For developers

Fool-Proof Way To Start Reading Code The Right Way As A Coder

Developers often find themselves spending most of their time writing the perfect code. They seem to be relentlessly typing statements in their software development tools, thinking, stopping, typing again, and a few clicks later, voila! There it is, the code you just wrote. However, is writing code enough? No, it would be best if you made the process of reading code easier.

The developer’s community often says that you can only become a great coder if you are fully adept at reading code easily. However, reading code is not as simple as it sounds. It requires a lot of dedication, attention to detail, practice, and trying to get into the minds of the writer. Understanding how to read code is essential in order to be better in hands-on with the new avenues you will be undertaking in the long run as a coder.

The problem of not reading code

Most coders have trouble reading code correctly!

Yes, that’s right. Even though it sounds like a regular part of their jobs, coders encounter different problems in reading code.

There might be multiple reasons why a developer faces difficulty reading code or the codebase. Sometimes, they can read code but may find it complex to understand the extremely large chunks of code and its correlation. Also, most coders cannot understand the intention and the design of the code written by someone else. They usually do not understand the nuances of the missing fragments, if any, while reading code or how it will proceed to connect the dots.

Alas, the ability to understand all these intricacies is rare in most programmers today. Coders can “read code” but most of the time they fail to comprehend it and its nuances from a larger perspective.

So, the actual problem is not that coders are not adept at reading code. The problem is that coders do not have great code reading comprehension to effectively read the code.

Significance of reading code

Programmers read codes almost every day during their careers. But the primary question here is: when was the last time you focused on reading code effectively? When was the last time you wondered how to strategize your code reading skills and follow up a great technique to read code better, faster, and in detail?

More often than not, if you are a developer, you probably are either not reading code effectively or are misreading it.

Contrary to popular belief as a developer, you will not always be busy typing code. You will be working in a team with other people where your codebase will be much larger than you would have imagined. It is extremely important to be able to navigate around code, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar the code seems. Therefore, reading code is one of the most important skills you should be learning!

When do developers read code?

Here are a few scenarios when code reading is imperative in a developer’s life.

  • Code reviews are an indispensable part of small teams, sometimes even bigger teams. People will always be reading code and reviewing it more than they write code.
  • When studying and researching important code to understand a developer's perspective or to find a solution quickly.
  • Source code is read while evaluating any copy-pasting potential; for instance, from Stack overflow.
  • Developers indulge in reading code when primary documentation does not meet the benchmark of details presented earlier. This is when your skill on how to read source code effectively comes in handy!
  • To evaluate the overall performance and quality of code which is about to be integrated into one’s product.
  • When trying to fix bugs, either for others or for your code, after a few months or years, the skill of reading code and comprehending it comes in handy.
  • During meetings or presentations, or even during conferences and hackathons.

How to learn codebase reading skills?

Curiosity is the best way to start reading code the right way. When you come across different codes in your everyday life, you will automatically figure out the significance of learning codebase reading skills.

Try to analyze from the perspective “What did the writer of such code think at the time?”. Although it might take some extra time and effort to use this pattern, it will help you discern different reasons behind every single step.

And, if you are working as a part of a huge team, code reviews are the ultimate way to improve your coding skills, especially code reading skills. You just need to relax and follow your instincts. If you find a line of code that is strange-looking to you, or something that does not make sense to you, start by reading code. You can also talk to the codebase writer or the developer who is previously associated with the code where necessary and discuss the points. With this approach, you would probably get a sense of the requirements you wouldn’t have anticipated earlier. You will begin to make sense of why the code is structured the way it is!

So, when you are finally writing the code, you should be thinking about the reader of the codebase. Put yourself in the shoes of a potential reader who will be reading code later. This will force you to think better and justify every step and decision you will take.

Every single code choice will then be derived from different initial requirements, which will improve upon your ability to start working backward, reading and understanding code and all the requirements of the end product.

The best way to understand and read code

The best way to understand and read code written by others is by doing the following:

Find a particular thing and trace the action backward

Find a particular thing you are sure about that the code does, and start tracing the actions back to the end. Imagine for instance that the code you are looking at is creating a small list of all kinds of movie titles. Try to figure out where exactly in the codebase is such a list/file being generated. Find out those specific lines.

So, to read code better, move a step backward from there. Figure out the way to place such information into the file. Move another step back and then figure out where the information is coming from. Keep going back to figure it all out.

