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The Practice of Programming

The Practice of Programming

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by Brian W. Kernighan, Rob Pike

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With the same insight and authority that made their book The Unix Programming Environment a classic, Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike have written The Practice of Programming to help make individual programmers more effective and productive.

The practice of programming is more than just writing code. Programmers must also


With the same insight and authority that made their book The Unix Programming Environment a classic, Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike have written The Practice of Programming to help make individual programmers more effective and productive.

The practice of programming is more than just writing code. Programmers must also assess tradeoffs, choose among design alternatives, debug and test, improve performance, and maintain software written by themselves and others. At the same time, they must be concerned with issues like compatibility, robustness, and reliability, while meeting specifications.

The Practice of Programming covers all these topics, and more. This book is full of practical advice and real-world examples in C, C++, Java, and a variety of special-purpose languages. It includes chapters on:

  • debugging: finding bugs quickly and methodically
  • testing: guaranteeing that software works correctly and reliably
  • performance: making programs faster and more compact
  • portability: ensuring that programs run everywhere without change
  • design: balancing goals and constraints to decide which algorithms and data structures are best
  • interfaces: using abstraction and information hiding to control the interactions between components
  • style: writing code that works well and is a pleasure to read
  • notation: choosing languages and tools that let the machine do more of the work

Kernighan and Pike have distilled years of experience writing programs, teaching, and working with other programmers to create this book. Anyone who writes software will profit from the principles and guidance in The Practice of Programming .

Editorial Reviews

Association of C & C++ Users
This book is full of good common sense. In addition it is written in highly readable English. Pick up a copy, choose any chapter and start reading. I think you will then feel motivated to buy yourself a copy... Whatever language you program in, I think you will benefit from reading this book.
Sys Admin
An outstanding book... a readable and well-written style combined with their experience and valuable expertise.
Dr Dobbs Journal
A great candidate to fill this widely perceived lack in the literature... Very solid and very educational, this manual is one I highly recommend to all programmers.
Rating 9/10: Practical and enjoyable, this book captures its authors' considerable wisdom and experience.
Offers practical advice and examples on programming in C, C++, Java, and a variety of special-purpose languages, with chapters on debugging, testing, performance, portability, design, interfaces, style, notation, and other topics. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

Product Details

Pearson Education
Publication date:
Addison-Wesley Professional Computing Series
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
15 MB
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Read an Excerpt


Have you ever...

Wasted a lot of time coding the wrong algorithm?

Used a data structure that was much too complicated?

Tested a program but missed an obvious problem?

Spent a day looking for a bug you should have found in five minutes?

Needed to make a program run three times faster and use less memory?

Struggled to move a program from a workstation to a PC or vice versa?

Tried to make a modest change in someone else's program?

Rewritten a program because you couldn't understand it?

Was it fun?

These things happen to programmers all the time. But dealing with such problems is often harder than it should be because topics like testing, debugging, portability, performance, design alternatives, and style - the practice of programming — are not usually the focus of computer science or programming courses. Most programmers learn them haphazardly as their experience grows, and a few never learn them at all.

In a world of enormous and intricate interfaces, constantly changing tools and languages and systems, and relentless pressure for more of everything, one can lose sight of the basic principles — simplicity, clarity, generality — that form the bedrock of good software. One can also overlook the value of tools and notations that mechanize some of software creation and thus enlist the computer in its own programming.

Our approach in this book is based on these underlying, interrelated principles, which apply at all levels of computing. These include simplicity, which keeps programs short and manageable; clarity, which makes sure they are easy to understand, for people as well as machines; generality, which means they work well in a broad range of situations and adapt well as new situations arise; and automation, which lets the machine do the work for us, freeing us from mundane tasks. By looking at computer programming in a variety of languages, from algorithms and data structures through design, debugging, testing, and performance improvement, we can illustrate universal engineering concepts that are independent of language, operating system, or programming paradigm.

This book comes from many years of experience writing and maintaining a lot of software, teaching programming courses, and working with a wide variety of programmers. We want to share lessons about practical issues, to pass on insights from our experience, and to suggest ways for programmers of all levels to be more proficient and productive.

We are writing for several kinds of readers. If you are a student who has taken a programming course or two and would like to be a better programmer, this book will expand on some of the topics for which there wasn't enough time in school. If you write programs as part of your work, but in support of other activities rather than as the goal in itself, the information will help you to program more effectively. If you are a professional programmer who didn't get enough exposure to such topics in school or who would like a refresher, or if you are a software manager who wants to guide your staff in the right direction, the material here should be of value.

We hope that the advice will help you to write better programs. The only prerequisite is that you have done some programming, preferably in C, C++ or Java. Of course the more experience you have, the easier it will be; nothing can take you from neophyte to expert in 21 days.

Unix and Linux programmers will find some of the examples more familiar than will those who have used only Windows and Macintosh systems, but programmers from any environment should discover things to make their lives easier.

The presentation is organized into nine chapters, each focusing on one major aspect of programming practice.

