May 21st, 2015

Code reviews

One of the most enjoyable, and at times scary, things about working on my team is doing code reviews. They are mandatory no matter how “senior” you think you are or how long you’ve been on the team. I sometimes catch myself thinking “better not add Mr. SoAndSo because he’s going to point out all the ugly things in this pile of hacks I’ve been constructing here”. It’s those times where I just go back and try to make things less hacky. And then add that guy who would have the most objectively critical eye to look at the code change.

Do code reviews. You’ll occasionally butt heads, as there’s rarely a single “best” way to make even the simplest bug fix. But no matter how “senior” or “junior” your reviewers may be, you’ll always be better off at the end. I lost count of the number of times that I said to myself “Huh, I didn’t know that” after seeing a reviewer leaving his comments. Not to mention that you’ll have somebody else having at least some level of familiarity with your code if you ever get too swamped. Don’t count too much on that though, as people weave in and out of projects.

Every once in a while you’ll get out of your comfort zone working on a new feature or fixing a bug. At some point you know your reviewers, their style and their strengths. Don’t be tempted to add reviewers that will be inclined to rubber stamp such code. Seek out people who are deeply familiar and well versed in the specific area. You will be afraid that they’ll pick your code apart like a poorly constructed house of cards it is. Better now than after it ships. Such a reviewer knows how to do this better than you, and the result will be better for both you and your code base. It will just take longer. Don’t let your ego take a hit. It’s just code.

When you’re asked to do a review, do it quickly. Don’t drop everything and do it immediately, but do it the same day. The quicker you provide good and actionable feedback, the fresher it is on the side of the code author. Don’t let your reviewers rot. This also helps preventing unnecessary rebases. Not to mention spreading your strengths around, and learning from the strengths of others.

Don’t do gigantic code drops. If it’s a big feature, map out smaller steps towards the final goal. Mark unfinished places with TODOs so that the reviewer knows this is not the final thing. Build trust in each other to understand that sometimes the road to the final feature takes multiple steps. But always keep an eye on those first couple of steps to make sure that the road is taking the right overall direction.

Stay focused on criticizing code. If you feel strongly about something, be direct and concise. But never ever ever get personal. See the arguments for what they are and for what they should be. You are not your code. A critique of your code is not a critique of you as a person. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference especially if you’ve been working on something for a long time. Code reviews are a negotiation. It’s not a zero sum game. In the end, it is all about clarity and complexity.

There’s no better opportunity than doing code reviews to grow and become just that much better. Every single day, if you can. Even after all these years. There simply is no such a thing as those mythical 10,000 hours in our field.

May 13th, 2015

Complexity

People come and people go. But the code base stays there. It evolves over time, like an amorphous organism. It mutates (or is, rather, being mutated) to meet the changes in its environment. Some of its parts don’t always function as expected, requiring a surgical procedure to try and set those parts on the right path. And if you’re not careful, it can swallow you whole and nobody will hear from you ever again. Analogies. They always break apart at some point.

Last December marked my fifth anniversary on my current project. The codebase has been there before me (perhaps a year or a bit longer), and since then it has seen significant changes. I doubt that there’s any single line of code that has survived untouched in all that time. Some modules have been rewritten completely. Some have been rewritten completely more than once (hello local app history management). Certainly none have remained in their original form or function as we’ve moved through multiple rounds of redesigns that were (almost always, hello all things Material) driven by evolving business requirements.

And beyond all the feature changes, there are always bugs. Sometimes they are in my code. Sometimes they are in this code that this other person wrote, and it just so happens that they are half way across the globe enjoying their vacation just as we’re closing down on this year’s I/O and seriously who does that. OK, that was too specific. And sometimes bugs happen to be in the module that was last touched by this guy who’s no longer on the team and not even any longer at the company.

Clarity and brevity are your only [citation needed] two weapons to help you wade the murky waters of code that is not old enough to be completely replaces but not young enough that you can actually remember either writing or reviewing it. Complexity, on the other hand, is your worst enemy. Back to analogies!

Complexity is an affliction that attaches itself to this one part of your organism. And it’s not going away on its own. Next time you’re in that module, fixing a bug or extending the functionality, that complexity winds itself into the new code, spreading just a little bit farther in. And then it intersects with another affliction that originated in another part of your organism. At the time, both afflictions were pretty local and pretty small. But they were left unchecked, growing just that much bigger every single time somebody touched things around them. And now they are intertwined.

