On the Dichotomy of Debugging Behavior Among Programmers

Moritz Beller, Niels Spruit, Andy Zaidman, Diomidis Spinellis

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Debugging is an inevitable activity in most software projects, often difficult and more time-consuming than expected, giving it the nickname the “dirty little secret of computer science.” Surprisingly, we have little knowledge on how software engineers debug software problems in the real world, whether they use dedicated debugging tools, and how knowledgeable they are about debugging. This study aims to shed light on these aspects by following a mixed-methods research approach. We conduct an online survey capturing how 176 developers reflect on debugging. We augment this subjective survey data with objective observations on how 458 developers use the debugger included in their integrated development environments (IDEs) by instrumenting the popular ECLIPSE and INTELLIJ IDEs with the purpose-built plugin WATCHDOG 2.0. To clarify the insights and discrepancies observed in the previous steps, we followed up by conducting interviews with debugging experts and regular debugging users. Our results indicate that IDE-provided debuggers are not used as often as expected, because “printf debugging” remains a feasible choice for many programmers. Furthermore, both knowledge and use of advanced debugging features are low. Our results call for strengthening hands-on debugging experience in computer science curricula and have already refined the implementation of modern IDE debuggers.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 40th International Conference on Software Engineering
Place of PublicationNew York, NY
PublisherAssociation for Computing Machinery (ACM)
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-4503-5638-1
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventICSE 2018: 40th International Conference on Software Engineering - Gothenburg, Sweden
Duration: 27 May 20183 Jun 2018
Conference number: 40


ConferenceICSE 2018
Internet address


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