is great but … always RTFM

Back in the good (?!?) old days of C++ and WinAPI … I was reviewing this bit of code. There was a Windows API call to some registry manipulation function. The next line was an identical call to the exact same function with the exact same parameters and a comment /*this must be here*/. Whaaat?

A quick peek to the MSDN documentation and it was immediately obvious: “oh, he’s disregarding the out-parameter and the return value”. The developer had not read the documentation and therefore did not understand how the API worked.

This was the day I realized not all developers read the documentation of the libraries and tools they use. Sometimes people just fiddle with it until it works… or at least seems to work. Since then I’ve encountered lots of examples of hack-it-until-it-obeys gone wrong. Sometimes you see very strange and unnecessarily complex log4j or log4net configuration files due to the writer not understanding the logger hierarchy and how appenders relate to it.

When I use a tool that is new to me, I like to try to get my mental model aligned with the tool developers. Usually you can get the big picture by reading just the introductory chapters of the manual.

Libraries can also hide nasty surprises buried deep in the documentation. Like this bit from the jQuery css()-method:

“When a number is passed as the value, jQuery will convert it to a string and add px to the end of that string.”

Except, it is not really buried very deep. It is the third paragraph in the method description. I do not tend to read API documentation front to back like a book but anytime I use a method I have not used before, I like to see what the API developers had to say about it.

Browsing the documentation can also give you positive surprises. Fast forward to the land of C# in 2015. I was reviewing some ASP.NET MVC code together with the team member who wrote it. It looked alright to me. The code was using System.Web.Mvc.OutputCacheAttribute.

[OutputCache(Duration = 8*3600)] /* 8 hours */
public ActionResult GetCoolStuff() { … }

I said: “Looks OK to me… … … BTW, have you used this cache thing before? Have you read the API docs?”
“err… no.”
“Well, let’s go see if we find anything useful.”

No need to wade through all the methods & properties, ‘remarks’ is where the important stuff is. In this case we found this sentence: “To avoid code duplication, you can set a cache profile in the Web.config file instead of setting cache values individually in pages.” Hey, if we use that we can change the cache invalidation time on the fly.

[OutputCache(CacheProfile = "CoolStuffOutputCache")]
public ActionResult GetCoolStuff() { … }

It took us all of 2 minutes to browse to MSDN and read the remarks section of the OutputCache class. We gained the ability to change the cache settings on the fly. The original version would have needed a recompile if we wanted to change the cache invalidation time.

Known your tools. Stackoverflow is awesome but to really know your way around you must Read The Fine Manual.


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