We consider strategies for debugging code and begin our exploration of VSCode’s basic Java debugger.

This reading is still being updated for a new semester.

The wonder of program bugs

Unfortunately, as much as we would like to write perfect code, we sometimes write code that is less than perfect. When that happens, we can spend more time trying to figure out what is wrong than we actually spent writing the code itself. In order to make sure our code is working, we have to make sure it has no bugs (or at least as few bugs as possible).

How do we know that code is bug-free? One hint is that it passes all of our well-designed unit tests. How do we know that code has bugs? It fails to pass a unit test.

How do you avoid bugs? You can never completely avoid bugs. Every programmer makes mistakes, fails to predict certain situations, or misunderstands how a language or library works. But you can still work on strategies that help you avoid bugs in the first place.

  • Write your tests first so that you think about the special cases that you may have to handle.
  • Use preconditions and postconditions whenever possible. In some cases, you may find it useful to insert “assertions” directly in your code so that (a) you document what you expect at any point and (b) you know where things started to go awry.
  • Document each section of a procedure so that you can remember what it’s supposed to do when you revisit it at a later time (or so that a colleague who revisits your code knows what you were trying to do).

If your code still ends up failing the tests, what do you do next? Sometimes just walking through the procedure again helps. (A student claims the most valuable lesson he ever got from me was “Explain your code to someone, even your golden retriever”. That is, if you sit down and explain what you’re trying to do and how you acheive it, you’re likely to find the bug.)

More often, though, you’ll need to see what’s happening while your code runs, as what’s happening is clearly different than what you expect. You may be tempted to insert a bunch of print statements, but you are much better off using a debugger. And, fortunately, VSCode, like most IDEs, has an integrated debugger (at least after you install the Java debugger plugin).

A quick introduction to debuggers

Debuggers are tools for tracing code to find if there is something wrong and what that something is. More precisely, they give you the opportunity to find out where in your code things start going wrong. How do they achieve this? First, they let you single-step through your code, printing values as you go. They also let you set breakpoints so that your steps can be large. Using a debugger will be more efficient and informative than simply putting a bunch of print statements in your code to trace what is going on.

What capabilities can you expect to find in most debuggers?

  • You can determine the value of variables and parameters. In some cases, you will need to explicitly click on a variable (or type a command in a textual debugger). In others, the debugger will print them out automatically.
  • You can set breakpoints - locations in the code in which you want to start exploring behavior and values. Once breakpoints are set, you can simply run your program until it hits a breakpoint. In VSCode you set breakpoints by instructions forthcoming.
  • You can single step through a method or function. Once you’ve reached a breakpoint, you may want to follow control flow by executing one line at a time and checking the state of the system after each step. Single stepping can be useful for some loops.
  • You can trace the stack Sometimes, it’s difficult to know how you got into the current place in the current procedure. A stack trace gives you the full history of calls (often with parameter values).
  • You can watch variables. You can set certain variables whose values are always displayed. In the upper right window you can see all the variables you have declared in a method and check what is happening to them every time the method is called
  • In many debuggers, you can also change variables. You may find that a variable has a value other than you expected, and want to explore what happens if it has the right value. You may just want to see what happens if it takes on a different value.
  • In many debuggers, you can also alter control flow. For example, when you hit a breakpoint, you can direct the program to call another subroutine next, rather than advance to the next statement.

Why not debug with print statements?

Many programmers debug by inserting print statements throughout there code. While there are some situations in which this strategy is appropriate, most experienced programmers prefer to use a debugger.

The preceding list of capabilities may suggest many reasons that debuggers are better than just inserting some print statements. Here are some other reasons why debugging with print statements is not the best choice.

  • At some point, you’ll need to remove those print statements. (Well, if you work with a language with macros, or use a subroutine that checks a global debug flag, you may not have to, but you’ve still spent time inserting code that is unlikely to be necessary over the lifetime of your program.
  • In large programs, particularly large programs with loops you might have hundreds of output lines to check. It’s much easier to it is easier to break that output down and focus on a small piece.
  • If you change your mind about what you’re looking for, you have to change the code and recompile. (So, as you debug, you have to do this many, many time.)
  • You can’t alter the behavior of the program while it’s running (e.g., you can’t change a variable or calling order).
  • You cannot examine memory contents in real time.

Why not use a debugger instead?

Using the VSCode debugger

It’s much easier to understand the VSCode debugger in practice than by reading about it, so we will leave most of our discussion of the debugger to the corresponding lab.

More information forthcoming

Some final thoughts

While debuggers are useful and can help you identify the locations of the errors in your code, they are not a silver bullet. In the end, you will still need to analyze your code for errors, both obvious (well, obvious in retrospect) and subtle.

Some errors can be quite subtle (and infrequent). For example, a debugger is unlikely to help you find the error in the following code. (An error which experienced programmers may be more likely to note.)

  * Average two longs.  If the average has a fractional portion,
  * may round up or down.
 public static long average(long x, long y) {
   return (x + y) / 2;
 } // average

Wrapping up

Important Terms

  • Debugging
  • Debug mode
  • Step Into
  • Step Over
  • Breakpoint
  • Stack trace

Review Questions

  • List a few times you’ve had errors in your programs and how you identified the errors. Would a debugger have been useful?
  • What are some techniques you use to write less buggy code?
  • When your program doesn’t work, how can you determine where in the program things are going wrong?
  • What’s wrong with the average procedure at the end of the reading?
  • How would you address that problem in Java?
  • How would you address a similar problem in C?