Intellisense Considered Harmful To Novice Developers

(With apologies to Edsger Dijkstra)

I’ve suspected for a while that many of these coding boot camps and other “learn coding in an accelerated way” are turning out people who know just enough to be dangerous. I say this not to be mean or to denigrate these recent graduates; I’ve met a lot of them and they’re good, hard-working people. They’re genuinely trying to make a big career change and that’s always tough. But they come out of these boot camps with a superficial understanding of software development. Since I was training novice developers for a while I often tried to figure out better ways to train people to be software developers.

So lately I’ve been reading Felienne Hermans’ The Programmers Brain via the Manning Early Access Program. By the way, full disclosure, I am fortunate enough to count myself among Dr. Hermans’ acquaintances. Brilliant person and doing a lot to help us understand how to teach software development. One thing she mentioned in her book is retrieval practice. I have heard this term in other pedagogical literature. It basically means trying to remember some piece of information without reference to a memory aid. The more you try to retrieve something without a memory aid the better it gets lodged into your long term memory. And when things get embedded in your long term memory you start to see more patterns–that is, roughly speaking, the better your long term memory of things the more likely you are to be able to cope with novel situations. I cannot recall the technical discussions I’ve seen on this but as you learn a subject more deeply you develop something akin to an intuition about how things should work.

Dr. Hermans’ mention of retrieval practice finally helped me to articulate something that had been a half-formed thought in my mind for a while. Intellisense and similar technologies–while they are a boon for experienced developers–very likely hinder the learning of novices.

This is why I’m starting to consider intellisense harmful–at least for novices trying to learn coding. Because they’re never forced to try to retrieve syntax from memory it doesn’t stick as easily in their long term memory as it did in the days before intellisense. When you’ve got the immediate feedback that you’ve typed syntax wrong and you can monkey around with your code until the red squigglies go away, then you’re never forced to recall syntax. Or least you can delay committing syntax to long term memory much longer.

I think we need to seriously reconsider starting novices with Eclipse and Visual Studio. I think rather than helping us to turn out more developers I think this is mainly creating novices that will stay at the novice level much longer than they need to.

One response

  1. Id probably blame it more on the fact that a 3-6 month boot camp is not enough learning to remember everything that say a person in a 4 year program has based on the number of years writing software.

    I dont think the tools are bad. Tools are tools, you can cut a tree down with a saw, but if the person is not experienced with that tool, then they can hurt themselves or others.

    Ultimately, the user needs to know what the tool is doing for them and why. I would argue people from these bootcamps still need 3 or 4 years of that discovery phase as interns to figure out those lessons.

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