Sunday, September 10, 2017

Should Bad Code Be Illegal?

A junior developer on my team asked me a rather interesting question recently.

If you were able to make laws, would you make bad code illegal?

I have a reputation where I work as being rather hard-nosed about not allowing hard to understand and maintain code into the codebase, so my answer surprised him.

No, I would not make bad code illegal, and there are very good reasons for having this opinion.

First, everyone writes bad code before they write good code. Whether it’s your first time coding in general or just your first time coding in a new language, with a new framework, etc, you are going to write bad code. I’m sorry. It’s just a fact of life.

Nobody starts out writing amazing code. Not me, not you, not Uncle Bob (in fact, Uncle Bob is open about the fact that he was a horrible developer when he started, just like the rest of us). We all get better by writing bad code, learning from our mistakes and pain, and, if we’re lucky, mentors helping us to see where things can be improved.

Second, “bad code” is rather subjective. What standard are we using for what “bad” code is?

Is it code that costs the business unreasonable amounts of money due to being full of bugs and difficult to maintain? That’s not a completely terrible definition because we can tie it to some external benchmark, but it’s still probably a bad idea since there is a risk/reward factor of why decisions were made at the time that may not be known at some later date.

Is it code that Developer X (whether me, Uncle Bob, or Joe in the cubicle across the hall) would look at and give a laundry list of things that need to change? For any given code, you can find some developer that would find flaws in it – whether it is inefficient, or it doesn’t implement their favorite pattern, or any number of other complaints.

Is it code that, six months from now, you will look back at and wonder what the heck you were thinking when you did it that way because there are so many better ways to accomplish what this code does? Here’s a hint. This should be most of your code. You didn’t know as much 6 months ago as you do now.

Third, sometimes bad code is necessary.

Yes, you heard me. There are times that it makes sense to write bad code.

If you are writing a script to perform some one-off function that you are seriously never going to use again, pretty doesn’t always matter that much. If writing code for 5 minutes and then throwing it away can save you hours of work, go for it. I’ve done it before, and I can almost guarantee that I will do it again.

Sometimes you need to fix a catastrophic flaw in a mission critical piece of software, because the company is losing millions of dollars per minute while the flaw exists. In that case, you have to do whatever you can in order to fix the issue, release the patch, and *then* go back and make it maintainable.

The same is true if we are in a startup where the money is limited, time is fairly short (as it is generally a function of money in this case), and we need to get a Minimum Viable Product out in front of users so we can start making money. This is another case were “Make it work, then make it better” can be the correct (and sometimes only) course of action.

We may not like it, but sometimes getting it to work right now is the right choice. These situations fall under the heading of consciously taking on technical debt with every intention of paying it back later and this is a very important business decision. If it’s a matter of “We can release it now and be able to make payroll” vs “It will take another month to make it perfect and we’ll be unemployed by then”, well, the choice is fairly clear then isn’t it?

Thankfully, most of the code we write doesn’t tend to fall into those categories, so we can make the effort now in order to make the code clean and maintainable, but we can’t ignore that those possibilities exist.

Making a law that is, on the whole, completely subjective and capricious is a just plain bad idea. As a general rule, when we write code that isn’t amazing, at worst we lose time in figuring out what is going on and/or fixing some bugs. Nobody generally dies from bad code (there are cases this is not true, but they are not the norm), and we can always make a conscious effort to improve it once the crisis is averted.

On the whole, yes, we need to strive to write clean, maintainable, bug free code, but we can’t be completely inflexible. If you want to make it a crime to write bad code, make the punishment be to learn how to write better code. I think that’s a fair sentence.

Current mood: Calm
Current music: Midnight Oil – Beds Are Burning