David A. Wheeler's Review of Debugging by David J. Agans

March 2, 2004

It's not often you find a classic, but I think I've found a new classic for software and computer hardware developers. It's David J. Agan's Debugging: The 9 Indispensable Rules for Finding Even the Most Elusive Software and Hardware Problems (ISBN 0814471684). This book explains the fundamentals of finding and fixing bugs (once a bug has been detected), rather than any particular technology. It's best for developers who are novices or who are only moderately experienced, but even old pros will find helpful reminders of things they know they should do but forget in the rush of the moment. This book will help you fix those inevitable bugs, particularly if you're not a pro at debugging. It's hard to bottle experience; this book does a good job. This is a book I expect to find useful many, many, years from now.

The entire book revolves around the "nine rules." After the typical introduction and list of the rules, there's one chapter for each rule. Each of these chapters describes the rule, explains why it's a rule, and includes several "sub-rules" that explain how to apply the rule. Most importantly, there are lots of "war stories" that are both fun to read and good illustrations of how to put the rule into practice.

Since the whole book revolves around the nine rules, it might help to understand the book by skimming the rules and their sub-rules:

  1. Understand the system: Read the manual, read everything in depth, know the fundamentals, know the road map, understand your tools, and look up the details.
  2. Make it fail: Do it again, start at the beginning, stimulate the failure, don't simulate the failure, find the uncontrolled condition that makes it intermittent, record everything and find the signature of intermittent bugs, don't trust statistics too much, know that "that" can happen, and never throw away a debugging tool.
  3. Quit thinking and look (get data first, don't just do complicated repairs based on guessing): See the failure, see the details, build instrumentation in, add instrumentation on, don't be afraid to dive in, watch out for Heisenberg, and guess only to focus the search.
  4. Divide and conquer: Narrow the search with successive approximation, get the range, determine which side of the bug you're on, use easy-to-spot test patterns, start with the bad, fix the bugs you know about, and fix the noise first.
  5. Change one thing at a time: Isolate the key factor, grab the brass bar with both hands (understand what's wrong before fixing), change one test at a time, compare it with a good one, and determine what you changed since the last time it worked.
  6. Keep an audit trail: Write down what you did in what order and what happened as a result, understand that any detail could be the important one, correlate events, understand that audit trails for design are also good for testing, and write it down!
  7. Check the plug: Question your assumptions, start at the beginning, and test the tool.
  8. Get a fresh view: Ask for fresh insights (just explaining the problem to a mannequin may help!), tap expertise, listen to the voice of experience, know that help is all around you, don't be proud, report symptoms (not theories), and realize that you don't have to be sure.
  9. If you didn't fix it, it ain't fixed: Check that it's really fixed, check that it's really your fix that fixed it, know that it never just goes away by itself, fix the cause, and fix the process.

This list by itself looks dry, but the detailed explanations and war stories make the entire book come alive. Many of the war stories jump deeply into technical details; some might find the details overwhelming, but I found that they were excellent in helping the principles come alive in a practical way. Many war stories were about obsolete technology, but since the principle is the point, that isn't a problem. Not all the war stories are about computing; there's a funny story involving house wiring, for example. But if you don't know anything about computer hardware and software, you won't be able to follow many of the examples.

After detailed explanations of the rules, the rest of the book has a single story showing all the rules in action, a set of "easy exercises for the reader", tips for help desks, and closing remarks.

There are lots of good points here. One that particularly stands out is "quit thinking and look." Too many try to "fix" things based on a guess instead of gathering and observing data to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Another principle that stands out is "if you didn't fix it, it ain't fixed;" there are several vendors I'd like to give that advice to. The whole "stimulate the failure, don't simulate the failure" discussion is not as clearly explained as most of the book, but it's a valid point worth understanding.

I particularly appreciated Agans' discussions on intermittent problems (particularly in "Make it Fail"). Intermittent problems are usually the hardest to deal with, and the author gives straightforward advice on how to deal with them. One odd thing is that although he mentions Heisenberg, he never mentions the term "Heisenbug", a common jargon term in software development (a Heisenbug is a bug that disappears or alters its behavior when one attempts to probe or isolate it). At least a note would've been appropriate.

The back cover includes a number of endorsements, including one from somebody named Rob Malda. But don't worry, the book's good anyway :-).

It's important to note that this is a book on debugging fundamentals, and different than most other books related to debugging. There are many other books on debugging, such as Richard Stallman et al's Debugging with GDB: The GNU Source-Level Debugger. But these other texts usually concentrate primarily on a specific technology and/or on explaining tool commands, not on timeless debugging principles. A few (like Norman Matloff's Guide to Faster, Less Frustrating Debugging) have a few general suggestions about debugging, but are nothing like Agans' book. There are many books on testing, like Boris Beizer's Software Testing Techniques, but they tend to emphasize how to create tests to detect bugs, and less on how to fix a bug once it's been detected. Of course, once you find a bug, you should add a test for that bug in your regression test suite, but testing (including regression testing) is outside the scope of Agans' book. Agans' book concentrates on the big picture for debugging; these other books are complementary to it.

Debugging has an accompanying website at http://www.debuggingrules.com, where you can find various little extras and links to related information. In particular, the website has an amusing poster of the nine rules you can download and print.

No book's perfect, so here are my gripes and wishes:

  1. The sub-rules are really important for understanding the rules, but there's no "master list" in the book or website that shows all the rules and sub-rules on one page. The end of the chapter about a given rule summarizes the sub-rules for that one rule, but it'd sure be easier to have them all in one place. So, print out the list of sub-rules above after you've read the book.
  2. The book left me wishing for more detailed suggestions about specific common technology. This is probably unfair, since the author is trying to give timeless advice rather than a "how to use tool X" tutorial. But it'd be very useful to give good general advice, specific suggestions, and examples of what approaches to take for common types of tools (like symbolic debuggers, digital logic probes, etc.), specific widely-used tools (like ddd on gdb), and common problems. Even after the specific tools are gone, such advice can help you use later ones. A little of this is hinted at in the "know your tools" section, but I'd like to have seen much more of it. Vendors often crow about what their tools can do, but rarely explain their weaknesses or how to apply them in a broader context.
  3. There's probably a need for another book that takes the same rules, but broadens them to solving arbitrary problems. Frankly, the rules apply to many situations beyond computing, but the war stories are far too technical for the non-computer person to understand.

But as you can tell, I think this is a great book. In some sense, what it says is "obvious," but it's only obvious as all fundamentals are obvious. Many sports teams know the fundamentals, but fail to consistently apply them - and fail because of it. Novices need to learn the fundamentals, and pros need occasional reminders of them; this book is a good way to learn or be reminded of them. Get this book.

Slashdot posted an earlier version of this review on February 24, 2004.

David A. Wheeler is an expert on developing secure programs and quantitative analysis of open source software / Free Software. He lives in Northern Virginia.