In my day job, I've worked with many different teams of programmers. Game engine, game tools, OS, SDK, middleware, test engineers, you name it. Many of the people I work with are the best in the industry, true world-class programmers. And others, well, aren't... and that's okay too. :-)
Personally, I find that I've learned a ton from interacting with all of these different groups.
One of the most important lessons I've learned — and I'm frankly surprised this isn't more widely talked about — is that there are many different and equally valid possible optimization goals in programming.
When I talk to a new team, that's often the first thing I try to find out: what are your primary goals? What are you looking for?
The most common definition of optimization involves improving the runtime speed of the code. For example, game engine programmers are often very focused on this, because they have to cram as much work as they can into one frame — generally either 1/30th of a second (33.3ms) or 1/60th of a second (16.6ms). Naturally, this leads to a lot of counting cycles and downcoding inner loops into assembly.
However, game tool programmers tend to be a little more willing to sacrifice speed in favor of optimizing for other goals: development time, correctness, and ease-of-use. For example, it's often OK to use an unoptimized implementation of some algorithm in a tool, since a high-end PC will run it "fast enough". In other cases a tool might only run infrequently or overnight. Or it might be feasible to simply throw more hardware at the problem.
You also see it among different teams: a studio making a AAA game might be very focused on optimizing runtime speed, while a small indie team might be focused on optimizing for development cost — doing the work as cheaply as possible. These teams will have very different optimization goals, to the point that what the AAA game has downcoded to assembly might be C++ objects and STL in the other.
Then there are the sports games — which live in a fascinating alternate world all their own. These guys have to iterate and ship a new version once a year, every single year! Slipping is simply not an option, so they tend to optimize first for reliability, upgradeability, and ease-of-maintenance.
This got me thinking: what are all the possible optimization goals you might have?
Possible Optimization Goals
Here are some things that you may choose to optimize for in your development. It's impossible to optimize for all of these things simultaneously, but it's common to target more than one.
- runtime speed - Run as fast as possible on your target system. Most of the optimization literature focuses on this. It involves choosing algorithms carefully, choosing your data layout carefully, looking for early exit opportunities, hand-optimizing inner loops, and so on.
- development time - Complete the engineering work as quickly as possible. In other words, finish the job in a day or a week, rather than a month. Optimizing for development time may mean that you use the highest-level language available that will do the job, along with whatever third-party frameworks you can pull in to solve the problems you need solved. C#, Python, Ruby, etc.
- development cost - Complete the engineering work as cheaply as possible. This is closely related to development time, but slightly different! The primary difference is the choice of who is doing the work: it might be cheaper (and a better investment) to have an intern use a task as a learning project and work on it for three months, than to have a senior programmer crank it out in three weeks.
- correctness - Be absolutely sure there are no mistakes or bugs. Bug-free code is always a goal, of course, but sometimes it's even more important than usual. There are two common situations I can think of where correctness is your primary goal: (1) when creating a reference implementation of an algorithm, for possible later optimization. (2) when you're making important architectural decisions based on the results of some investigation or other; you'll generally double- and triple-check the investigation, if you're smart.
- ease-of-use - Make sure users can grasp your interface quickly and achieve what they need to do. Funnily enough, this applies to both applications (user interfaces) and to middleware (developer interfaces). In both cases, you need to understand how people will expect to use the product. The fastest or easiest way to do things might not be the most understandable.
- ease-of-maintenance - Make the code so straightforward a monkey could maintain it. Or you, in a few years. ;-) If you've ever had to go back and bug-fix some code that you (or god help you, someone else) wrote more than five years ago, you'll appreciate the value of this. Code that is well-written, easy to read, well-commented, and shaped well to fit the problem is code that is optimized for ease of maintenance. To some extent, this goal can be a cause of "not-invented-here" syndrome; the preference for in-house code is often born from a perfectly rational and reasonable desire to know how to maintain that code.
- reliability - Never fail. Keep on going in the face of problems. At runtime, if the program gets unexpected input, don't crash: flag it, log it, and continue on with a sensible fallback behavior. At development time, always have a reference implementation to fall back to if the optimized version isn't working. In the extreme, reliability might require a reduction (hopefully small) in average-case performance just to ensure that the code can reliably handle uncommon edge cases. (LibC's memset and memcpy are examples of that.)
- upgradeability - Make sure every subsystem can be upgraded. This is most commonly achieved with modularity. Good module separation should mean that individual pieces can be swapped out without too much trouble. If you remove modularity in order to run faster with today's situation, then you may be unable to upgrade to handle tomorrow's situation without a full rewrite.
- iteration time - Minimize the time difference between when you make a change and when you are able to view and test the result. This covers a lot of ground and may include things like build time reduction, file loading, dynamic loading of updated assets, console boot time, and more. This is surprisingly important: the people who write the best software will almost always tell you that rapid iteration is king.
Did I miss any? What are you optimizing for?