Archive for February, 2013

What’s in your main() header?

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013 Nigel Jones

One of the consequences of being in the consulting business is that I get to look at a lot of code written by other people. Usually it is necessary for me to get up to speed on the code as quickly as possible, and so to this end, one of the first things I do is look for main.c, or if it doesn’t exist the file that contains main(). Here’s what I usually find:

 Possibly a one line description.
 Legal notice. Sometimes many lines long.

That’s it. Now maybe it’s just me, but I find this a bit inadequate. Before I describe what I put in the header for main.c, I should first note my motivation. Anyone that has written code for many years realizes that the whole point of writing code is to allow it to be maintained. The person maintaining the code may be a future version of yourself, but often is some poor sod who gets thrown a bunch of code and told to get on with it. As a result, it is imperative that this future maintainer be told as much as possible about what it is they are maintaining. Now I realize that a lot of what I describe below could be described elsewhere. However, it’s my experience that Word documents and other non source code related documents tend to get lost over time (or perhaps more accurately not packaged with the source code when it is given to someone else), and so by putting this information in main.c, you pretty much guarantee that the maintainer will receive the information. With this as a background, here’s what I think should be in the header for main.c.

A product description

I typically write somewhere between 10 and 100 lines of text describing the product, what it does, how it does it, what makes it unique and the things about it that make it difficult. Note I’m not describing the code. I always find this a challenge because it forces me to really get to the core of the product. I can sometimes take many hours on this stage, as I try to refine and precis my description to include as much useful information as possible. Who has this sort of time you ask? Well if you think about it, if you can’t write a concise, yet detailed description of the product, surely you aren’t ready to start writing code? Thus if you go through this exercise and find yourself stymied, then you simply shouldn’t be sitting in front of a text editor.

Text Editor settings

Talking of text editors, the next thing you should have is an entry that describes how you have your text editor configured. I’m not interested in getting into a discussion about what your text editor settings should be – I’d just like to know what they are so that I can configure my text editor to match. This is a critical step as there is no bigger time waster than trying to understand code that looks like a disaster because you used tabs with an indentation of 2 and my editor is using an indentation of 4.

Development Environment

The text editor is of course part of the larger development environment. While it’s obvious to you what build environment you are using, it isn’t to someone else. Thus if you are using an IDE from Keil then say so. Conversely if you are from the IDE’s are evil camp and instead rely upon makefiles, well make that clear as well. Note the presence of a makefile in the source code directory does not IMHO constitute adequate documentation that this is how you intend the code to be built.

Compiler make and version

Almost every project I look at fails to make it clear what compiler make and version the code was written for. This always blows me away, because I’ve never yet seen an embedded system that doesn’t rely on compiler specific facets for it to successfully compile. Thus you should spell out exactly what compiler you used – even if you don’t think it really matters much.


If you are using libraries, particularly ones from a third party, then you should really be spelling this out and of course specifying what version of the library you used. If there are special licensing restrictions on the use of the library, then this isn’t a bad place to mention it either.

Other tools

If you use other tools, particularly code generation tools, then it would be really nice to let the reader know that your code relies upon tool X, version Y. If you are using make rather than an IDE, it would also be nice to let us all know what version of make you used.

CPU configuration

Many CPUs are configurable via fuse bits of some type (PICs and AVRs are prime examples). These configuration bits usually have a dramatic impact on how the CPU behaves, and so it is critical that you document what fuse bit settings you are assuming. It’s possible to waste many hours debugging a system that in fact has no code problems per se, but rather is simply misconfigured at the fuse bit level.

How to build

Finally, it would be really nice if you told everyone how to actually make the executable. I’m constantly amazed at the number of projects I see where either the method of building is unclear, or worse, the ‘obvious method’ (e.g. typing make) results in a build failure because prior to e.g. invoking make, it is necessary to run some batch file etc.

While I think there’s a lot more project specific information that can go in the header, I think the above is a pretty decent start. I’d be interested in hearing about other information that you put in your main.c header.