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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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Habits that Pay Off for Programmers

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the LogEntries blog.

I would like to clarify something immediately with this post.  Its title does not contain the number 7, nor does it talk about effectiveness.  That was intentional.  I have no interest in trying to piggy-back on Stephen Covey’s book title to earn clicks, which would make this post a dime a dozen.

In fact, a google search of “good habits for programmers” yields just such an appropriation, and it also yields exactly the sorts of articles and posts that you might expect.  They have some number and they talk about what makes programmers good at programming.

But I’d like to focus on a slightly different angle today.  Rather than talk about what makes people better at programming, I’d like to talk about what makes programmers more marketable.  When I say, “habits that pay off,” I mean it literally.

Don’t get me wrong.  Becoming better at programming will certainly correlate with making more money as a programmer.  But this improvement can eventually suffer from diminishing marginal returns.  I’m talking today about practices that will yield the most bang for the buck when it comes time to ask for a raise or seek a new gig.

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Comments in Clean Code? Think Documentation

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, take a look at GhostDoc for your documentation needs.

Second Editorial Note: I recently appeared on the Ruby Rogues podcast and was interviewed by Paysa.  If you’re interested, check both of them out!

Notwithstanding some oddball calculator and hobby PC hacking, my first serious programming experience came in college.  A course called “Intro to C++” got us acquainted with arrays, loops, data structures and the like.  Given its introductory nature, this class did not pose a particularly serious challenge (that would come later).  So, with all of the maturity generally possessed by 18 year olds, we had a bit of fun.

I recall contests to see how much application logic we could jam into the loop conditions, and contests to see how much code could be packed onto one line.  These sorts of scavenger hunt activities obviously produced dense, illegible code.  But then, that was kind of the point.

Beyond these silly hijinks, however, a culture of code illegibility permeated this (and, I would learn later) other campuses.  Professors nominally encouraged code readability.  After all, such comments facilitated partial credit in the event of a half-baked homework submission.  But, even still, the mystique of the ingenious but inscrutable algorithm pervaded the culture both for students and faculty.  I had occasion to see code written by various professors, and I noticed no comments that I can recall.

Professionalism via Thoroughness

When I graduated from college, I carried this culture with me.  But not for long.  I took a job where I spent most of my days working on driver and kernel module programming.  There, I noticed that the grizzled veterans to whom I looked up meticulously documented their code.  Above each function sat a neat, orderly comment containing information about its purpose, parameters, return values, and modification history.

This, I realized, was how professionals conducted themselves.  I was hooked.  Fresh out of college, and looking to impress the world, I sought to distinguish myself from my undisciplined student ways.  This decision ushered in a period of many years in which I documented my code with near religious fervor.

My habit included, obviously, the method headers that I emulated.  But on top of that, I added class headers and regularly peppered my code with line comments that offered such wisdom as “increment the loop counter until the end of the array.”  (Okay, probably not that bad, but you get the idea).  I also wrote lengthy readme documents for posterity and maintenance programmers alike.  My professionalism knew no bounds.

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What to do when Your Colleague Creates Spaghetti Code

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 around and give NDepend a try.

I write for a number of different outfits and earn my living consulting around software and IT.  Because of the intersection of these three concerns — writing, offering advice professionally, and software — I field a lot of requests for advice on how to do the right technical thing without everyone around you shooting holes in it.  Consider an example.

“How can we get started with unit testing?”

Considered as a technical question alone, this invites a fairly obtuse response.  “First, write a unit test.  Second, run the unit test.”  Obviously, that’s not really what anyone is asking when they ask this question.

Instead, they want to know something orders of magnitude more complex.  “How can we overcome years of inertia, a nasty legacy codebase, Bill, who has been around for 40 years and hates everything new, and the fact that management doesn’t want to pay us to write ‘extra’ code… and then start unit testing?”  Oh, yeah, that.  Well, that’s complicated.

I frequently hear such apparently-innocuous-but-actually-complex questions about code quality.  “This idiot on my team is writing mountains of the most unmaintainable garbage imaginable — what should I do?”

spaghetti

Usually, this sort of question comes to me from people at client sites.  And, accordingly, I have to balance the answer that makes the most sense for the individual with the one that keeps the client’s best interests in mind.  The client pays my bill, and I have a charter to lower the cost of ownership and development of their code.

But when I’m in writer mode, and only the asker’s interests matter, I’l give a subtly different answer.  Today, I’d like to offer advice on what you should do in this situation.

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