Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Lessons from 41 years of programming

I don’t blog much about the nuts and bolts of programming, because I know enough to know that others know more than me, but increasingly I’m aware of how other people code, and feel that I probably do have *some* worthwhile advice on the topic. Not many people have been programming for 41 years, especially given how coding seems to skew young, so here we go…

First some background, I started coding in sinclair BASIC on the ZX81 aged 11. I took some time away from code to try and be a musician, and then worked in IT support, but I have worked as a full time programmer for the last 25 or so years. After a while its hard to keep track! I basically code video games in C++. Thats it. I know some php, but not much. I can probably remember some BASIC, but not much. Yes, I’ve been coding 25+ years in a single language.

Lesson #1 Learn a single thing well.

I sometimes do some stuff that would probably be a bit easier in C#, or Rust, or Java, or probably some other language I have not even heard of. I don’t care. I am a massive believer in knowing how to do one thing super well. This is very unusual, because these days, coders are hired as a shopping list of buzzwords. Adverts for coding jobs amuse me no end. They always want someone with experience of 10 different languages. Did the lead programmer have a problem deciding which to use? When you want a coder who knows 10 languages, you get someone who is mediocre in lots of different ways. Thats not ideal.

The ‘familiar with 10 languages’ trope is common because non programmers understand it. A coder with 10 languages must be more skilled than one with just 1 right? To a non coder, its all unintelligible gibberish anyway, they have no way to tell a really GREAT c++ coder from someone who just knows a bit of syntax. Recruitment consultants and idiotic managers without coding experience have created a world where everyone is truly rubbish at 100+ different programming languages.

We do not expect this in other fields.”Doctor wanted. Must be a throat expert / hearing expert / heart specialist / Neurosurgeon”. We also manage to get by in our lives speaking only a single language. Sure, french is more romantic, German more precise, Spanish more passionate, English more subtle, but we don’t change languages constantly in our day to day lives! Tip: If you work for yourself, learn ONE language super well. Only learn others if they are absolutely essential for the task in hand. You can do almost anything in C++.

Also note that being really good at one language does not mean learning every possible feature (see next lesson), but it means using that language so MUCH, in so many different circumstances, that you know the best way to get things done using that language. (by best I mean reliably, efficiently and legibly).

Lesson #2 Language features are optional.

C++ lets you override operators. It also supports templates and the stringizing thingy (## i think?). I don’t use any of them. I use maybe a quarter of C++. Most of the newer stuff seems like solutions looking for a problem. Its FINE to just stick with the feature set you find to be most usable for you. Nobody is going to point at you at parties and mock you in front of the opposite sex because you don’t use the whole range of C++ features in every program.

There are multiple ways to handle files in C++. fopen, iostream, CreateFile() etc. I use the old fashioned fopen() stuff. I know the syntax super well. I can type it as fast as I can speak. This is fine. I’ve never had someone leave me at the altar for not using iostream.

I am constantly told by people I am reducing my productivity by sticking with old, outdated and cumbersome systems when new-fangled ones have apparently done the same but better. Without exception I am more productive than everyone who tells me this.

Lesson #3 Legibility is the goal.

Coders start off as n00bs with no confidence or idea how to do things. They then go through a ‘gunslinger’ phase, filled with the coders equivalent of testosterone, where they write ‘impressive’ code, that uses cool obscure language features or fancy techniques to do whizz-bang stuff that impresses other coders at parties. This phase lasts about a decade, or maybe longer if you are in a big company with bosses that need impressing.

The ultimate stage for a coder is to realize that ‘impressive code’ phase is just so much adolescent bullshit. The goal of code is to be reliable, efficient and legible. That last one really matters. If there is a way to perform a task that is simple, clear, and a way that I have used 100x in the past, then thats the way I do it. There may be a ‘cool’ way to do that task that involves callbacks and threading and whatever the heck microservices are… but why over-complicate things when you can just write simple code that you will understand instantly on reading it in 10 years time. 99.99% of the impact of your code is on the users, not the other coders who might glance at it. My code probably looks simplistic, very literal, very accessible for even non coders to read. I’m happy about that.