Using this method is going to help you through different arenas inside reading code better. This will also give you better insight into different things like:

  • The way the body of the code is put together, where all kinds of functions and variables are located and defined, and other things.
  • The way the writer is styling and structuring their codebase
  • The way the writer is trying to solve a problem in an intuitive and interesting way

But doing this, more often than not, you are going to start understanding the structure and organization of a codebase. Once you start reading code the right way, you will eventually grasp hold of writing it better in the future.

Reading code and writing code go hand in hand. They are more or less two different sides of the same coin. They are forever going to be linked together, inextricably. So, focusing on just one problem, for instance, writing code better is like just coming across half the horizon in this big world. To be a better software developer, you should take both, writing and reading code hand-in-hand.

Read, and then read some more

Keep repeating this process until you can naturally enhance your understanding of reading code the right way, without any external help.

The primary reason why this works so well is that the codebase is technically designed to counter different sets of complex problems. You will always have to keep going “backward,” like a chain reaction to understand what’s going on.

The better understanding you grasp of all different parts in a code, the better you will get at understanding the entire codebase in no time.

And in some years, the more you are into reading code, the easier it will be to grasp, read and understand the meaning behind every step. Gradually, reading code will come naturally to you. You will become faster and better with every passing day.

Final Words

Indeed, reading code is an incredibly underrated and undervalued skill.

Any developer who faces trouble reading code or understanding other’s codes, it is terrible news in the long run, even if they can write code amazingly well. A coder that reads and then writes code the right way will prove bountiful for an organization and its career.

Anyone who has these undervalued skills of reading code well and learning their way around different nuances will need less instruction. They can easily pick up the latest trends and practices to follow them through and through.

Frequently Asked Questions

The best way to read someone’s code is to have necessary knowledge about the programming language it is written in. You necessarily need not be an expert in the same, but if you know the basics, read as much as you can. Try to comprehend bits and pieces one by one. After a few days, those bits and pieces will come together and start making sense. Another way to make this process faster is to find a mentor you can ask questions to. FInd a mentor in the particular language you are trying to read. Ask them all your queries and questions. It might seem like a slow process, but gradually, it will all fall into place and you will be able to read other’s codes fluently.

Coding reading comprehension is the fundamental relationship between basic coding skills and reading comprehension skills to develop a cognitive understanding for people to learn and improve upon the skill to read code better. Reading code better allows you to write better in the longer run. Though an experimental project to allow students to learn computing concepts better, the concept has allowed the best coders around us to improve their skills.

Comprehension of code is dedicated to just one simple aspect - computational thinking. It involves various strategies for a diverse set of people, from different backgrounds to learn better.

Since programming is heavily linked to “reading” in a lot of ways, comprehending code seems to be a resultant aspect of the same. For example, coding involves looking across various points (i.e. instructions in coding), patterns and design (i.e. instructions and sequences), implementing a concept (i.e. developing upon a partially complete codebase, and fixing errors in writing (i.e. debugging).

Just the way we read a book or a newspaper, it is essential to really grasp the meaning of what the words on a paper is trying to convey. Coders, in a much similar way, need to develop coding reading comprehension skills to understand and grasp what the code is trying to convey.

Here’s how you can make your codebase good:

  1. Keep your code simple. If something can be written in five lines, try not to indulge in writing ten lines
  2. Your code should be readable. You are writing for machines, but humans have to read it too. Machines can digest binary information, but making if simple and fluent enough for humans to read and understand is essential.
  3. The codebase should be well-maintained. It if is not maintained and understandable by people, it is certainly not good.
  4. Take some time to write a good codebase. Well-planned and well-designed code is great. However, spending more than half the time into the planning stage is not recommended.
  5. Great codebase is elegantly designed, simple, fluent and easy to understand, efficient and fast, and clearly laid-out.

Contrary to popular belief it does not take a set amount of time, like three or six months to understand a codebase. The general rule of thumb is: “The larger the codebase will be, the more time it will take to understand the same”. To speed the process, here’s what you should do:

  1. Perform tests
  2. Read as much as you can
  3. Talk to your mentors and ask questions
  4. Talk to the writer of the code and ask questions
  5. Fix bugs every now and then
  6. Focus on understanding the structure of the file before you begin understanding the codebase.
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