Coding practices your future self will love you for

Arpit Mohan on September 18, 2019

Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live. Martin Golding Here are 6 ... [Read Full]
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Love the quote you started with! Personally, I have this as a mantra:
When you write code, think about the poor bastard that's going to have to maintain it six months from now. It most likely be you.

Also, A solid set of rules.

 

I think that's a more accurate mantra. Be kind to your future self :)

 

Another one here that had to laugh out when reading the quote. I forwarded it to my group of fellow-programmers. Oh and btw, love the set of practices

 

Great tips! I can attest to all of these.

I strongly agree with your statement about not following DRY blindly. I'd extend that out to any methodology or practice.

Additionally, I use commenting showing intent to leave my specification and intent inline in the actual code. The result is that, no matter how long I'm away from the code, I can always pick back up my thought processes where I left off; meanwhile, anyone else reading my code can pick up not just what I'm doing (which should be self-evident from the code itself), but why I'm doing it.

 

I didn't know about CSI. Thank you so much for a pointer to the article. #TIL

Being able to re-create the program in any other language using just the comments is a great north-star to have; obviously really hard to follow (especially in the beginning)

 
 

I can't agree with you more! About two year ago I had to re-write an implementation of am algorithm I wrote 7 years earlier. Lucky me, I originally commented everything that the customer needed right next to the specific part of the code that did it. Saved me days. Literally days of work.

 
 

I came with an open mind but after reading the CSI guide, it looks to me like a very stupid idea.

A clean, well written code should reveal intent from the code itself, from the variable and method names, and its structure; and the test, the function interface, and pre/postcondition/assertions should reveal the detailed specification and contracts, in which case nearly all CSI comments as exemplified in that guide will be redundant.

Reading clean code should feel like reading CSI. The CSI comments then becomes redundant.

If you write your code, tests, and assertions with the same care that you write CSI, then you will get an executable and self-checking CSI without the comments; and your reader won't have to read twice and they will never be misled by outdated or quickly phrased comments.

The CSI guide you linked encouraged commenting the intent on each line, IMO this is very ridiculous. If you write intent revealing code, the intent should almost always be fairly straightforward to read from the line itself. If it's hard to read an intent from the line, then it may be ok to add comment as a crutch, but much better would be to rewrite the lines so the intent of that line and how that line relates to other lines becomes clear from the code itself.

The hard part of reading code, and where intent revealing comments can definitely help, is deriving intent from a large piece of code. On the contrary, the CSI guide you linked discouraged such commentaries. A few strategically placed comments can help summarise the grand intent that's not immediately obvious from reading individual lines. Intent revealing comments should be reserved for these grand schemes, not for individual lines. Individual lines should be clear enough without comments, and line comments are used sparingly when the line cannot be made clearer otherwise.

 

That "stupid idea" has saved my company countless hours. Others have reported the same. If the proof is in the pudding, it must not be so stupid.

Not every practice is right for everyone, and CSI might not work for you, but based on your comments, I can safely say you either skimmed or grossly misunderstood the standard. I'm as much of an advocate for self-commenting code and proper tests as is humanly possible, but in practice, they don't make up the difference in the specific (common) situations where CSI fits in.

If anyone is interested in understanding how this actually works, I did write this article up. It addresses all of the aforementioned misunderstandings.

mmm

I've been flip/flopping between comments are a last resort, okay and these specific kinds are actually good. And then there is literate programming which seems to be something along the lines of CSI, which I'd not heard of before.

But certainly, no "rule" should be followed religiously (that is, without question or thought). Which is a common thread among the OP's other rules, and my own Rule 0.

Calling it a "Stupid Idea" is a little harsh. But I do agree with the more positive sentiments expressed in Lieryan's post. The example I've attached from the CSI, in particular, seems to illustrate the point well. It's literally just repeating the code in English:

thepracticaldev.s3.amazonaws.com/i...

I'd argue that you should take Lieryan's suggestion as far as you can go, and then only when you still have ambiguity should you resort to CSI. Even then, you'd need to make sure that your comments are truly adding value and not just repeating what's already evident from the code (as with the attached example).

The only trouble with deciding whether a comment is "useful" or not while you code is that, during the process, everything you do seems obvious. The non-obvious intent only becomes apparent upon revisiting.

