Code is Poetry : 5 steps to bulletproof code


I recently read a Quora post about a meticulous cleaner who would not let the smallest blemish evade him – he’ll stop, fix the flaw and then step back to admire his work. The narrator admitted that the cleaner’s platform was one of the neatest he had ever seen around the world.

Morale of the story? The same principles apply to software development – programmers have to love their craft and put their best into making it stand out. Going the extra mile in simplifying complex code, removing dead code or writing unit tests help to increase the life of a code base. These actions might appear to impede development speed but again, what is the definition of slow? As a former colleague used to say: “we sometimes have to slow down to go faster”.

Poorly written software always comes back to haunt developers in unimaginable ways; such code will effortlessly conjure monster bugs of all types (e.g. heisenbugs, mutatorbugs, linkerbugs and more). Removing bugs in bad software is also a nightmare as fixes might spawn even more abominable bug monstrosities (without unit tests, how do you verify? ). Which would you prefer? Disappointed customers, having to work weekends and eventually rewriting the same code versus doing it well upfront. The latter does sound faster to me…

Enough ranting, how about a couple of suggestions on how to write bulletproof code?

1. Know what you’re doing

Have you ever had to work on impossibly cryptic code? To all programmers who disparage others who do not get ‘smart’ code, here is a beautiful quote from E.F.Schumacher:

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

Most ‘smart’ code pieces are indicative of shallow problem domain knowledge. Most times, these pieces can be simplified by taking away pieces until the problem the author was trying to solve becomes clear.

The  first thing you want to do when approaching a problem is to stop and think deeply. Stop! Don’t even start that IDE!! Do you understand the problem thoroughly? Do you know what issues might arise? How about testing and completion criteria? Once brainstorming is done, then find the simplest, fastest and most effective way to clearly convey your solution. Always remember that programming languages are vehicles for expressing your thoughts.

Without fully understanding the task, it is possible to end up with over-complicated code or even worse: ‘smart’ code. Please do not create breeding grounds for evil bugs – developers have better things to do with productive hours. Simplicity is the true smartness…

2. State modification is the root of all most evil

Functional programming purists tout FP as being less susceptible to bugs because it avoids modifying state. The best functions are like Mathematical functions, e.g y = x². Why are they good? Well they always give the same results for the same input and have no extra hidden internal state lying around.

I like using functions a lot; composing them into larger pieces and building up systems based on them. Such systems rely heavily on piping – function outputs are passed to other functions as inputs. Clearly designed functions are great as they communicate intent (e.g. square vs x²), make it easy to follow the author’s thought process and provide simplifying abstractions.

Watch out for the double-edged sword of modifying state in functions, it is the root of most evil bugs. Having the wrong assumptions about state changes, obscure manipulations (i.e. inadvertently modifying loop invariants in functions) and improper naming inevitably lead to trouble.

Whenever possible, use a functional programming style that relies on stateless functions. Hopefully this saves you a lot of debugging pain – you can thank me later…

3. Clean up as you go

What is your typical reaction when you come across horrible code? Do you sidestep the mess (I didn’t write it…) or do you attempt to fix it?

Just as people are more likely to drop trash on a dirty sidewalk compared to a clean one, developers are also more likely to write horrible code if the original source code is bad. This attitude is one to avoid at all costs; if you can’t invest in cleaning up the dirt, at least don’t add to it! Remember the boy scouts’ rule – always leave the park better than you found it.

Ideally you should clean up the code as you work in it – it shows that you care and helps prolong the life of the code base. If you need to strike a balance between adding new features and fixing technical debt (which might not bring new business value), then carve out a small block of time (e.g. 30 minutes).

If you want to know why this is important, then you should read about the broken windows theory (not yet, finish the post).

4. Love your craft

The best craftsmen are immensely proud of their work and achievements; they try to show it off to everyone and won’t stop talking about it (even if we do not want to hear about it ).

You should be proud of your code. Seek feedback; what looks beautiful to you might be terrible code – perspective, as they say, is subjective. Don’t get defensive and hurt over review feedback too – it’s the code dude! Not you!! So swallow your pride, learn and improve the code. Growth involves some pain.

Spend the time to think about elegance, simplicity and brilliance; the extra time and effort pays off. Which would you prefer of the two outcomes?

  • Creating a masterpiece in 6 hours
  • Creating a ‘hacker-piece’ in 2 hours and then spending 10 hours in maintenance (bug fixes, extensions and changes)

It’s a trade-off; I don’t like hunting down bugs – I do it if I have to but I’d rather not…

5. Break your software yourself

There was a dramatic moment during the début of the Microsoft Surface – the presenter dropped it (intentionally) and everyone gasped! Why would anyone want to drop a tablet? There are countless woeful tales of smashed screens, internal damage and memory loss. However, the presenter knew the product’s limits and knew he could do that. Can you break your own software? Do you know its limits?

Go ahead! Break it!! How else would you know its limits? Nearly every piece of code can be broken – a function that calculates 1 + 1 will give a wrong result on a computer with only 1-bit of memory (yeah, I wonder how you’ll even get such a computer). 

It’s a shame if customers find obvious bugs that should never have gotten into production. Customers who run into show-stopper bugs are typically not happy and unhappy customers can consider alternatives. Broken software can cause huge losses (goodwill, money, credibility, tarnished brand images etc) so you do not want to take this lightly – unless you fancy going out of business.

In these days of web applications, your customers will do a lot of testing for you – the more users you have the more weird scenarios people would put your software through. Do not worry about the extreme cases, the normal expected way has to work well though.

So try to break your code yourself before you call it done. This makes it more robust and you get to know of the corner cases. Even if you do not fix them, such knowledge enables you to handle customer complaints.

Inshaaha Allaah I hope to write about how to break software some time soon.

Now go and write some better code…

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5 thoughts on “Code is Poetry : 5 steps to bulletproof code

  1. Baarakallaahu fiihi. A nice write up!

    My summary of the article is as follows:
    Well designed codes are much easier to scale up. However, my prettiest code piece may look the most nasty to another coder. Don’t get discouraged, learn from others.

    Like

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