Automata, Grammars and Languages, Oh My!

December 26, 2007

As a student in the Engineering college, I thought all the computer science classes were a waste of time. I mean, who cares how to properly define a push down automata and prove that it is, in fact, deterministic? Can P = NP? How do you write a grammar that defines this language? This class was the engineering equivalent of the touchy-feely hippie course that was required to complete my Computer Engineering degree. I mean, we were engineers, we weren’t going to be doing proofs in our future careers. We were going to be paid to implement; and I am being paid to implement software now. 

In much of the code I have seen, there have been far too many examples where a background in computer science was not present in the developer’s mind (minds when pairing).  Not that you have to have a formal degree, or classes, but a fundamental understanding that there are good ways to do things, and bad ways. It goes back to the analogy of having all the tools in your toolbox to use so that every problem does not become the nail to your hammer. If you understand the concept and application of grammars and languages, then you can use the tools available to you to create one. 

I have learned in the time since I completed college and have become a full time software engineer is that you need that background in computer science in order to understand the tools available to you, and to implement them properly.  This is the difference between a software engineer with a college education and a hacker who just writes code.

So, to bring this post to something concrete, let’s look at what I’m working on now. I’ve been tasked with parsing some stuff for an application. I could have just as well created my own parser using my own TDD methods so that at least when I need to make changes to the parsing algorithm or the language changes, I can make changes easily and know where things break, FAST. But I thought to myself. “There is no way I am the first person to encounter this problem, someone else has to have some experience to share” So, poking around, I found an open-source project called ANTLR. Now, to be honest, I’m still trying to wrap my head around certain aspects of what is done by the tool, and how to use it effectively. But, by using this tool, I effectively get a high end custom language parser generated for me based on my language specification. This is also a section of the code I don’t have to directly maintain. I do have to fix language inaccuracies, however, I get a lot of functionality for free. Things like error-checking, multi-language compatibility, and efficient parsing algorithms are useful, and completely maintained by someone else!

This post has turned into an agile leaning example, but this is one of the many tips included in The Pragmatic Programmer. Be sure to learn the tools available to you because while it will be slower at first to grok something new, once you get over the hump, you will be able to use that tool at a moment’s notice, and move on to other problems that need solving.

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