Time to get a Rubber Duck

Remember the last time you couldn’t properly grasp a concept and simply in the process of explaining it to a colleague of yours, you understand it properly? Well, this phenomenon is actually well known. In fact, that is the entire reasoning behind Rubber Duck Debugging.

Originally created as a chew toy in the late 19th century, the first floating rubber ducks were patented in 1940. It was sold more than 50 million times. They became even more popular when Queen Elizabeth II had her very own rubber duck with a crown.

Then rubber ducks “flew” into the professional workspace. In 1999, a book called “The Pragmatic Programmer” introduced the term Rubber Duck Debugging.

Rubber Duck Debugging

The term was originally coined towards software developers. Debugging is a daily part of any programmer’s life. That dreadful moment when the code just simply won’t work and they can’t understand why. Maybe it’s time to hire a rubber duck. Do rubber ducks have anything to do with software or programming? Absolutely nothing at all.

It is common practice when the code is not working for developers to bring over a colleague and try to explain the code to them. Then all of a sudden a light bulb turns on in their head and BOOM! They have the answer. The colleague might not even understand programming. It was the mere act of explaining the code line by line that actually did it.

So what does this have anything to do with rubber ducks? Everything! Usually, the colleagues are often busy going through their own work. Hence, it is not ideal to rely on always having someone there. Instead, a rubber duck does the same job! In fact, this same concept works with any inanimate object. The underlying concept stays the same. Simply putting the object in front of the monitor, and going over the code line by line, explaining everything out loud, and there is the solution! An additional bonus is that it is often better for a rubber duck to witness the mistakes other than a coworker.

Is this exclusive to programming only?

Absolutely not! In fact, at the time of writing this, most of the world is in lockdown. People are being exposed to an entirely new environment. A lot of people are now working from their home, and for all students out there, they are now relying more on self-studying than any previous time. This is actually the perfect time to experiment with rubber ducks while studying or working.

It surely is more difficult to grasp new concepts by yourself especially when you are not used to it. With isolation, it certainly isn’t any easier. However, the same underlying concept that we explained above, can be used in all other fields as well.

There are several scientific reasons why this phenomenon works. The first reason is that without explaining things out loud, you are just skipping details because you assume that you properly understand them. But now, it slows you down. You become more deliberate and are not skipping steps anymore. Secondly, when you explain it out loud, this activates a different region of your brain, hence ensuring stronger connections. Thirdly, this allows you to stop and ask yourself questions. Questions can be anything from “Is this the behaviour that I want? Do I understand what this function does?”

When you study a new concept, instead of just reading it and moving on, maybe it’s better to use the rubber duck. Try to explain it to the duck. Break down the concept, and try to ask all the questions necessary. If you fail to understand the reason behind any answer, maybe it is better for you to research it more.

If you are already using the rubber duck technique, tell us more about your experience! And if you will try it, tell us your results!

Written by: Karim ElGhandour

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