Lesson #4 Consistent Formatting

No 2 coders ever agree on how to format code. I have my own opinions which I shall not bore you with, but here are two thoughts: Firstly, be aware that a lot of ‘standard’ ways to format code were dreamed up before we had intellisense and visual assist. If you are still relying on a naming convention that shows you what is a function, what is an enum and what is a variable… then its kind of pointless. We have syntax-coloring now. You don’t need to do that, and can get back some much needed legibility. No more LpSZ_mem_Name.

Secondly…and this is even more important, the goal of code formatting is to minimize the cognitive load on the person reading it. Most programs do complex things, and to debug or add features, you need to maintain a HUGE network of complex stuff in your head as you work. If you are having to mentally translate a lot of different variable-naming conventions and code layouts in your head as you read then you will be amazed at how much








Our brains seem very good and building up mental translation systems. if you have text in ALL CAPITALS then we adjust to it ok. Pretty much *any* coding standard is fine… as long as you have only one. This is another reason why I hate middleware, because obviously its all formatted differently. Having to chop and change mentally between different ways of doing the same thing adds huge mental overload.

If I ran a studio, the question ‘will you agree to 100% without question always follow the code style guide of the company or face immediate dismissal’ would be the first interview question for new hires.

Lesson #5 Be aware of the overhead.

Almost all modern code is absolute trash, total garbage, an embarrassingly badly constructed towering pile of crud that should bring deep shame on everybody who wrote it. People with a lot of coding experience tend to agree on this topic. I think its inevitable, given that the demand for coders vastly outstripped that number of people with experience. Maybe over time it will be redressed, but I worry that these days coders are just used to code being crap and do not understand its even a problem. You don’t need 20 years experience to post a useless reply on stackoverflow. Sadly.

Its REALLY instructive for you to step through every single line of code in the execution of the stuff you do. If you are an app developer relying on middleware that is closed source… i pity you. A simple step through one instruction of yours probably means running 5,000 lines of bullshit layers of code that you will never see. This is why we all have incredible supercomputers, and yet we stare at progress bars…

If you are lucky enough to have full source access, or have written it all yourself (yay!), then do the ‘step-through-everything’ test regularly. It will AMAZE you how much code seems to be run without actually being needed. The inefficiency of most code is mind-boggling, and its because hardware has outrun software so much that we can write code that runs at 1% efficiency and hardly anyone complains.

Learn how to use a profiler, and go through your code looking at where all the time is spent. Its actually REALLY interesting, and kinda fun. I enjoy spending time in stuff like aqtime, or vtune. If you have not profiled your code, then you have not finished it. You are not a software engineer if you have not done the post-coding analysis of what the code actually *does*.

Lesson #6: Avoid massive functions, and massive source files.

There are technical reasons for this, in terms of compile times etc, but it really comes down to the overall structure of code. If you have a function that is 100 lines long or more… then you have probably fucked up. If a single source file for a class is 1,500 lines long…then you have probably fucked up. (yes, I know about function call overhead. Are you working on spacecraft control systems that have to run at 5,000 fps with minimal power? I am guessing no, so don’t worry about that trivial overhead here)

The most common mistake that leads to buggy, hard-to-work-with C++ code is that classes are too big, and functions too long. A function does one thing. The clue is in the name. What tends to happen is people start off with a perfectly reasonable class and functions, then they add functionality (ha!) and the class sprawls, and the functions sprawl. What was once a perfectly reasonable Update(), becomes 100 lines long. What was once a reasonable Entity class suddenly becomes a behemoth.

This is normal. You now need to work out the cleanest, most sensible way to break that class into multiple objects or derived classes, and change the layout so that the code is done in more single-focused functions. This is not some bothersome task that wastes time… this is literally software engineering. This is the difference between a coder and a software engineer. This vastly increases the legibility and debugability of your code.

