Thursday, January 8, 2009

Clean Code and Mom

If you've ever seen a code rot you know that few substances can so quickly go from shining examples of good to festering bug infested piles that everyone is affraid to touch. Why does this happen and what can we do to combat it?

There's much good advice out there for prevention, "Clean Code" by Robert C Martin is a good starting point and if things have already begun to stink have a look at Micheal Feathers "Working Effectivly Witch Legacy Code". They're well worth your time but since you're reading a blog Im guessing that right now you're searching for a quick snack.

It's quite easy to explain how we manage to get ourselves into this mess and basicly it's one portion human nature and an equal serving of wisdom from mom.

We follow examples.

As humans and developers we're extremly good at following examples, it's what we've evolved and trained to do. We learn to talk and behave by following the examples of our parents and peers, we aquire new skills by copying those who mastered them before us and we invent new ideas most of the time by missunderstanding something we set out to copy. Based on this it's deceptivly simple to conclude that in theory achiving and maintaining high code quality should simply be a matter of establishing a good set of practices and have people learn from and copy them. And as far as theory goes Im quite sure that it does actually hold true, apart from when it doesn't, and in practice that is most of the time.

Why does such a wonderull theory fail so miserably in practice? We could speculate that it's becuase we don't provide the right examples, or that people are ignorant of the wonderful code we've written and therefore doesn't emulate our flawless style. Or could it be that they simply lack the skill and aptitude for it? There's probably truth to be found in all of theese but I find it easier to lean on what mom used to tell me when I was little.

You become what you eat. Now before you dismiss me by saying that this actually reinforces the previous point (wich would be true) the underlying assumption in that dissmissal would be that we on average eat high quality code. If that was the case bad stinking code with wtf/minute ratios approaching positive infinity would not be a problem. Basicly I think the core problem is that most of the code we work with on a daily basis through maintenance and enhancement is the code that didn't work right! In any given codebase changes and work tend to cluster in the worst written, badly designed pockets of crap to ever compile and that's where we send our young and untrained. They come out of it producing sub-par code from the bad examples that have now ingrained their previously healthy minds, the examples they've seen are all terrible examples of what not to do. With experience we can learn to see the differance, we become hardened and learn that the code we see most often are the examples to not follow, we go on expiditions to find the code that have been working and elegantly solving our needs without us even realizing it was there, and we learn to emulate that.

So how does this answer the question how things can go so fast downhill? The answer is that on average people will produce code looking quite much what they last saw. Most of the code people see is horrible that's why they're staring at it. As the amount of bad code increases so does the probability of seeing bad code.

How to break the cycle is left as an exercise for the reader.

1 comment:

  1. It's quite obvious that Einstein had a little twink in his eye's when he said:
    Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction.

    Most people I know, find it really hard to do so.