It Really is a Great Learning Experience

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

GSoC Experience Series

Nearly a month ago the official results for Google Summer of Code 2019 were announced, and I am happy to say I successfully completed the program with OpenStreetMap working on the 3D renderer OSM2World.

Before even applying, when I was searching for information on it most of the resources I was able to find included the same phrase: "It is a great learning experience!"

Being the almost-graduate Computer Science student I was, I had the inaccurate impression of thinking I knew enough skills and doubted what it could really offer me—in terms of expanding knowledge, as I had decided on a (Java) project I would apply to (a language I already knew).

Long story short, here is what "it is a great learning experience" translated into for me when it came to programming practices:

  • Always think about cases besides the "happy path": CS students/learners may agree with me here: Practice-projects do not always require making the application tolerant towards wrong input one can provide. That is not the case for a large scale application, though, as one unpredicted NullPointer exception derived from one tiny part of the input file (in my case) can have a user scratching their head for hours or not find the root of the problem, which in many cases is not where the error log indicates; in addition to their work not being done due to the unexpected crash. Which leads me to the 2nd point that I learned the hard way.
  • Make unit testing an integral part of coding routine: Yes, this, as well as other points listed here, might seem obvious to most but until recently, it was not to me. And being known as one of the less interesting tasks to perform when coding definitely doesn't help unit tests place high on programmer's "favorite things to do" lists. However, tests can most of the time detect unintended "features" other than just wrong method output, like the unexpected crashes mentioned above. So it is pretty much always better to create them soon after writing your new method rather than waiting before the end of a deadline.
  • Add elements of Functional Programming to object-oriented thinking, with the most important elements to me being those of immutable types and side-effect free methods (i.e. methods that do not modify variable values outside their local environment). I only understood the importance of that myself when I was suddenly able to make use of such methods I wrote for previous tasks, for the latest ones. And that was due to the fact that I was instructed to write them that way, without knowing beforehand they would come in handy again.

This list could probably have a few more points added, it was a 3-month long program after all, but for me those are the ones that definitely deserve their spot here. And of course the above would not have been possible without my mentor's... mentoring! Instructing someone on what to do and allow them to discover the benefits of the advice on their own, in addition to providing any necessary explanations, is definitely a way to help someone adopt practices for a lifetime! It is safe to say that the whole GSoC experience would have been different, should things have been different.

For anyone that might be interested, here is the application document I submitted as well as the final project!

By Jason Manoloudis, OpenStreetMap GSoC Student