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Cover image for 20 years later — How I find and fix bugs

20 years later — How I find and fix bugs

xowap profile image Rémy 🤖 ・10 min read

It has been about 20 years since I first tried to fix a bug and I'm pretty sure that at that time I've used the ancestral technique of "print things". Time has passed, I became a professional developer, got more senior, started leading a team to the point where now my job is part anticipating to avoid bugs and part helping juniors fix those bugs. I'm a bug buster and this is my story.

As life might have taught you, there is no silver bullet. Some techniques are good for some situations while some are for others. Not every problem is a nail so you'll need more tools than a hammer. Here we go over my favorite tools when it comes to bug hunting, from crystal clear situations to the most quantum bugs.

The obvious

When talking about debugging, a few classic tricks come to mind. They are the most obvious and while I use them a lot it's important that they don't occupy too much of your mind space. You know what they do, I'm going to explain when to use them — or not.

print things

Every developer will — sooner than later — use print, console.log or their friends to debug their code. You're probably going to expect me to say it's wrong but in truth it's really a worthy tool as long as you use it appropriately.

By example Python comes from the logging standard module. I know it's scary as shit and makes you feel like you're doing some Java, once you slap on some goodies like coloredlogs you're going to feel that it's not that bad. Here is a few reasons to choose a logging module over just writing to std{out,err}.

  • They are made to print data structures and might be helpful in the conversion from memory to string
  • They are often widespread so other tools can integrate with them. By example Sentry will report logs previous to an incident
  • They can automatically come with dates, PID numbers, thread IDs or any kind of contextual information that will help you understand what you're reading
  • You can adjust their level depending on if you're just running the app or if you're explicitly trying to debug it

When to use it — When you've got a complex system and most notably when it's doing some important API calls, data modification, etc. Always good to keep a trace of what is happening. Don't hesitate to preemptively install logs in your app when you still remember what is important to log, which might help you later on to understand a problem. It's also useful to check the order of execution of functions when the sequencing matters.

When to misuse it — Printing stuff is commonly used to check the value of variables inside a function or to understand what is going on during the execution of some code. This is often counter-productive as much better tools exist for these tasks. Introducing...

Debuggers

Debuggers are the most obvious tools for debugging, as the name suggests. I've seen countless juniors and less juniors being afraid of using debuggers. For sure, it's probably intimidating beasts at first glance but their usefulness will make you forget the pain.

The first blocking point to debuggers is often the setup. I know that the Python, Java or even the PHP process is nice with things out of the IDEA family. In the JS world you'll have various luck depending on your build chain and how much of code maps worked (so probably not much).

Once the tool is setup and that you have established some trust in the breakpoints, it's time to start using it. Mainly you can:

  • Explore data structures at a given point in time, with the program completely on pause. Especially useful when using a dynamically-typed language and you're not sure what exactly the data is going to be.
  • Try-and-test expressions quickly and in situ. Very useful for fine-tuning if conditions by example.
  • See what happens step-by-step to finally understand what goes wrong in your code.

When to use it — You've identified more or less where the code goes wrong — by example from the stack trace — but you still need to understand why. Or maybe you're writing some code but you need to know what are your options: what is the precise type of parameters, what properties do they have, etc. Once I've used a debugger simply to understand the behavior of Apache on some precise matters! Debuggers are for precision work.

When to misuse it — Something somewhere is broken but you have no clue what. Something is broken sometimes but you don't know under which conditions.

App-level monitoring

When "on your machine it works" but that production disagrees with you, you'll need to know what exactly happened. And you'll need to know that it happened at all. As mentioned earlier, I personally am very satisfied with Sentry, however other options might be suitable.

  • Get notified as soon as something unusual happens in your code, whether it's an exception or some custom message sent by your code
  • See the decoded stack trace with relevant parts of the source code
  • At each level of the stack, see the value of variables
  • Inspect the logs surrounding the event

When to use it — To detect and understand any bug happening in production. At least, to gather the data that will help you reproduce the said bug and then move to another technique.

When to misuse it — I've not seen any serious misuse of it. Just make sure to disable Sentry when using the app on your dev machine.

The blind

While some bugs are obviously easy to trigger and to locate, others can be very tricky to understand. Maybe they are related to a specific browser version, maybe a specific screen density will cause problems or maybe an undefined sequence of actions will get you into trouble. In those cases, you have potentially no idea of what is going on yet something that worked before is broken now or maybe just a share of your users have an issue.

In those cases you'll often feel like it's not really a bug. That the user is doing something wrong. That they should empty their cache or use a different computer and it will solve the problem. But one thing is for sure: the user is never wrong. At least, your application must not crash due to the user's behavior. And it's not because the bug is elusive that it is less real.

Those special cases are in fact the hardest to debug. We will try here to cover the basic ideas which can let you efficiently unlock the situation.

Bisecting

So you've developed some feature and you know for a fact that it used to work quite well. Maybe you convince yourself by checking the database and seeing that it has indeed been widely used. Yet, now it's broken and you don't know why. Obviously the code that pertains directly to this feature didn't change but something between there and here broke it, the only question being to find out which one of those 200 commits is responsible.

That's where bisection comes into play and more specifically git bisect. In a nutshell, you tell it the most recent commit you known where it worked, the earliest commit you know where it was broken and then it will help you find the exact commit at which the problem happened.