Getting code to work is just the easy bit. The hard bit is knowing exactly how to layout the relationships between objects and functions so that everything seems sensible, and organised. Knowing how to do this takes a lot of experience, and is normally the outcome of many bleary-eyed 3AM debugging nightmares where you stare at the big giga-function when you are nested 16 deep into curly brackets wondering what the fuck its supposed to do.

Call stacks are your friend! Call stacks are amazing. I have the call stack always open at the bottom of my screen. I offload my mental model of ‘how we got to be here’ into the callstack window. I find this incredibly helpful. Making sense of the flow of code through the callstack window is 100x easier than keeping mental callstacks in mind as you navigate giant functions.


These are my broad thoughts on stuff I wish I knew earlier. I’m sure lots of people disagree, and thats fine, I’m not starting a political movement here, just sharing my experience. Sadly, the awful state of modern coding is largely outside coder’s control, due to incompetent managers, feature-centric marketing and tech-ignorant recruitment practices. I hope its of some interest to solo coders or lead coders with complete control of how a codebase is made.

9 thoughts on Lessons from 41 years of programming

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this. I know C, and I only program in C. Unfortunately, VS2019 didn’t like pure C (GCC compiled my C99 code into working executables, but VS2019 threw impossible to debug segfaults – it was to do with allocating arrays of strings with Vulkan API). So now I’m using .CPP source files and the C bit of C++11: No classes or object instances, apart from a handful of std::vectors to solve the string array problem. So this is all procedural programming using basic language features like arrays, structs and enums. The game logic and update code is blazing fast, it barely registers on the perf check. I did have a problem with compilation time but using CMake to create ‘intelligent’ makefiles has reduced that significantly. (There are over 50 small source files in the game and .y custom engine.) It’s nice to know that people like yourself and for example, J. Blow still care about keeping things simple, fast and bloat free in this framework obsessed world.

  2. Wise words indeed. There is an argument for carefully cherry picking modern features that are truly useful: lambdas, auto, but on the whole, mastering the full stack, becoming an expert is the end game in our field. There’s a youtube video doing the rounds where John Carmack says “using JavaScript libraries is like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia animating broomsticks with magic that he doesn’t really understand and eventually making a really big mess”.

  3. > but why over-complicate things when you can just write simple code that you will understand
    > instantly on reading it in 10 years time. 99.99% of the impact of your code is on the users,
    > not the other coders who might glance at it.

    Right argument, but odd conclusion to the sentence. The users don’t care what your code looks like or how bad it is. Other coders however will appreciate your simple, easy to read code enormously even if the other coder is just an older version of you.

    I looked at John Carmack’s code for Doom recently and I was struck by how it was clear and easy to to read. That uses a lot of clever techniques and I was expecting it to be a spaghetti nightmare (cleverness and clarity rarely mix) but was pleasantly surprised.

    1. Yeah, that reads funny now I re-read it. What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t write flashy code to impress other programmers, but focus on code that can be maintained better (as you say), so that the actual experience for the end user is better. I didn’t word it well :D

  4. I’ve experienced first-hand this trend of employers looking for coders who can tick off the appropriate boxes, rather than those with solid work experience.

    I’ve been using C# and JavaScript on enterprise software for several years, but have missed out on multiple front-end job opportunities simply because I have not used React in a production environment.

    Along these lines, I suggest anyone responsible for their company’s “coding test” design it such that it doesn’t weed out good programmers with topics than can be quickly learned on the job from other team members or an internet search.

  5. I agree with everything except #6, nowadays I find that having arbitrary size limits on functions or files and breaking it into smaller ones usually slows down my debugging ability. (I’ve never run into performance issues because of function call overhead, so that’s not my issue here.)
    Sometimes it’s just nice to be able to see what everything is done in a function/file by just scrolling through the file, especially when VS’s “Peek Definition/Go To Definition” decides to break suddenly. Today I start breaking things into smaller functions when I see that something will be reused identically elsewhere.

    Dear Imgui is basically a 12000 lines cpp files and is perfectly readable:
    And you get the benefit of no linking at all, so better compile times. (On the biggest pro projects I worked on, linking times were always longer than file compile times, causing slower iterations even on small code changes.)

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