Do programmers memorize code?

Programmers don’t memorize code, they become familiar with the code they use daily and refer to the official documentation for everything else. Around 90% of programmers use Google and 80% visit Stack Overflow if they get stuck on a problem when programming. 

Being able to code with some fluency is an important part of progressing onto more mid and senior-level software development roles. To people with less experience, it can sometimes seem that experienced programmers learn the code by heart, but is this the case?

Remembering all the code you use is impractical, doesn’t help you solve problems more effectively, and won’t make you a better software engineer. Getting a good idea of programming concepts is a far better approach and will transition across into any language you learn.

If developers don’t memorize code, what do they do? Let’s take a closer look at how software engineers remember everything and seem to know everything by heart. 

Women memorizing code

Do programmers memorize everything?

Programmers don’t memorize all of the code they use, instead, they tend to read the documentation, learn basic concepts well, and use the software community to solve problems. Around 55% of software developers report using StackOverflow at least once a day to help with issues when programming. 

Using rote learning to try and remember everything by heart is just not practical in software development. The technological landscape changes too often to try and remember every single piece of syntax or specific function. There are too many languages, each with its quirks to simply remember the inner workings of everything you use. 

But if programmers don’t memorize everything, what do they do instead? Let’s take a look at the three main ways software engineers manage to avoid learning things by heart.

Concepts

Whether you are self-taught, a boot camper, or a university graduate, every tutor or tutorial will try and drive home the concepts. Getting a good understanding of the underlying principles of software makes it easier to apply in a variety of different circumstances. In the long run, it also makes you a better problem solver and all-around software engineer. 

People often point to the prevalence of autistic programmers as a means to explain how developers can remember so much. However, the reality is that they just have a fantastic grasp of the underlying principles of programming and understand the quirks of the specific language incredibly well.

Nailing the basics will serve you incredibly well in the long run as a software engineer and means you can avoid ever having to memorize code.

Documentation

Generally speaking the most used libraries and frameworks are all incredibly well documented. Documentation makes your life easier and is usually a quick way to solve simple issues you are having, especially early on in a project. 

Getting started can be difficult and sometimes requires a lot of boilerplate code. Documentation means that you don’t have to memorize this stuff and can just get it directly from the creators.

With good documentation, there simply isn’t a need to use rote learning to remember the code you are using. It’s all there for you to use and usually made by the very people whose code you intend to use.

Stack Overflow

Stack Overflow is one of the most useful resources on the web. More than 80% of developers use the resource at least a few times a week. If you have ever typed a coding problem into Google, you’ll have no doubt gotten an answer from the StackOverflow community.

The beauty of such a development-driven environment is that many people have already faced the same issue. The community nature of it means that people post multiple ways to solve the same issue and then the best one is upvoted. So rather than having to memorize code, programmers can instead use and adapt existing answers.

Do coders have to memorize code?

Lines of code

Memorizing code is not something coders have to do to be good at their job. In fact, the opposite is true. The best software developers are fantastic problem solvers, not robots who can rattle off specific lines of code or syntax. 

Software engineers do not have to memorize code to stand a chance of progressing in the field. The reality is it isn’t going to affect your chances of getting a job or where you can be in the next five years.

Underlying Principles

While coders don’t have to memorize code, it is highly recommended they get a good grasp of the underlying principles of the technology they use. Understanding the idiosyncrasies of certain languages will help you write better and debug issues much faster. 

Once you have the principles nailed it’s a case of practice makes perfect. Using a specific language or framework for a long time gives you a certain amount of fluency. Unfortunately, the only way to get this fluency is to put in the hours and learn the basics.

In contrast, trying to remember everything means you will unlikely be able to use your knowledge effectively and efficiently to solve the problem at hand.

Familiarity

Watching more experienced developers can often leave juniors with a sense of awe. Their speed and accuracy are scary at times. Not to mention the speed at which some software developers can type out their solutions.

However, all this comes from familiarity. Knowing the language you are using and how to apply it takes time. Experienced programmers will have made thousands of mistakes before. But using an iterative learning process they get better and don’t slip up in the same way again. 

Copying Code

Far from memorizing code, a lot of developers reuse their code or copy code from others. If you have already solved a particular issue in another codebase it makes sense to take the existing code and repurpose it. 

There is no point in memorizing syntax when you can just copy and paste it from existing projects. I caveat this with the fact you should never copy or use code you don’t understand. It’s a mistake that plenty of new developers make and won’t help you become a better developer. Reusing code makes sense only if you are familiar with it.

How can programmers remember everything they learn?

Programmers don’t tend to remember every single thing they learn, instead, they are familiar with core programming concepts and then apply these to the various languages they learn. The things programmers do remember are learned by:

  1. Incredible practice
  2. Mentoring others
  3. Giving talks and writing articles 
  4. Recall exercises 
  5. Reading documentation 
  6. Taking notes

There is no single way to remember the things you learn as a software developer. Employing different methods is the best way to ingrain information. Let’s explore a few of the different ways programmers remember the things they learn. 

Practice 

Working as a software engineer day in, and day out gives you the most exposure to a language or framework. It’s the best way to become familiar with general concepts and the specific challenges of programming. 

Mentoring


Once you get to a certain level mentoring junior developers is almost a given. The upside to this is that as you teach others the learning becomes even more cemented. Mentoring forces you to explain things simply and understandably. It helps you distill the learning down into bite-size chunks that you can provide others with.

Giving talks and writing articles 

A lot of companies promote learning by getting individuals to present their learning back to the wider team. The process of creating a presentation or writing an article allows you to dive deeper into a topic and try to distill it down. Throughout this process, you get a far better idea of the thing you are trying to show to everyone.

Plenty of articles on this site is the same way. We find topics and research them which helps cement our understanding of the subject. 

Recall exercises

Although these aren’t popular in all software communities, recall exercises can be great for remembering code. Leetcode and Hackerank are used by top tech companies to recruit and a lot of developers study these platforms for months. They may not have problems that are always applicable to real-world work, but they give you a great understanding of how to solve specific issues.

Documentation

Documentation is a great way to quickly get to grips with a new language, framework, or package. It is the make or break between a lot of widely used coding solutions. It is a crucial resource that can be utilised to help you remember certain quirks of a system. Aside from that, a lot of answers to the most basic questions are in the documentation.

Taking notes

Writing notes by hand has fallen out of fashion in recent years. However, it makes sense to keep a continuous log of your learnings and write certain things down for reference later on. I don’t mean copy and paste code to reuse. But having your learnings documented touches on a couple of the points we have already mentioned above. 

I personally use Notion and it is awesome. It takes all the pain away from note-taking while offering some pretty advanced features like databases and publishing to the web.

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