In Support of Bloated, Heavyweight IDEs

I’ve done plenty of programming in bare-bones text editors of all kinds over the years. Free/open editors were once pretty bad and a lot of capable commercial ones have been expensive. Today it’s still handy to pop a change into Github’s web editor or nano. Frankly, though, I’m unconvinced by arguments suggesting I use text editors that don’t really understand the codeI believe that, independent of your skill level, you’ll produce better code and faster by using the most powerful IDE you can get your hands on.

To convince you of this, I’ll try to show how each of the following list of features, in isolation, is good for your productivity. Then it should follow that each one you work without will be lowering it. Also it’s important to note that leaving in place or producing bugs that must be fixed later, or that create external costs, reduces your real productivity, and “you” in the list below could also mean you six months from now or another developer. The list is not in any particular order, just numbered for reference.

  1. Syntax highlighting saves you from finding and fixing typos after compilation failures. In a language where a script file may be conditionally executed, like PHP, you may leave a bug that will have to be dug up by someone else after costing end users a lot of time. In rarer cases the code may compile but not do what you expected, costing even more time. SH also makes the many contexts available in code (strings, functions, vars, comments, etc.) significantly easier to see when scanning/scrolling.
  2. Having a background task scan the code can help catch errors that simple syntax highlighting cannot, since most highlighters are designed to expect valid syntax and may not show problems.
  3. Highlighting matching braces/parenthesis eases the writing and reading of code and expressions.
  4. IDEs can show the opening/closing lines of blocks that appear offscreen without you needing to scroll. Although long blocks/function bodies can be a signal to refactor, this can aid you in working on existing code like this.
  5. Highlighting the use of unknown variables/functions/methods can show false positives for problems, but more often signals a bug that’s hidden from sight: E.g. a variable declared above has been removed; the type of a variable is not what is expected; a library upgrade has removed a method, or a piece of code has been transplanted from another context without its dependencies. Missing these problems has a big future cost as these may not always cause compile or even runtime errors.
  6. Highlighting an unused variable warns you that it isn’t being used how it was probably intended. It may uncover a logic bug or mean you can safely remove its declaration, preventing you from later having to wonder what it’s for.
  7. Highlighting the violation of type hints saves you from having to find those problems at compile or run-time.
  8. Auto-completing file paths and highlighting unresolvable ones saves you from time-consumingly debugging 404 errors.
  9. Background scanning other files for problems (applying all the above features to unopened project files) allows you to quickly see and fix bugs that you/others left. Simply opening an existing codebase in a more capable IDE can reveal thousands of certain/potential code problems. If you’re responsible for that code, you’ve potentially saved an enormous amount of time: End users hitting bugs, reporting them, you reading, investigating, fixing, typing summaries, etc. etc. etc. This feature is like having a whole team of programmers scouring your codebase for you; a big productivity boost.
  10. Understanding multiple language contexts can help a great deal when you’re forced to work in files with different contexts embedded within each other.
  11. Parameter/documentation tooltips eliminate the need to look up function purpose, signatures, and return types. While you should memorize commonly used functions, a significant amount of programming involves using new/unfamiliar libraries. Leaving your context to look up docs imposes costs in time and concentration. Sometimes that cost yields later benefits, but often you’ve just forgotten the order of a few parameters.
  12. Jumping to the declaration of a function/variable saves you from having to search for it.
  13. Find usages in an IDE that comprehends code allows you to quickly understand where and how a variable/function is used (or mentioned in comments!) in a codebase with very little error.
  14. Rename refactoring can carefully change an identifier in your code (and optionally filenames and comments) across an entire project of files. This can also apply to CSS; when renaming a class/id, the IDE may offer to replace its usages elsewhere in CSS and HTML markup. The obvious benefits are time savings and reduction in the errors you might make using more simple string/regular expression replacements, but there are other gains: When the cost of changing a name reduces to almost nothing, you will be more inclined to improve names when needed. Better names can reduce the time needed to understand the code and how it should be used, and to recognize when it’s not being used well.
  15. Comprehension of variable/expression type allows the IDE to offer intelligent autocompletion options, reducing your time spent typing, fixing typing errors, and looking up property/method names on classes. But more than saving time, when an expected autocomplete option doesn’t appear, it can let you know that your variable/expression is not of the type that you think it is.
  16. IDEs can automatically suggest variables for function arguments based on type, so if you’re calling a function that needs a Foo and a Bar, the IDE can suggest your local vars of those types. This eliminates the need to remember parameter order or the exact names of your vars. Your role briefly becomes to check the work of the IDE, which is almost always correct. In strongly typed languages like Java, this can be a great boost; I found Java development in NetBeans to be an eye-opening experience to how helpful a good IDE can be.
  17. IDEs can grok Javadoc-style comments, auto-generate them based on code, and highlight discrepancies between the comments and the code. This reduces the time you spend documenting, improves your accuracy when documenting, and can highlight problems where someone has changed the signature/return type of a function, or has documented it incorrectly. IDEs can add support for various libraries so that that code can be understood by the IDE without being in the project.
  18. IDEs can maintain local histories of project files (like committing each change in git) so you can easily revert recent changes (or bring back files accidentally deleted!) or better understand the overall impact of your recent changes.
  19. IDEs can integrate with source control so you can see changes made that aren’t committed. E.g. a color might appear in the scroll bar next to uncommitted changes. You could click to jump to that change, mouse over to get a tooltip of the original code and choose to revert if needed. This could give you a good idea of changes before you switch focus to your source control tools to commit them. Of course being able to perform source control operations inside the IDE saves time, too.
  20. IDEs can maintain a local cache of code on a remote server, making it snappier to work on, reducing the time you’d spend switching to a separate SFTP app, and allowing you to adjust the code outside the IDE. The IDE could monitor local and remote changes and allow merging between the versions as necessary.
  21. IDEs can help you maintain code style standards in different projects, and allow you to instantly restyle a selection or file(s) according to those standards. When contributing to open source projects, this can save you from having to go back and restyle code after having your change rejected.
  22. Integrated debugging offers a huge productivity win. Inline debugging statements are no replacement for the ability to carefully step though execution with access to all variable contents/types and the full call stack. In some cases bugs that are practically impossible to find without debugging can be found in a few minutes with one.
  23. Integrated unit test running also makes for much less context switching when using test-driven development.

This list is obviously not exhaustive, and is geared towards the IDEs that I’m most familiar with, but the kernel is that environments that truly understand the language and your codebase as a whole can give you some powerful advantages over those that don’t. A fair argument is that lightweight editors with few bells and whistles “stay out of your way” and can be more responsive on large codebases–which is true–but you can’t ignore that there’s a large real productivity cost incurred in doing without these features.

For PHP users, PhpStorm* includes almost everything in the list, with Netbeans coming a close second. With my limited experience Eclipse PDT was great for local projects, but I’ve only seen basic syntax highlighting working in the Remote System Explorer. All three also fairly well understand Javascript, CSS, HTML, and to some extent basic SQL and XML DTDs.

*Full disclosure: PhpStorm granted me a copy for my work on Minify, but I requested it, and my ravings about it and other IDEs are all unsolicited.