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September 29, 2005

Practical Development Environments: A Guide for Toolsmiths--The Unsung Heroes of Software Development

Sebastopol, CA-- You can have great coders, a terrific idea, top-of-the-line technology, even deep funding, but a project can still fail without a toolsmith. Every project has a toolsmith--some are pre-defined full-time positions, but often the de facto (and usually unspoken role) of toolsmith falls to the person who happens to have the skill set, the interest, or who just didn't duck the onerous task quickly enough. Either way, making the choices about tools, installing them, and then maintaining the tools that everyone else depends upon can prove vital to the project. Matthew Doar, author of the just-released Practical Development Environments (O'Reilly, US $39.95) agrees, adding: "A good technical environment for developing software can make or break a project--or even a company."

Building a development environment may not be a sexy topic to most people, but it's an essential one. Developers want to write code, not maintain makefiles. Writers want to write content instead of managing templates. IT provides machines, but doesn't have time to maintain all the different tools. And managers, of course, want the product to move smoothly from development to release. Ergo, the onus of creating and maintaining a productive technical environment rests with the individual who ends up being a toolsmith for his or her group.

Unlike most tech books, Practical Development Environments doesn't tell you how to write faster code, or how to write code with fewer memory leaks, or even how to debug code at all. It's a practical approach to the challenges that confront toolsmiths every day: how to build the product in better ways, how to keep track of the code that's written, and how to track the bugs in code.

"An incredible number of projects don't use any version control at all. That's staggering, given the risk of losing what you've worked so hard on, and how little effort it takes to set up a minimal tool to do this," says Doar. "Many developers spend a lot of their time waiting for a build to finish, so it makes sense to be able to ask where the time was spent. Most build tools can't even tell you that. The book describes some tools that can."

But building an effective development environment is not only not sexy; it's not easy either. How do you decide which tools to use for any given project? What do you look for in a tool--and what do you avoid? Which can you rely on? Which will help automate your processes? How do you discover the pitfalls or annoyances of any given tool--before you're in knee deep?

Practical advice is hard to come by, and trial and error on the fly is not only time consuming and frustrating, but potentially hazardous to the health of a project. "I don't use words like paradigm and ontology," says Doar. "In my book, companies and projects release products, they don't 'optimize passions for agile solutions.' And bugs are called bugs. Toolsmiths need practical commonsense advice--the kind of advice you wish you had thought of before the project began."

Topics include:

  • Tools for tracking version of files
  • Build tools
  • Testing tools
  • Bug tracking tools
  • Tools for creating documentation
  • Tools for creating packaged releases
  • "There are some uncomfortable software development mistakes that most developers have stumbled across--or stepped into," says Doar. Avoiding these costly mistakes easily justifies the price of this essential new book.

    Additional Resources:

    Practical Development Environments
    Matthew B. Doar
    ISBN: 0-596-00796-5, 296 pages, $39.95 US, $55.95 CA
    order@oreilly.com
    1-800-998-9938; 1-707-827-7000

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