Reverse Engineering

In today’s lab we return to debugging as a central topic and important programming-related skill. We’ll sharpen your debugging skills by forcing you to reverse engineer functions and classes, mimicking the behavior of a hidden function or class by interpreting compiler and testing errors. In any remaining time please continue working on MP1.

1. Reverse Engineering (50 Minutes Total)

Today’s lab activity returns to a central topic and skill in computer programming— debugging. Great programmers don’t stop making mistakes—they just get better at quickly finding and fixing them.

To give you some focused practice with debugging we’re going to challenge you a bit today by having you reverse engineer the solution to several homework problems. What does that mean? Up until this point we’ve provided a detailed specification for each homework problem. That description of what the snippet, function, or class is supposed to do allows you to write code to solve the problem, which we then test.

Today’s lab homework problems are different: there is no specification provided! So how on Earth do you solve them? Well, we do provide a test suite that includes inputs and expected outputs. That test suite will fail to compile initially, since we aren’t providing any starter code. But even those compiler error messages will be critical to helping lead you in the right direction.

What you are really doing today is a well-known technique called reverse engineering. Reverse engineering consists of extracting knowledge from something by examining how it responds to inputs, without access to the specification, source code, or manual that describes how it was designed or made. There is a long and proud tradition of computer scientists reverse engineering closed-source software and hardware.

1.1. Example Approach

In the screencast above I’ll get you started on today’s first lab homework problem. But a general approach to reconstructing the solution functions or classes goes something like this:

  • Submit something, anything, and examine the compiler errors. These will help you determine the names of functions or classes and their signatures and return types.

  • Once your code is compiling and running begin to examine the inputs that are being provided to your code and the outputs expected by the test suite. You can and should add print statements to functions that are run by the test suites to help figure out what inputs are being provided, since the test suites will only print the expecting and actual outputs when they fail. You may find it helpful to start to make a small table recording what inputs were provided and what was required when a test fails.

  • Next begin writing your function or method to produce the correct output. For example, if the inputs were 2 and 4 and the output was 8, you might hypothesize that the function was returning its inputs multiplied together. So try that and see if it works. If it does, great! If not, examine the failing input and decide how to adjust your code appropriately.

1.2. Get Started!

Today’s lab homework may take you a while, so go ahead and get stared! Have fun with this one, and please work together with the rest of your lab. Don’t give away any solutions to the easier ones, but feel free to work together on the last challenge problem.

2. Before You Leave

Don’t leave lab until:

  1. You’ve completed a few of the reverse engineering homework problems!

  2. And so has everyone else in your lab!

If you need more help completing the tasks above please come to office hours or post on the forum.

CS 125 is now CS 124

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Created 10/24/2021
Updated 10/24/2021
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