— Alex Reinhart and Christopher Genovese

We’ve all done a lot of print-based debugging: if the code doesn’t work, stick a print statement in the middle to see what it’s doing.

This is a blunt tool, though a very easy one to use. For tricky cases, look to an interactive debugger before sticking in a few dozen print statements. Debugging is hard without the right tools:

“Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it.” – Brian Kernighan

Using your tests #

A good first debugging step is to make sure you have tests for the function you’re debugging.

You’re going to be trying all sorts of changes, tinkering with things, refactoring, and generally messing with the function – if you have tests, you can easily check if you fixed the bug without introducing any new ones. If you don’t, you have to laboriously try various inputs until you’re satisfied.

Tests also ensure that you actually know what the function is supposed to do.

Interactive debuggers #

An interactive debugger halts program execution and allows you to inspect the current state: display local variables, view the call stack, set breakpoints, and even run new code. You can step through the code line-by-line to examine how it works.

Debuggers can often be configured to open automatically when your program crashes or throws an exception (like Python’s pdb). IDEs also let you set breakpoints and run debuggers whenever you’d like, or you can add code to invoke the debugger when desired.

(RStudio example time)

Debuggers also typically have command-line interfaces that let you interactively type commands and explore the program’s state. (Common Lisp and Smalltalk even let you change the code from inside the debugger, editing as you work.)

An example:

# Instead of
python -s 2707.1 data/example_data.txt
# Run
python -m pdb -s 2707.1 data/example_data.txt

Some unit testing tools (like Python’s pytest) can automatically open a debugger when a test fails.

Some debuggers support remote debugging: they can debug a program running on another machine, like a phone or a server.

Resources #