- Aug 19, 2008
I was recently reading the preface to Kent Beck's book Implementation Patterns.1 He says, ". . . this book is based on a rather fragile premise: that good code matters. . . ." A fragile premise? I disagree! I think that premise is one of the most robust, supported, and overloaded of all the premises in our craft (and I think Kent knows it). We know good code matters because we've had to deal for so long with its lack.
I know of one company that, in the late 80s, wrote a killer app. It was very popular, and lots of professionals bought and used it. But then the release cycles began to stretch. Bugs were not repaired from one release to the next. Load times grew and crashes increased. I remember the day I shut the product down in frustration and never used it again. The company went out of business a short time after that.
Two decades later I met one of the early employees of that company and asked him what had happened. The answer confirmed my fears. They had rushed the product to market and had made a huge mess in the code. As they added more and more features, the code got worse and worse until they simply could not manage it any longer. It was the bad code that brought the company down.
Have you ever been significantly impeded by bad code? If you are a programmer of any experience then you've felt this impediment many times. Indeed, we have a name for it. We call it wading. We wade through bad code. We slog through a morass of tangled brambles and hidden pitfalls. We struggle to find our way, hoping for some hint, some clue, of what is going on; but all we see is more and more senseless code.
Of course you have been impeded by bad code. So then—why did you write it?
Were you trying to go fast? Were you in a rush? Probably so. Perhaps you felt that you didn't have time to do a good job; that your boss would be angry with you if you took the time to clean up your code. Perhaps you were just tired of working on this program and wanted it to be over. Or maybe you looked at the backlog of other stuff that you had promised to get done and realized that you needed to slam this module together so you could move on to the next. We've all done it.
We've all looked at the mess we've just made and then have chosen to leave it for another day. We've all felt the relief of seeing our messy program work and deciding that a working mess is better than nothing. We've all said we'd go back and clean it up later. Of course, in those days we didn't know LeBlanc's law: Later equals never.