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.

April 22nd, 2015

One step at a time

In the epilogue of “The Mythical Man Month” Frederick Phillips Brooks says that there are only a few people who have the privilege to provide for their families doing what they would gladly be pursuing free, for passion. I am quite lucky to consider myself to be among those people. In a hypothetical situation where I buy a lottery ticket and win the 8-digit prize, I’d most probably find myself not necessarily continuing programming each day, every day. Having said that, it’s quite nice to be employed doing what you love to do. But, as with all things in life, you can’t expect a steady level of “enjoyment”.

Years and years ago (I’m talking last century) when I was studying computer science at a university, one of the mandatory courses included a homework exercise doing a stopwatch in assembly. You had to write a program that gets user input in mm:ss format, and when the user hits Enter, starts counting down to zero. I think there was also the part where you had to track keyboard input and stop the timer, but my memory fails me at the precise details.

I hated that exercise. I absolutely abhorred the very notion of dropping so low to the metal. You know, pixels are my people. So I waited. And waited. And waited. Until the very last evening before the morning when the homework was due. And then I schlepped to the computer lab, plopped into the chair and considered the bleak night in front of me.

As a parent I tell my kids to not postpone the exercises and chores they don’t like until the very end. I tell them that if they start with things they enjoy, they end up with a clump of boring, tedious and dull things at the very end. Of course back then I didn’t want to be quite as reasonable. So as I forced myself to start with something, anything, anything at all, I picked up the less mind-numbing parts of the exercise.

I started with processing the user input. Something like look at the character that was just typed and beep if it’s not a digit. Then proceed to mirror the character on the screen and advance the cursor. Then, at least after one digit, also accept the colon. Then tweak the input validation to only accept digits from 0 to 5 in the next slot. Then tweak the input validation to only accept Enter after exactly two digits after the colon have been provided.

And then I stalled for a bit more time, tweaking the input processing routine to accept additional Enter strokes to treat them as decrementing one second from the timer. Which brought me to writing another routine that would update the currently displayed value, handling the transition from :00 to :59 state.

I distinctly remember the depression I felt at the very thought of tracking and syncing with the system time facilities. I tried to postpone it as much as I could. It was the farthest away from the pixels, and I left it until the very end. And then a wonderful thing happened.

As I kept peeling off those onion layers, I kept on getting a continuous stream of visual progress confirmation. My routine for accepting the initial timer value was working. My routine for rejecting invalid inputs was working. My routine for decrementing the current timer value was working. And as I kept peeling off those onion layers, and as I got the the very last piece, I found out that it was actually quite manageable. There was only this last thing to cross off the list. I did it and I didn’t even notice how smoothly it all went.

Fast forward to early March 2015 and the code base I’m working on. It’s been around for a while. I’ve been on it for a while, almost five and a half years. It’s seen some major redesigns. In fact, I can’t think of a single module or class in it that hasn’t been gradually (and completely) rewritten at least once. And it has a lot of baggage.

I’ve briefly mentioned this the last time Chet and Tor hosted me on their podcast. As we started down the path of bringing our app into the Material world, we had two choices. We could graft the various aspects of Material (keyline grid, in-screen animations, cross-screen transitions) on top of the code base that was, frankly, simply not built to be that flexible. Or we could rebuild the foundation (ahem, yet again) with an eye towards that flexibility and then bring those elements in.

Rebuilding the foundation is at most times a long, dull and unexciting process. You know that at some point in the hazy future when it’s all done, it will enable all these wonderful things (and you hope that by the time you get to that hazy future, the design hasn’t changed in any major way). But for now, and perhaps for a while, the things you’re doing are not resulting in any kind of user-facing improvements. If anything, the deeper you dig, the worse it gets for the overall instability of your code base (aka Things You Should Never Do – except when you really have to). And so you dig, and you dig, and you dig. And you get closer to that hazy future. One step at a time.

And then at some point you look at what you’ve built, and you see that it’s ready. And you make a 150-line code change and suddenly you have the hero image extending all the way into the status bar on the details page. And the next day you make a 40-line code change that builds on top of that and you have the same functionality on the profile page – because they share the same skeleton structure that you and that other guy on your team has just spent the last four months rebuilding from scratch. Oh, and there were these ten people scattered all across these other teams that built the components that enabled to rebuild that skeleton structure in only four months. But I digress.

And then the next day you have a 50-line code change that brings the same functionality to a more complex context that looks exactly like those other two you already did, but instead of a simple RecyclerView it’s a RecyclerView in a ViewPager that has a single tab which hides the tab strip where you don’t even know if you’ll need to display the hero image until after the second data loading phase that happens when you’ve already configured the initial contents of that ViewPager. But you didn’t start straight away from this complex case. You started from a simpler case, hammering out the details of how to even get into the status bar. And when you got to the ViewPager context, you were able to concentrate on only that one remaining case.

And so you go. Across the landscape of your code base. Sometimes it just flows and you don’t even notice how yet another week flew by. And sometimes you look at this craggy cliff and you just want to turn and run away. But instead, you work at it. One step at a time. And before you know it, the cliff is behind you. And then you take the next step. Because the next cliff is waiting.