hours. It hits the ground running and just doesn't stop. It's all using Visual Studio 2010 but the vast majority of the features he shows are in earlier versions too. I knew a lot of it (even the Go To Find box and the file opening etc) but I learned new things in the first ten minutes and continued to learn new things as they continued - both actual capabilities of the tool and interesting ways of thinking, like using hit counts on a breakpoint not to stop, but just to count how much some code gets run. I wish I could get the slides and code, but I guess some things need to be saved for the folks who actually take the course.
If you're a .NET developer, watch these videos. Now.
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