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The Case for a Team Standard

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 CodeIt.Right and give it a try.

In professional contexts, I think that the word “standard” has two distinct flavors.  So when we talk about a “team standard” or a “coding standard,” the waters muddy a bit.  In this post, I’m going to make the case for a team standard.  But before I do, I think it important to discuss these flavors that I mention.  And keep in mind that we’re not talking dictionary definition as much as the feelings that the word evokes.

First, consider standard as “common.”  To understand what I mean, let’s talk cars.  If you go to buy a car, you can have an automatic transmission or a standard transmission.  Standard represents a weird naming choice for this distinction since (1) automatic transmissions dominate (at least in the US) and (2) “manual” or “stick-shift” offer much better descriptions.  But it’s called “standard” because of historical context.  Once upon a time, automatic was a new sort of upgrade, so the existing, default option became boringly known as “standard.”

In contrast, consider standard as “discerning.”  Most commonly you hear this in the context of having standards.  If some leering, creepy person suggested you go out on a date to a fast food restaurant, you might rejoin with, “ugh, no, I have standards.”

Now, take these common contexts for the word to the software team room.  When someone proposes coding standards, the two flavors make themselves plain in the team members’ reactions.  Some like the idea, and think, “it’s important to have standards and take pride in our work.”  Others hear, “check your creativity at the gate, because around here we write standard, default code.”

What I Mean by Standard

Now that I’ve drawn the appropriate distinction, I feel it appropriate to make my case.  When I talk about the importance of a standard, I speak with the second flavor of the word in mind.  I speak about the team looking at its code with a discerning attitude.  Not just any code can make it in here — we have standards.

These can take somewhat fluid forms, and I don’t mean to be prescriptive.  The sorts of standards that I like to see apply to design principles as much as possible and to cosmetic concerns only when they have to.

For example, “all non-GUI code should be test driven” and “methods with more than 20 lines should require a conversation to justify them” represent the sort of standards I like my teams to have.  They say, “we believe in TDD” and “we view long methods as code smells,” respectively.  In a way, they represent the coding ethos of the group.

On the other side of the fence lie prescriptions like, “all class fields shall be prepended with underscores” and “all methods shall be camel case.”  I consider such concerns cosmetic, since they concern appearance and not design or runtime behavior.  Cosmetic concerns are not important… unless they are.  If the team struggles to read code and becomes confused because of inconsistency, then such concerns become important.  If the occasional quirk presents no serious readability issues, then prescriptive declarations about it stifle more than they help.

Having standards for your team’s work product does not mean mandating total homogeneity.

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When is It Okay to Turn off Static Analysis Guidance

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, download CodeIt.Right and give it a try.

The balance among types of feedback drives some weird interpersonal dynamics and balances.  For instance, consider the rather trite (if effective) management technique of the “compliment sandwich.”  Managers with a negative piece of feedback precede and follow that feedback with compliments.  In that fashion, the compliments form the “bun.”

Different people and different groups have their preferences for how to handle this.  While some might bend over backward for diplomacy others prefer environments where people hurl snipes at one another and simply consider it “passionate debate.”  I have no interest arguing for any particular approach — only in pointing out the variety.  As it turns out, we humans find this subject thorny.

To some extent, this complicated situation extends beyond human boundaries and into automated systems.  While we might not take quite the same umbrage as we would with humans, we still get frustrated.  If you doubt this, I challenge you to tell me that you have never yelled at a compiler because you were sure your code had no errors.  I thought so.

So from this perspective, I can understand the frustration with static analysis feedback.  Often, when you decide to enable a new static analysis engine or linting tool on a codebase, the feedback overwhelms.  28,326 issues the code can demoralize anyone.  And so the temptation emerges to recoil from this feedback and turn off the tool.

But should you do this?  I would argue that usually, you should not.  But situations do exist when disabling a static analyzer makes sense.  Today, I’ll walk through some examples of times you might suppress such a warning.

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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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