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Secrets of Maintainable Codebases

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, have a look at the tech debt quantification features of the new NDepend version.

You should write maintainable code.  I assume people have told you this, at some point.  The admonishment is as obligatory as it is vague.  So, I’m sure, when you heard this, you didn’t react effusively with, “oh, good idea — thanks!”

If you take to the internet, you won’t need to venture far to find essays, lists, and stack exchange questions on the subject.  As you can see, software developers frequently offer opinions on this particular topic.  And I present no exception; I have little doubt that you could find posts about this on my own blog.

So today, I’d like to take a different tack in talking about maintainable code.  Rather than discuss the code per se, I want to discuss the codebase as a whole.  What are the secrets to maintainable codebases?  What properties do they have, and what can you do to create these properties?

In my travels as a consultant, I see a so many codebases that it sometimes seems I’m watching a flip book show of code.  On top of that, I frequently find myself explaining concepts like the cost of code ownership, and regarding code as, for lack of a better term, inventory.  From the perspective of those paying the bills, maintainable code doesn’t mean “code developers like to work with” but rather “code that minimizes spend for future changes.”

Yes, that money includes developer labor.  But it also includes concerns like deployment effort, defect cycle time, universality of skills required, and plenty more.  Maintainable codebases mean easy, fast, risk-free, and cheap change.  Here are some characteristics in the field that I use when assessing this property.  Some of them may seem a bit off the beaten path.

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What’s in a Name? Spelling Matters in Code

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SubMain blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, check out GhostDoc.

Think back to college (or high school, if applicable).  Do you remember that kid that would sit near the front of the class and gleefully point out that the professor had accidentally omitted an apostrophe when writing notes on the white board?  Didn’t you just love that kid?  Yeah, me neither.

Fate imbues a small percentage of the population with a neurotic need to correct any perceived mistakes made by anyone.  XKCD immortalized this phenomenon with one of its most famous cartoons, that declared, “someone is wrong on the internet.”  For the rest of the population, however, this tendency seems pedantic and, dare I say, unpleasant.  Just let it go, man.  It doesn’t matter that much.

I mention all of this to add context to the remainder of the post.  I work as a consultant and understand the need for diplomacy, tact, and choosing one’s battles.  So, I do not propose something like care with spelling lightly.  But I will propose it, nonetheless.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  How can caring about spelling in code be anything but pedantic?  We’re not talking about something being put together to impress a wide audience, like a newspaper.  In fact, we’re not even talking about prose.  And code contains all sorts of abbreviations and encodings and whatnot.

Nevertheless, it matters.  When English words occur in your code, spelling them right matters.  I’ll use the rest of this post to make my case.

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How to Get Coding Standards Right (and Wrong)

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, download NDepend and give it a try!

Nothing compares with the first week on a new job or team.  You experience an interesting swirl of anticipation, excitement, novelty, nervousness, and probably various other emotions I’m forgetting.  What will your new life be like?  How can you impress your teammates?  Where do you get a cup of coffee around here?

If you write code for a living, you know some specific new job peculiarities.  Do they have a machine with runnable code ready on day one?  Or do you have to go through some protracted onboarding process before you can even look at code?  And speaking of code, does theirs square with elegant use of design patterns and unit testing that they advertised during the interview process?  Or does it look like someone made a Death Star out of bailing wire and glue?

But one of the most pivotal moments (for me, anyway) comes innocuously enough.  It usually happens with an offhand comment from a senior developer or through something mentioned in your orientation packet.  You find yourself directed to the coding standards document.  Oh, boy.

At this point, I start to wonder.  Will I find myself glancing at a one-pager that says, “follow the Microsoft guidelines whenever possible and only include one class per file?”  Or, will I find something far more sinister?  Images of a power-mad architect with a gleam in his eye and a convoluted variable name encoding scheme in his back pocket pop into my head.  Will I therefore spend the next six months waging pitched battles over the placement of underscores?

Ugh, Coding Standards

In this post, believe it or not, I’m going to make the case for coding standards.  But before I do so, I want to make my skepticism very clear.  Accordingly, I want to talk first about how coding standards fail.

