Make the Software Robust


Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 15 min
  • How can I make it easier for people to find out what my project does?

  • How can I make it easier for people to install my software?

  • How can I make it easy for other people to use my software as a component in their work?

  • How can I convince people that my software is trustworthy?

  • Explain what ‘robust software’ is.

  • Identify three things projects can do to make themselves easier to understand.

  • Explain what semantic versioning is and why it should be used.

  • Identify two things that can make software hard to install.

  • Explain the pros and cons of command-line parameters vs. configuration files.

  • Explain the pros and cons of libraries vs. external applications.

  • Describe the differences between regression testing and sanity checking.

  • Explain why programs should produce identical output for identical inputs.

Write a Usage Statement

Run make --help (or something similar) and examine its output, then write a similar command-line usage message for your project.


Read the tutorial on the Python logging library (or an equivalent tutorial for your preferred language’s logging library).

  1. How do libraries of this kind give users control over what is logged and where?
  2. Is this an appropriate level of complexity for your project? If not, what would you use instead?

How Do You Version Now?

How many different versions of your project are in use right now? How do you know? If a user has a problem, how will you and they find out which version of the software they have?

Where Does Your Software Live?

  1. What directories does your software add files to when it is installed?
  2. What new directories does it create?

Hard-coded Paths

  1. What files does your software read and/or write?
  2. How do you know?
  3. Which of these are referenced by fixed (hard-coded) paths?

Common and Rare

  1. What options or parameters does your program use?
  2. Which ones are users most likely to set or change?
  3. How do you know?

Configuration Files

  1. Can some or all of your program’s options be specified in an external configuration file?
  2. If so, what data format do those files use?
  3. If not, is it worth adding that capability?

Using Your Project as a Component

Suppose someone wants to use your software as part of a larger program written in a language other than the one you use.

  1. What’s the simplest way for them to do this?
  2. What won’t they be able to do?

Is This Turned On?

  1. How can the person who installs your software tell if it is installed correctly?
  2. How can the person who uses your software tell if it is installed correctly?
  3. Where can users find examples of how to run your program?

Out of Control

  1. Under what circumstances could your program produce different answers when given identical inputs?
  2. What would you have to change in your program to correct this?

Key Points

  • Robust software is software that works for people you’ve never met on machines you’ve never heard of.

  • Every project should have a README that briefly explains its purpose and dependencies.

  • Every program should be able print a short usage message.

  • Every program should be able to log its actions.

  • Use semantic versioning (major.minor.patch) to identify software versions.

  • Make old versions of software available.

  • Do not require root permissions or other special privileges to install software.

  • Do not use hard-coded paths in software.

  • Provide command-line parameters for commonly-changed options.

  • Provide hierarchical configuration files for all options.

  • Do not invent your own syntax for configuration files.

  • Every application should have a small sanity-testing test suite.

  • Always produce identical results for particular inputs.