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Staring into the Fire: The Build Process

August 6, 2014 in Fire

This post is part of a series in which I want to take a closer look at some of the features and functionality in Fire, our new IDE for the Mac.

Fire is designed to be light-weight and “get out of your way”, and one of the parts where this shines thru is when you build. Compiling your project is a frequent task in your day.to-day work, and an essential part of any development environment.

You usually start a build by either hitting Cmd-B (to just build) or Cmd-R (to build, and then run), and when you do, the build system goes off to do its thing in the background, but aside from that, nothing much changes. There’s no silly modal dialog telling you the IDE is building, or the like. After all, building is something that happens passively and once a build is fired off, there isn’t much you can do about it (although actually, that’s not quite true, more on that later on), so the IDE might as well just let you keep focusing on your code.

Building

So as Fire goes off to build, focus stays on the code editor (or wherever else it was before you hit Cmd-B), and you can just keep on coding. There’s only a couple of small indicators that a build is running: For one, the jump bar at the top of the window turns blue as the build runs and cycles thru the build tasks in the status area on the right. And if you’re in full screen “focus mode” with the code editor covering your entire screen, that’s all you see.

The application icon in the Dock also turns blue — which is handy if you actually are switching away from Fire while you wait for a build, as you can now see the build status and success/failure with one glance at the Dock or the Cmd-Tab app switcher.

When the build finishes, jump bar and app icon either go back to normal (if all went well), or they turn red (if one or more projects failed to build). That, and an optional notification center message, is your only indication that the build failed — again, nothing happens that pulls you out of the flow, as chances are you just went right on coding wile the build was happening.

Messages

Fire has no dedicated “Error Messages” view that pops up when a build fails. Instead, build messages are integrated with Fire’s regular navigation infrastructure: They fill into the jump bar at the top, for manual selection/browsing, and they also show inline in the text editor. Chances are, new build errors are happening right in the code you are currently working on, so having them show up where you are already looking at — the code window — is the best place for them, and in most cases, you need little else to find out what went wrong.

When you do, your favorite new keyboard shortcut will be Option-Cmd-M (or the Messages|Show First Message) menu, which — as the name indicates — jumps right to the first message generated by the build. If there have been errors, it brings you to the first error that was encountered; if there were none, it brings you to the first warning or hint, if any.

Of course, you can also look at the jump bar, which shows you all build messages under the Build Log node, and select a message from there.

Once you navigated to a message, you can use the Control-Command-Up and Down keyboard shortcuts (or Project|Navigation|Up/Down in the menu) to cycle between messages and jump from one to the other.

If you are the kind of person who does want to get distracted when building, Fire has a few options for you in the Preferences dialog, under Build & Debug: For one, you can choose to have Fire bring forward the build log either when a build starts, or when it fails. This option can be helpful in certain situations (for example when you are “debugging the build”, i.e. when you’re in a development mode where you’re looking at build issues and expect to look at the build log a lot), but I really recommend not turning it on for day-to-day work. You can also optionally have Fire jump to the first error if a build fails (which is how many IDEs behave, such as Delphi and Visual Studio — but again, I recommend against it, for the reasons outlined above).

Another cool thing you can do with build messages is copying code along with its messages to the clipboard. This is really helpful when you want to share a build problem with team-mates for help, or when you want to post questions about a build error somewhere. Simply select the range of code you’re interested in and press Option-Command-C (or Edit|Copy w/ Build Messages from the menu), and Fire will copy the code as you expected — but it’ll add any error messages to the code as well (prefixed by a // comment delimiter, so that the copied code remains valid). Really handy.

Don’t Stop Me Now.

Sometimes you press Cmd-B to start a build, and immediately regret it. This happens to me all the time: I write some code, press “build” to see if it’s any good, and the second I do, I spot that missing semicolon, that typo, or something else that’s silly. In Visual Studio, I’d now sit there and wait for the build to finish, just to go again, and that always has been a huge frustration to me. Not so in Fire.

There’s two things you can do when you started a build that you know will be no good. For one, you can press Cmd-. (or Project|Stop in the menu) and cancel the build. Bam, it’s stopped. More interestingly, if you just fixed that silly typo and want to build again, you can just hit Cmd-B again, and it will automatically cancel the current build and start fresh.

This might seem like a small thing, but I think you’ll find it a game changer in how you build — especially if you’re working on larger projects that take a few seconds to build. For example, a build of Fire takes between 10 and 30 seconds, depending on how large a portion of the project rebuilds, and depending on what kind of Mac you’re on (you really notice just how slow a MacBook Air is, by comparison, when building large projects ;)). Not having to wait that out every time I make a mistake has been a huge productivity boost for me.

What makes this even more helpful is that error messages form the build will come in and show in the editor one by one, as the build encounters them. So even if your build takes, say, 10 seconds, chances are you see your current line of code turn red after just a second or two if you made a mistake. Just fix it, press build again, and off you go.

This is just a small overview of how Fire integrates the build cycle into the IDE, and many of its subtleties are hard to do justice by just describing them. Give Fire a spin for yourself to see how this all works out in action — and make sure to let us know what you think!

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