This is why CSI advocates commenting everything now, and then refactoring the comments once the code isn't as fresh in your mind. It's easier to drop a comment that isn't useful, than to try and figure out what intent-comment you SHOULD have included, but didn't.

None of that should be in lieu of any other component of clean coding, mind you. The code's "what" should still be self-evident, without comments. Comments are only for why, and I have never come across a single production-level code base where the intent was even sufficiently suggested by the self-commented code.

Usually, the people who say that intent-commenting is redundant to clean code are those who have never actually put intent-commenting into practice; it's dismissed because, as clean code likes to declare in its limited, but somehow magically all-seeing manner, "comments are always a failure."

I use both, and one can't even pretend to replace the other.

I just realized (and this isn't aimed at any particular person here), but I think that from a psychological perspective, one reason people seem to be so uncomfortable with the idea of commenting intent traces back to imposter syndrome...

There are those coders who write "clever" code that the average programmer is simply awestruck by. Even when it's completely "clean", the cerebral nature of the code is just too incomprehensible to any but the most senior developers...yet nothing particularly clever is actually being accomplished. The developer in question is trying to be Mel, and the moment they actually admit what the intent ("why") of their code is..."Oh, I'm just searching for a value in an array"...the smoke is cleared away, exposing their Cleverness as mere Overengineering.

I'm far from suggesting this is a common reason for opposing intent-commenting, but I have no doubt it is one of the reasons.

On a broader scale, however, I think it isn't unreasonable to assume that there are plenty of coders who naturally fear code critique by their peers, and if they're entirely up-front about their intent, they'll be subject to feedback along the lines of "Why are you doing this the hard way?"

By keeping our intent to ourselves, we feel like we can hide behind our (otherwise clean) code. Most of our peers won't bother to read it in light of what it's intended to be doing, so we're more likely to get "LGTM" code reviews and glaze-eyed pats on the back. Intent commenting exposes our inner thought processes to the open source world for public scrutiny, and I think that scares the Dickens out of a lot of people.

Yes. Emphasis on adding value. Repeating code in English (or another human language) is one of my pet peeves, but if it adds value, then I'm for that.

Precisely! Intent-comments only work if they add value: a clear expression of the intention apart from the code itself.

That's one of the major reasons I wrote the standard: to differentiate between junk comments and useful ones, and to encourage the latter.

+1 for mention of Mel

I feel my future self will disown any gratuitous 'cleverness', so for me personally, a comment on some clever code is more likely to be an admission to Future Self of being too much clever, and not enough smart :-)

Also, it's a little like explaining the punch line of a joke. One either feels that the joke has failed, or else being condescending to explain it. Another form of imposter syndrome

 

Nice post - definitely agree.

You mention gofmt for go (which is great); and for JS I'd recommend prettier: github.com/prettier/prettier , especially on teams. It allows the automatic code formatter to be the "bad guy", instead of having to talk about style during code reviews :)

Also definitely agree with number 4 - premature optimizations can kill code quality years later. It's always a terrible feeling when you get into an old codebase and realize that it's 4 levels of abstraction deep and you can't figure out what anything is doing :)

 

We use prettier very heavily in our team and that has definitely reduced the number of bike-shedding arguments internally. I think more and more languages are realizing the importance of this and baking it into the standard library instead of an external library.

 
 

Don't follow the DRY principle blindly

Couldn't agree more. Was guilty of this before. Now I just duplicate first, often times more than three occurences and before refactoring and making them DRY.

 

You should go WET (write everything twice) first.
As always, do not follow that one blindly too.

 

I'm more biased towards MOIST these days. Walking that thin line between DRY & WET 😜

 

"Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live."

Wiser words have never been spoken. But your write-up comes pretty close.

Thanks 🙌

 

Thank you so much. Glad you found it useful.

 

It is a good idea to copy-paste the same function a minimum two times

No. I'm steadfast against this. The first copy-paste is already reason to abstract the code. If you don't you'll have already duplicated bugs, and limited the functionality of the app. You'll also be encouraging yourself, and team-mates to copy it a third time -- since realistically, how will you know somebody has copied it once before?

