Broken Window Policy of Programming

There comes a point in every software projects life where everything just feels wrong. No one wants to touch the code as it stinks and everyone working on the project just feels demotivated and would rather just go home then have to do anything more on it. On projects like this, when it comes to adding new features or bits of code, because everything else is such a mess, the changes are just hacked in rather than being properly thought out and coded up well.

We’ve all been there and the frustrating thing is that our opinion of the project, from good to bad, seems to happens over night. If you sit down and think back, you can probably pick out all the things that were just shoved in that eventually led to the project becoming a mess, but at the time we never chose to do anything about. It’s almost always a case of deferring better solutions or a round of refactoring to some point in the future. “I’ll knock this up now and come back to it later.”. The problem is that later never comes. This is the essence of technical debt. You may only go into debt by a fraction, but do it a few times and eventually all those fractions add up. Until one day when you go to check your balance, you find yourself swimming in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight.

Implementing a broken window policy can go a huge way towards keeping a project healthy. If there is a broken window (bad code) fix it as-soon-as-possible. It doesn’t have to be that instant (although if you can, you should), but fix it. Part of the policy also means trying not to break windows yourself. Write the best code you can, as often as you can. Set the benchmark of quality for the rest of the team, even if they don’t follow suit. The danger is that many people are very “me too” about things. “Well if such-and-such can do it like this, then so can I *hack* *hack* *hack*”.

Of course we all write crap from time to time. TBH most of the stuff I write is crap. But I honestly feel more motivated to work on code that’s been loved and looked after, rather than something that’s hanging together by a thread.

Law of Demeter and the delegate method

The Law of Demeter, or Principle of Least Knowledge is a fairly simple design pattern, which, simply put means that an object should only talk to it’s immediate “friends”

The law states that a method M of and object O may only invoke the methods of the following kind:

1. a method on O itself
2. any parameters passed to M
3. any objects instantiated within M
4. any direct components of O

The classic example coined by David Bock used a Paperboy (one object) delivering a paper, then extracting money from a Customer’s (another object) Wallet (and another):

In the “real world” the Paperboy would ask the customer for the money who would then take it out for them, rather then the Paperboy reaching into the customer’s back pocket and getting it for themself.

Really we want something as follows:

This may all seem trivial and a waste of time, but what happens if some Customers want to pay by cheque? Those decisions should have an impact on the Paperboy, otherwise we end up with:

Where as it makes more sense for the change to be contained within the Customer:

So what does this have to do with Rails and the delegate method? The delegate method adds a quick and simple way of following the Law of Demeter without having to do very much at all.

This setup means to get an Order’s payment we would have to say:

But if we simply change our objects as such:

Now all we have to say is:

So at any time, the details of how a payment  is to be decided can be contained with the Customer. This is of course a simplistic example, but hopefully explains how you chould be using this handy feature.

The Code Shall Set You Free

I was recently asked why I don’t comment my code. It’s a fair enough question. There was a time when commenting your code was the done thing. I was once a great believer in commenting code as much as possible and would bash those that didn’t, but now I vary rarely comment my code at all. In my current project of over 1,500 LOC, there are only a handful of comments. Many people will argue this is irresponsible. Well how is anyone supposed to pick up and understand my code, if it’s not commented?

The code should comment itself.

That just sounds silly. It’s like saying a car should drive itself. But it can be done. A lot of this change of heart about comments has come from my commitment to becoming a better developer and spending countless hours reading about the practice of great development, which is something I’ve written about in the past. I’m a big believer that most of the time if you need to comment a piece of code, then it’s either bad code or too complicated. Of course that’s not true 100% of the time, but for the other 99% it really is. There are cases where things need to be explained and especially warned of, but a lot of the time, commenting is just an easy escape from having to do “proper” coding. It took me years and years to get a basic understanding of proper OO and I’ve still got a long way to go to reaching Journeyman levels of understanding, but I would always create large objects with huge and complex methods, when really what I needed were more concise classes with more responsibility for what they should be able to do. It’s not object orientated when you’re focus is on the method and not the class.

A simple example of commented code:

Most comments can be done away with. If we split out functionality into more concise bits, then just reading the code should explain what’s happening better:

This isn’t a great example as once again the validation of whether the food can/will be eaten should move into it’s own method or class ever. If we’re follow Uncle Bob’s SOLID principles, the above examples breaks the OCP (Open Closed Principle) where entities should be open to extension and closed to modification. If more validation rules were needed, then that would require the code to be modified.

So you want to be a developer?

I’m so glad that I’m not just getting started as a web developer these days. Facebook is the main example I give to people when talking to about this. It has set the standard for what and how people think a web app should behave. Move forward or backwards through photos and they are dynamically loaded without refreshing the page. Send someone a message and a modal box appears with autocomplete on the textboxes. You can browse the site, chat to friends and do all sorts of stuff without ever having to experience a page refresh. I even remember when they added AJAX to their photo albums. I mentally flipped as it made the site so much more usable. I showed it to someone going “Look! Look! There’s no page refresh.” while they just shrugged and went “I don’t see what you mean.”, D’oh… exactly! The sort of stuff no one even realises is happening. But I’m sure they’ll feel the difference if they use functionality on your site that’s similar to something Facebook does, but which requires a refresh where as Facebook doesn’t. Even I feel the pain of moving forward and backwards through photos on Flickr. After the third or fourth page refresh, I just give up.

When I got started, web stuff was so new and so simple that in hindsight it was amazing what you could get away with. You could just fly by the seat of your pants. I know I did. The first piece of web development I ever did was back in the mid nineties two days before my first interview. I wrote a Java servlet that simply took a single text parameter and queried a MySQL database using JDBC. I showed it at the interview and got a job as a web developer using Perl. I didn’t even know the Perl but still got the job. All I had to do, day-in, day-out was write HTML and scripts that responded to clicked links or submitted forms. Submit, refresh and display the result, job done, I can go home now. Creating a site wasn’t hard, almost anyone could do it and almost everyone was at the time. Life was simple and it was pretty much a level playing field. Now though, it is a totally different ball game. You’ll need good knowledge of at least a couple of languages, HTML, CSS (Yes we need it to work across all the major browsers), SQL, Javascript + a framework like jQuery + how to use AJAX.

There is just so much that you need to know that if you’re not doing this in your spare time, how are you supposed to ever compete with the kids nearly half your age who can already do this stuff with their eyes closed. Even me, who does this stuff every day as a job has to learn more and more if I even want a chance of staying relevant and employable. I love learning, so it doesn’t bother me. Programming still turns me on and it has to if you ever want to make a go of doing this for a living. Sometimes you can be in the fortunate position of working for a company that really loves this stuff, so you can learn and grow, but I suspect the majority of IT related jobs are done in companies where IT is a second thought to their overall business goal. Where managers prefer to say “no” to your ideas rather then say “ZOMG we could totally awesomely AJAX dis bitch up!!!11!”. And the learning doesn’t just stop at work related subjects. There’s a lot to be said about learning new languages and techniques totally unrelated to your work. Not only for the mental stimulus but also how they can teach you to approach a subject in a new way. I admit this is perhaps one area where I don’t spend enough time, but I’m trying. So go forth and learn. Be totally fucking awesome.