Chapter 1 discusses programming style. Good style is so important to good programming that we have chosen to cover it first. Well-written programs are better than badly-written ones — they have fewer errors and are easier to debug and to modify — so it is important to think about style from the beginning. This chapter also introduces an important theme in good programming, the use of idioms appropriate to the language being used.

Algorithms and data structures, the topics of Chapter 2, are the core of the computer science curriculum and a major part of programming courses. Since most readers will already be familiar with this material, our treatment is intended as a brief review of the handful of algorithms and data structures that show up in almost every program. More complex algorithms and data structures usually evolve from these building blocks, so one should master the basics.

Chapter 3 describes the design and implementation of a small program that illustrates algorithm and data structure issues in a realistic setting.

The program is implemented in five languages; comparing the versions shows how the same data structures are handled in each, and how expressiveness and performance vary across a spectrum of languages.

Interfaces between users, programs, and parts of programs are fundamental in programming and much of the success of software is determined by how well interfaces are designed and implemented.

Chapter 4 shows the evolution of a small library for parsing a widely used data format. Even though the example is small, it illustrates many of the concerns of interface design: abstraction, information hiding, resource management, and error handling.

Much as we try to write programs correctly the first time, bugs, and therefore debugging, are inevitable. Chapter 5 gives strategies and tactics for systematic and effective debugging. Among the topics are the signatures of common bugs and the importance of ``numerology,'' where patterns in debugging output often indicate where a problem lies.

Testing is an attempt to develop a reasonable assurance that a program is working correctly and that it stays correct as it evolves. The emphasis in Chapter 6 is on systematic testing by hand and machine. Boundary condition tests probe at potential weak spots. Mechanization and test scaffolds make it easy to do extensive testing with modest effort. Stress tests provide a different kind of testing than typical users do and ferret out a different class of bugs.

Computers are so fast and compilers are so good that many programs are fast enough the day they are written. But others are too slow, or they use too much memory, or both. Chapter 7 presents an orderly way to approach the task of making a program use resources efficiently, so that the program remains correct and sound as it is made more efficient.

Chapter 8 covers portability. Successful programs live long enough that their environment changes, or they must be moved to new systems or new hardware or new countries. The goal of portability is to reduce the maintenance of a program by minimizing the amount of change necessary to adapt it to a new environment.

Computing is rich in languages, not just the general-purpose ones that we use for the bulk of programming, but also many specialized languages that focus on narrow domains. Chapter 9 presents several examples of the importance of notation in computing, and shows how we can use it to simplify programs, to guide implementations, and even to help us write programs that write programs.

What People are Saying About This

Peter Memishian
The examples are just about right. Chapter 3's example (markov) is stellar; it is simple, thought-provoking, elegant, and most importantly, provides an opportunity to analyze good design... It is the most concise book of its kind and offers the most useful, no-nonsense treatment of how to program from authors who know a great deal about the topic. Member of Technical Staff, Sun Microsystems
Chris Cleeland
There is a tendency for many books to be in the high hundreds of pages long these days with very little justification. This text is well-written, and is not overly interdependent, thus allowing the reader to "skip around" as interests motivate.... I found [the examples] to be interesting. I like it when I don't have to spend time figuring out an example and I can concentrate on the lesson the example is trying to teach. Too many books have overly-complex examples, and this one doesn't. --Technical Lead, IONA Technologies, Inc.
Paul McNamee
The book fills a critical need by providing insight into pragmatic designand coding issues so that programmers become better at their craft... Programmers just out of school should be given this book on their first day of work. It will save employers thousands of dollars due to lost productivity and "mindless" debugging. --Computer Scientist, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Meet the Author

Brian W. Kernighan works in the Computing Science Research Center at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies. He is Consulting Editor for Addison-Wesley's Professional Computing Series and the author, with Dennis Ritchie, of The C Programming Language.

Rob Pike works in the Computing Science Research Center at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies. He was a lead architect and implementer of the Plan 9 and Inferno operating systems. His research focuses on software that makes it easier for people to write software.


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The Practice of Programming 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
a very well-structured guide book for every programmer who serious about his/her works. it covered from basic comments to in-depth algorithmn and testing aspects, though mainly focus in c\c++\java, don't be panic because it is easy reading indeed. A truely recommendation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Practice of Programming is another quality computing title from Addison-Wesley. I enjoy Addison-Wesley books because they are well researched, properly edited, and topic specific. The Practice of Programming is a rather odd volume. My initial impression of the text was of confusion ¿ what is the focus of this book. The book is divided into nine concise sections dealing with programming issues. For example, style, debugging, and performance enhancement. Each section is a self contained and concise treatment of the topic. The format seems almost like essays from a knowledgeable mentor. The authors describe what does and what does not work. The mentor analogy does seem to summarize this interesting text. The Practice of Programming is not compelling or even fascinating. It is, nevertheless, useful in every day programming. This is the type of book that all programmers should read from time to time for reflection, assessment, and sanity. The Practice of Programming will become one of those quiet classics. The volume does require a very good basis in C, C++, and Java. If you are not familiar with these languages, particularly C and C++, this book may not provide much benefit to you since the examples are largely written in C and C++.