Software Development Philosophy

2016-04-29*
programming

I’ve been meaning to write about software development best practices for a while now. Here are some things that I believe in, after having distilled countless blog posts, comments, and arguments over the years.

1: Take version control seriously

Learning how to use version control was easily one of the big eye-opening events in my technical journey. I get sad when I see commit messages without any real explanation such as “Ugh!” or “Oops”.

Although modern version control systems have many technical benefits (distributed nature allowing parallel collaboration, guaranteed data integrity, etc), I believe that the overruling importance of version control is history preservation. Reading the commit history of a well-maintained project is a pleasure: each commit explains why that commit was necessary at the time it was written, with references to other documents, bug reports, etc. If you have fine-grained commits, you can go back in time to reproduce bugs, or even use things like git-bisect to figure out which commit introduced a bug. If you are working to fix a regression that was introduced “around two months ago,” the last thing you want to do is look at 2-month old commits with useless commit messages.

2: Be consistent

No one can deny the power of simplicity. On the other hand, how do we achieve simplicity?

Start by being consistent. There are multiple domains of “consistency” in a software project but here are some basic ones: coding style, naming convention, and comments. Yes, comments have to be written in a particular way as well! Let’s look at each in turn.

Coding style

The simplest form of consistency is coding style. Every project must have some general consensus for coding style. Although 100% adherence may not be practical, you should at least make all new code follow the same convention. Automated linters can help in this area.

Naming convention

This is a superset of coding style. If you have variable names, they should be consistently named. If you use the term cfg in one variable or function, you should use it everywhere; do not use conf or config elsewhere.

For functions, quite often in imperative languages they perform some action. And naturally, the action is performed on something. Now, where do we put the verb and the direct object? It doesn’t really matter, but be consistent!

For the following functions, notice how the verb comes before the object, consistently:

. I believe that such subtle details do matter in the long run.

Comments

Too often I find random-looking comments strewn across a single file — some one-liners, some just one word, etc. Comments should be written in a consistent style, too!

Comments form the backbone of documentation for anyone not intimately familiar with the codebase. Thus, comments should never assume that the reader knows the basics of what’s going on. Rather, comments should strive to explain things to the layman, the outsider.

Writing comments in this style does not mean that you should always repeat everything from zero; instead, explain the general bird’s eye view in one place, and refer to this introductory view. Also, avoid writing one-liner comments if you can, as they encourage laziness and half-baked explanations (how much meaning can you really convey in 1 line?); write a nice explanation for each “atomic” unit of code — this is typically one function definition.

Lastly, do not comment out code and check it into a commit! This is a habit of the era before version control became popular. If you really want to save commented code, at least preface it with an explanation. Mystery dead code is the worst!

3: Have one source of truth

This is another way of saying the DRY principle (“Do not Repeat Yourself”) which I find somewhat vague. I hereby coin this rule as the HOST principle (“Have One Source of Truth”).

Under the HOST principle, if you are working with multiple components that depend on each other, it’s important to establish who is the original source for which things. Any component that feeds from the source of truth must act subserviently to the originator, as far as that piece of truth is concerned. The Object-Oriented Programming model encapsulates this with public and private methods; in the purely functional model this is less of a concern because of the lack of side effects.

This is the one principle that gets overlooked time and again. It’s probably because the HOST principle can be violated in so many ways. Below are some typical violations.

Global variables

Whereas global constants would be fine, global variables by their very nature allow anything to edit the originating source of truth. The result, all too often, is spaghetti code where it is unclear which function has authority over another function.

Non-modularity

A common mistake is when people do not make things modular and just copy/paste large files making minor changes between each one. For example, let’s say that there exists 3 different developer environments — “development”, “staging”, and “production” — and that each one shares about 90% of the configuration values, with the other 10% changing depending on the environment. You should not write 3 separate files; instead, you should keep in source control 1 file with all of the various values, and have some other process automatically generate the individual environment-specific configuration file. This way, you don’t have to edit 3 files when you make some global change that affects all environments.

Lack of testing

In the ideal world, every program ships with a contract, telling the user that the program will do X, Y, and Z, in such and such a way under such and such conditions. This contract would be the source of truth about a program’s intended behavior at runtime. Alas, such “contracts” do not exist, at least at the program-behavior-at-runtime level. 1 While excellent documentation, commit history, and even community-driven “best practices” all attempt to define how a program behaves and what to expect, they still bow down to the test suite. This is because tests, by their very nature, are written expressly to keep in line the behavior of a program over its lifetime.

Not all projects can have the traditional test suite covering every corner case (e.g., the Linux Kernel is one such project). But most projects can. At the very least, you should have some standard practice or system of ensuring that your program is stable and behaves as intended.

4: Accuracy is more important than performance

Ultimately, software is written to perform some task. If your software does not perform that task, it is useless. Your code should care foremost about correctness (being free from bugs).

Whereas performance can always be improved given a naive (but correct) implementation, it is not so the other way around — a highly-performant yet buggy implementation cannot be easily debugged while maintaining existing performance benchmarks.

5: Be cautious of new code

Old code exists because it worked last year, last month, two weeks ago, and yesterday. Let that sink in. At the end of the day, something that works makes the user happy.

If you have a new design or some new way of doing something, it better be superior to the old way. It should be as clear as night and day. Typically, new code is in bug fixes, where the “night and day” difference is obvious. But sometimes it is in new features or even in refactored code — and still, it should be judged against the same high standards.

When I submitted my patch to fix some Git documentation some years back, I originally submitted 7 commits. Of the 7, one of them was a patch to update the itemized list syntax; it was purely a change of form, not function. The maintainer (Junio Hamano) questioned this patch, and it was eventually dropped because I really could not make a good case for it. I keep thinking about this encounter once in a while, and remind myself that even something as harmless a documentation change should be treated with caution.

All projects require new code — and this is how projects grow. Growth has to be done in moderation and with great care — this is how software must evolve. We can analogize software growth as mutation over time, with each commit as a particular “mutation”. We choose the best ones (thanks to distributed VCS branching/merging!) one at a time, easing growing pains. Commits with far-reaching changes are the worst type of mutations and should be avoided; an exception is if you have changes that delete more code than add code — these are golden if they can be vetted and proven to work, as they can cut bloat and slim down the codebase.

Conclusion

In the real world, it’s hard to cross all your t’s and dot your i’s — I am no exception with regard to my own projects at home and at work. If I had to pick only one rule from the five above, it would be the first (treat version control seriously). Maybe I am biased because I love Git. Still, it’s hard to argue against having version control; the rest of the guidelines above can be argued against under particular circumstances, but version control remains sacrosanct. Version control is king!


  1. This is one reason why I love purity in Haskell so much — pure functions guarantee their inputs and outputs! It’s like coding with little mini-contracts everywhere!