Based on personal battle scars and my own experience, I tend to judge coding standard documents as guilty until proven innocent.  I cannot tell you how many groups I have encountered where a coding standard was drafted, “just because.”  In fact, I’ve even written about this in the past.

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Keep Your Codebase Fit with Trend Metrics

Editorial Note: Thanks to everyone who voted for a Developer Hegemony Cover.  I’ll tabulate the official results soon, but it looks like the dark cover is the clear favorite!

Second Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, take a look at the new version of NDepend.

A while back, I wrote a post about the importance of trends when discussing code metrics.  Metrics have impact when teams are first exposed to them, but that tends to fade with time.  Context and trend monitoring create and sustain a sense of urgency.

To understand what I mean, imagine a person aware that he has put on some weight over the years.  One day, he steps on a scale, and realizes that he’s much heavier than previously thought.  That induces a moment of shock and, no doubt, grand plans for gyms, diets, and lifestyle adjustments.  But, as time passes, his attitude may shift to one in which the new, heavier weight defines his self-conception.  The weight metric loses its impact.

To avoid this, he needs to continue measuring himself.  He may see himself gaining further weight, poking a hole in the illusion that he has evened out.  Or, conversely, he may see that small adjustments have helped him lose weight, and be encouraged to continue with those adjustments.  In either case, his ongoing conception of progress, more than the actual weight metric, drives and motivates behaviors.

The same holds true with codebases and keeping them clean.  All too often, I see organizations run some sort of static analysis or linting tool on their codebase, and conclude “it’s bad.”  They resolve only to do a better job in a year or two, when the rewrite will start.  However good or bad any given figure might be, the trend-line, and not the figure itself, holds the most significance.

Trend Metrics with NDepend

In that last post, I touched only on the topic, but not the specifics.  Here, I’d like to speak to how NDepend helps you with metrics.  I suspect that a lot of people know NDepend for its memorable visualization aids and its code rules and queries.  I don’t see as much discussion about the valuable trend tools, perhaps because they were release comparably recently.  In either case, I want to talk today about those tools.

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Developer Hegemony: It’s a Wrap (And Check out the Covers)!

I think I started the initial writing of this book in the summer of 2015.  Then I spent the next year and a half or so writing it in my relatively limited spare time.

Some of this happened piled on top of 50+ hour weeks, by the fluorescent glow of a hotel room light.   Other times it was weekends at home.  But, wherever I found the time, I did my best to keep trucking.  I had a lot of fun doing it, but I have to say it proved a monumental undertaking.

A couple of weeks ago, I completed the initial draft of the book.  Just last night, I published the last significant draft (editing of the last quarter of the book still pending) to Leanpub.  Any subsequent publishes will come as a result of edits and not additions.  So, that’s it.

Thanks to all of the people that have purchased the book or have followed along as I’ve written it!

What Now?

Now, we enter the planning stage, in preparation for a real, no-foolin’ book launch.  We have yet to pick a date yet, but it looks like probably sometime in April.  Still a lot of work to do.

A few quick bullets to note.

  • The book now has a page on my site, here.  I’ll update this as I go, but this represents the ‘official’ Developer Hegemony site.  Look, developerhegemony.com links there, too!
  • I have likewise created a landing page to visit after reading the book.  Around the same time that I launch the book, I’m planning to shift my professional focus to move away from time for money consulting and toward content and productized services.  As part of this, I plan to start offering material on how to hack your corporate career, engineer a safe escape, and move toward more autonomy in life.  That call to action page for after reading will evolve to reflect my progress.
  • I have created a Facebook group for anyone willing to participate in the launch.  If you want to help, I would be much obliged!  Helping should prove pretty easy.  I’m looking for people, on launch day, to either purchase the book, leave me an Amazon review, or just spread the word via social media.  I’m already grateful for your visits to the site and reading of the blog, so no pressure at all.
  • If you want to see updates on the launch, I’ll probably keep you informed on my blog, but signing up for my mailing list or the Facebook group will ensure you receive updates when it goes live.
  • And one last thing.  I need your help picking a cover — please participate!

The Candidate Covers

One Last Thing

Oh, and if you want a sample of the book, you can do it by signing up for the mailing list using the form here.

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