Typically helpful to figure when one of your colleagues introduced this CSS rule in another file which is completely affecting your component.

When to use it — Something worked before and doesn't work anymore but you don't know why. Usually finding the faulty commit will quickly lead to a "oh fuck" moment.

When to misuse it — If you're not sure that it ever worked properly or that the trigger conditions are weird then don't lose your time with this.

Slashing

There is a few contexts where not loading the code will not prevent the app from displaying to some extent. By example if your JS code doesn't load then it's just that some buttons won't work. On the other hand, a syntax error anywhere could cause the whole thing to fail.

When something somewhere in my JS code is preventing the rest from loading, my usual plan would be to comment out all the code except the one that I want to work. Then I check if it works. If it does, I un-comment half of the commented code and vice-versa otherwise. I do this until I find the fault piece of code.

This also applies to server-side logic. I can end up isolating pieces of code by commenting most of the code around it, forcing some conditions, mocking the API responses, etc. This can also be done with unit tests. What matters here is to isolate the precise location of the bug.

Those are just examples, writing a generic guide on this practice would take more than a few paragraphs. The core thinking behind this is to disable everything that could cause harm and that is not necessary to test your feature, then to progressively enable the rest. When you find the precise thing that once enabled breaks your code then you know what to fix.

When to use it — You don't know what but something prevents your code from executing properly.

When to misuse it — That's definitely not a go-to option in many cases. Try to think the problem through and read your code before commenting half your project out.

Random testing

One of the hardest bug I've ever had to find had a report alike to this:

Sometimes when I'm on page X and I click on that button then the app crashes

After inspecting the code of the button through and through it felt like I had no idea what could even go wrong, I figured that the bug was probably the side effect of some middleware, hook or other transversal piece of code. Even armed with this idea though, I could not find what.

So I wrote a custom "unit test". The idea was the following: I scripted a Selenium driver to randomly click on the website and do random actions until those actions lead the "user" to the buggy page. Then it would automatically perform the buggy action and see if the bug was present or not.

After running a few hundreds of those tests and looking at the logs it became obvious that it was the prior navigation to a specific page that triggered the bug. Some code was missing to reset global states. This code had to be present on all the pages but was forgotten from this particular one. I guess the morale of this story is that no breakpoint can ever stop into the code that is missing.

When to use it — This is a last-resort option for when your bug report is "sometimes when I do I'm not too sure what then it crashes". I've had to use it once ever.

When to misuse it — It's so hard to setup that you will hardly think about it if you don't really need it. Although now that I've put this idea into your mind be very careful to actually look for other options before trying this.

The meta

Of course the techniques I've listed above do not cover all the cases that you will ever meet. While I lack the ability to predict your future, I can tell you the general state of mind that will be helpful then.

Don't panic

Don't panic. It's a simple advice but you need to always keep it in mind. I know how hard it is when your project is late and complex and bugs are starting to pop up from all directions.

Don't fucking panic. You've created the software hence you've created the bugs. They are not beyond your ability to solve, I've never ever encountered a bug that I created which was beyond my brain power. Of course sometimes you cannot fix it for whatever reason but at least you will be able to understand it and go around it.

You need to stay very factual. Don't hesitate to log everything you do into a notebook to make sure that your memory doesn't fail you. Be aware that a bug could have many consequences out of domino effect. Remember that you are using some data that was created by a buggy code then maybe some effects of that bug will persist even though you fixed it. Don't hesitate to clean up everything and start again. Methodically and calmly.

And of course, don't multi-task. If you're in an intense debugging session where everything seems to fail, identify the most problematic bug and fix it first. Then identify the second one and continue. Stay calm, keep notes and move forward.

Go to sleep

I've factually solved the hardest problems of my career simply by going to bed. Sleep is paramount:

  • When you're tired your IQ simply goes down because your brain needs some rest.
  • All your thoughts are re-indexed during sleep. When you wake up, the complexity of looking relevant ideas up is decreased by a lot.
  • Beyond that, all brain functions perform better when rested. By example — and that's particularly true if you've got ADHD — the ability to organize.

Often when the day is ending and I'm getting stuck on some stupid things I just close my computer, go home, enjoy my evening, sleep and go back to work the day next. Then I'll open my computer, see the problem, realize that the solution is in fact very simple and get on with my day.

Getting sleep when you need it — even in the middle of the day —  is going to get you much more productive than losing hours stuck dry out of ideas and pushing your body into long hours at night.

Let's stay pragmatic though, don't take a nap every time you receive an exception, but knowing when your brain needs rest will definitely resolve many bugs by itself.

Conclusion

While I've written before about how to avoid making bugs now was the time to consider how to fix the bugs when they present themselves. Sometimes the problem is obvious, sometimes it seems evasive. Yet, it's always a tiny condition or typo somewhere in your code that breaks everything. Changing single line will often resolve the problem. The only question is: which line.

The answer is that if yous stay calm and methodical, there is plenty of tools for you to apply. Of course not all the tools have the same purpose, but overall you'll always be able to find a way to deal with the problem at hands.

Discussion (1)

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aarone4 profile image
Aaron Reese

And don't forget the bug may have been a introduced by a subtle change in business process.

Forem Open with the Forem app