Abstracting code in a clean way can be challenging. This is not a reason to avoid it. If you constantly avoid doing this you will never learn how. Creating an abstract form from two functions is easier than from three related functions. Do it right away. There's absolutely no reason this should result in less clean code.

 

That's the whole point of premature abstraction. In my experience, just because 2 things look the same initially doesn't necessarily mean that they will evolve to be the same. Obviously there are tiny functions such as "add 2 numbers" which will still remain the same and hence can be abstracted early.
As with any rule, apply with care and don't over-stretch it. The answer to most questions in programming (and life) are "It depends" :D

 

I'm also strongly against the WET principle. Having good unit tests and code coverage is important. If you go with the WET principle you are making it harder to write tests for your code. If you go with DRY and then you later find a function doesn't meet your requirement, don't use that function and rewrite the code - simple!

 
 

I had to go through some WET code in a project I'm working on today (code by a peer) and nearly threw up. Copied and pasted an entire method from one place to another. The code was tripe in both places and needed to be fixed twice. And you know what? I had to spend time going through the code to make sure it was exactly the same before I could be sure that the fix would work in both places. WET does not save you time if you follow it blindly. That's why it isn't better than DRY and that article does not say it's better than DRY. It says that sometimes (with small bits of code) it's fine to repeat it.

I think you are 100% correct; following principles blindly does not sound like a good plan. The only absolute rule in programming is that there are no absolute rules

 

Here's another one: document your code. As in write a technical documentation of your code. It doesn't necessarily mean the document should be technically technical, just make it brief and concise but provides necessary details for your future self to read and remind themselves.
Technical writing is somewhat underrated especially in open source programs, I think.

I'm currently practicing this myself with my recent projects and the (perceived) quality of my project is better than before.
Even if I'm not writing for myself, I still write with the assumption that others will read it.

 

The one I'd add is (for my purposes) to the same end: docs, ideally, should be written in the same cadence as the code - update code, update doc, update code, update doc.
This is insanely turbulent for me.

Instead, I've adopted something between TDD and plain through-as-crap testing.

I can run the specs and flip through the its and get a complete understanding of what the code should (and should not) do, and how to make it do it.
Doc-by-test is much easier for me because I don't have to switch gears to keep it moving.

The "honest" benefits of testing are just byproducts lol.

 

Yes! Very important aspect!

Technical writing has always been very under-rated, but very critical. Documenting any workflow, API or algorithm helps us reason with our own assumptions and removes inconsistencies and biases.

In the open source world, documentation has the added benefit of getting new contributors interested in the project. It's also much easier to raise your first PR for a documentation fix than for an actual bug.

 

Tests, tests, and more test.

That should be right after code style. Without tests your CI is useless. With a useless CI your CD is worthless.

Without tests you waste more time on debugging.

Without tests you cannot optimize at all.

 

I agree wholeheartedly. Testing is super important. I've seen projects debate long & hard about unit-testing vs system testing vs integration testing. What's more important is that you are testing at some level or the other. Something is waaay better than nothing!

 

That's a simple debate. You need all of those tests. Because they test different things.

Unit tests are fast, they can be executed on every build, maybe even before every commit.

System tests are used to test the result of the combination of units. As it requires the system to be running it takes more time. You run this maybe every hour, or once a day.

Integration tests are slow and depend on external systems. But they test things you cannot/should not do with unit tests or system test. You run these maybe daily or weekly depending on how much effort it takes reset states.

Then there's also the end-to-end test, or UI test, which sits between system- and integration-tests. This can easily be skipped if your system has no UI. But otherwise you do need it. It is also rather slow, and might even need a testing matrix to run the same tests for different clients (e.g. browsers). So you probably run this once a day, or every other day.

The less of these things you have in place, the more dangerous changing your software will be. The longer it takes to find out something broke, the longer it takes to find out why. That's why your first line of defense should be unit tests. That unit tests might touch the same code as the other test suites is irrelevant. The time to feedback is much shorter.