And at some point you have that thing in your organism that everybody’s afraid to touch. Nobody has any idea how to make it better. Nobody has any idea what side effects a specific surgery (aka bug fixing) will have. It might have taken you a couple of hours at the beginning of the next release cycle to go back and treat that original affliction because you just didn’t have enough time to be clear and brief. But ain’t nobody got time for that. That’s not glamorous work. That’s not work that you put up in your promo packet. That is work that can only be appreciated by people who have spent at least a few years on the same code base.

Complexity is by far our worst enemy. Well, that and software patents. But that’s a whole another subject.

May 6th, 2015

Clarity

In the last post I talked about deliberate brevity – taking time to think through a problem and finding a solution through concise coding. But writing as little code as possible is most certainly not my goal these days. In fact, as a goal unto itself it sets you onto a very dangerous path.

Estimating roughly, I spend 10% of my time writing code and 40% of my time debugging it (including code written by others before me). Let me repeat that again. I spend 4x as much time reading and tweaking existing code than writing new code. I’m not that interested in writing tersely. I’m much more interested in writing clearly, for the benefit of everybody that is going to be looking at that code down the line – future me included.

At times we are faced with complex problems. It’s only natural to come up with complex solutions. Complex solutions create an illusion of being a master of your domain, impressing your peers and beefing up that pitch to bump you up to being the “senior engineer, level 5C” for the next promo cycle. “Nobody knows that module better than Bob. In fact, Bob is the only one who understands it at all.” I’ve seen enough code written by Bobs. To be honest, I don’t like where the Bobs of our world are taking us.

It takes time and patience to distill a solution to its most vigorous form. And it takes skill and humility to remove complexity from the solution. To practice the craft of writing clear code. Code that is clear to read, clear to maintain and clear to evolve. Finding clear solutions to complex problems is the ultimate mark of our craft. It’s time to stop admiring complexity and start appreciating clarity.

April 29th, 2015

Brevity and vigor

I’ve spent four days at the beginning of March this year working on immersive hero images in our app. I touched around 250 lines of code all in all, mostly adding new code but also modifying or deleting a few dozen existing lines. And that’s pretty much all I did in those four days. Sure, there were a couple of small meetings here and there and an occasional code review, but overall I’d say that I’ve spent at least 8 hours every day working on this feature. Overall my total output was less than eight lines of code per hour. That sounds not very productive of me, I know.

Recently I find myself not really writing a lot of code. Instead of diving straight into the editor, I think. And I think. And I think some more. I literally sit there staring at my desk. I get up and walk around the room. I take a break and browse the web (but don’t tell my managers about that). And then I push it out to the next morning.

On any given day I find myself spending, perhaps, 10% of the time writing code, 40% of the time debugging it and 50% of the time thinking about it. It certainly seems like a big waste of my time. I should be down there in the editor, banging out line after line, method after method, class after class, throwing it at the device and seeing what’s happening. You know, walking the walk.

But I’ve walked that walk before. It felt good to always be moving and it felt great to always be moving fast. These days I prefer to move slow.

I like to think about this as deliberate brevity. A long long time ago, a French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Translated loosely, “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

I enjoy taking time to make my changes brief and vigorous. In the words of William Strunk, “When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.” I believe that every line of code needs to fight for its right to exist in our code base. I believe that every comment needs to fight for that right as well. I immensely enjoy code reviews where one of my teammates points out how I can cut out even more code and make things even simpler, but without losing the overall clarity of what the code is doing.

I am indifferent to productivity tools in general and to debates on which IDE makes programmers more “productive”. When you spend five times as much time thinking about the code than writing the code, the number of shortcuts, templates and auto-completion becomes quite irrelevant. I don’t measure my output by words of code per second or lines of code per minute. I measure my output by the robustness of the path I’m paving, over weeks, months and years.

When you spend half your day thinking about the code, every distraction hurts. Open office plans that proclaim to foster spontaneous exchange of ideas are creating a never-ceasing cacophony of distractions that is actively disrupting the most precious resource we have to offer our employers – our brains. Until they come with a thinking-time switch that envelopes you in a literal cone of silence, they must not progress beyond the corporate facilities planning spreadsheets. I realize that it’s a bit late for that.

Don’t aim to impress me with how fast you can churn out new code. Don’t tell me that it will all be done by the end of business day. It rarely happens, and when it does, I know I’ll find myself wading through vast reams of that code in a year’s time (when you might have already gone to some other project), trying to understand why it is, in fact, so vast. Don’t ask for permission to spend time thinking. And don’t think that spending all that time thinking only to write fewer lines of code makes you a less productive programmer. Be concise. Be brief. Be vigorous.