The above is more or less Chapter 7 and 8 of the book Continuous Delivery in a nutshell. Get the book in physical form, because if anybody challenges you, you can use it as a weapon too :)

 

Lovely totally agree. I'd say human-to-human comments explaining things does not hurt at all also. Well, after you know how to write a proper comment/doc block, create it so that other human can easily pick up, even provide an example if necessary. Comments are for humans not for computers. Also write your code as if you were having a human conversation as far as possible, writing function names and classes so that they make sense and are rather elegant during usage. Some storytelling never hurt no programmer ;) if you know what I mean. Have a conversation while you program, even vocalize it.

 

Good points, Arpit!
About loggind I'd add that it's a good practice to introduce different log levels, e.g. ERROR, INFO, DEBUG, TRACE. This way you can have different amount and detail of logs on different environments and possibly you can also just change an env variable to change the log levels on production if you have issues there.

 

I'm guilty of the 4. Especially combined with 2. And 5.

Optimizing and trying to get 4 or 5 things done in a "clever" function has been the bane of me.

Then I had to scrap it as the client didn't ask for that (even if I thought we would like it and it would be nice).

But I'm learning... I hope.

 

When debugging via logs, log levels are great feature to be using. Too much design patterns without past personal experience of it is also an anti pattern. Loved the idea of ci/cd as early as minimal MVP is implemented. So when adding new features, you could verify /tests/build/deployment is still working.

 

Log levels are god-send. God bless the person who thought of this first. :)

In production, there have been cases where we enabled debug logs for a brief period just to get more information on a bug. Tuning the log levels also affects performance in a big way (especially in a high throughput scenario).

 

"Too much logging == no logging." - cannot agree more on this one! I use logs a lot especially when writing JavaScript code and when I find myself filtering in my own logs I know, I've logged too much and I start cleaning up my logging :)

 

Love it! And it's a good reminder not just for beginners!

I would add a number 7:
Write test, just a few, for the most complex parts.

 

Thank you!

Testing is definitely required! Not just for the complex parts, but for the simple ones as well. You never know when the simple part becomes complex :)

 

I agree, but if testing is not part of your routine starting with "test absolutely everything" will result overwhelming and you may just give up entirely.

A good approach is to start where it hurts. Then add tests for every bug you find. Then if you still have time and budget feel free to go all in!

It also depends if you are building a library (I'd test as close to 100% as possible in that case) or a Gatsby website (I'd maybe only test a few UI components)

 

I love that quote and frequently use it with my juniors. :)

Internally I like to add that, that sociopath is me, because that’s how I feel when I look at my old code...

 

Haha ... each time I look at my old code, I think "I don't think I'd be good friends with my past self. That guy was an idiot." :D

 
 

Thanks for the great tips!

I'll try to debug locally using logs, I'm sure that will help me ship code more observable to production.

 

Don't write stupid comments on code, but write comments.

 

I should add "do not write in comment what you could have write in code".
That include the name of function/variables, the types (if it's a typed language that is), the exception that can occur, any optional result, constant arguments.. etc...

 

Couldn't agree more. Comments should describe the "Why" and not the "How". The "How" is already present in code.

 

I stopped in because title looked promising, read on with a chuckle because of that initial quote, and stayed til the end cause it was all good content. Thanks for the write up!

 
 

Good share, thank you.
So now "best practices" are adopted in fear of "the violent psychopath" joke :)

What happened to "We don't negotiate with terrorists" ?

 
 
 
 
 

Also do regularly look back at code you wrote 6 months ago; even if you don't have to. It will help you maintain this mindset ;)

 

I always shudder each time I look at my code from 6 months ago. There's a constant sense of "I was such a dumbass back then" :)

 

Good stuff.

I would add, write tests, so you will learn how to write testable code, which at the end, will result in better code.

 

Oh ya. TDD for the win! It's a muscle that needs some practice to be developed. But after a period of time, you feel like there's no other way that you can write code in.

 

Violent psychopath or someone like me. Either way…

Bad Time

 

I almost was guilty of number 5 today until my teammates wised me up in scrum.

 
 

Finally, five pieces of advice I can actually agree with.

💯

 

Thank you! Btw, which one didn't you agree with? 😜

 
 

These days, I follow MOIST. Not too DRY, not too WET. :)

 
 

Good article! Beware of the copy paste function though... I've been programing for 15 years and observe it as one regular source of bugs in code.

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