Even bad code can function. But if code isn’t clean, it can bring a development organization to its knees. Every year, countless hours and significant resources are lost because of poorly written code. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Robert Martin in his bestseller book Clean Code brings this to the point. He writes this:
The Total Cost of Owning a Messy Code
If you have been a programmer for more than two or three years, you have probably been significantly slowed down by someone else’s messy code. If you have been a programmer for longer than two or three years, you have probably been slowed down by messy code. The degree of the slowdown can be significant. Over the span of a year or two, teams that were moving very fast at the beginning of a project can find themselves moving at a snail’s pace. Every change they make to the code breaks two or three other parts of the code. No change is trivial. Every addition or modification to the system requires that the tangles, twists, and knots be “understood” so that more tangles, twists, and knots can be added. Over time the mess becomes so big and so deep and so tall, they can not clean it up. There is no way at all. As the mess builds, the productivity of the team continues to decrease, asymptotically approaching zero. As productivity decreases, management does the only thing they can; they add more staff to the project in hopes of increasing productivity. But that new staff is not versed in the design of the system. They don’t know the difference between a change that matches the design intent and a change that thwarts the design intent. Furthermore, they, and everyone else on the team, are under horrific pressure to increase productivity. So they all make more and more messes, driving the productivity ever further toward zero.
The Grand Redesign in the Sky
Eventually the team rebels. They inform management that they cannot continue to develop in this odious code base. They demand a redesign. Management does not want to expend the resources on a whole new redesign of the project, but they cannot deny that productivity is terrible. Eventually they bend to the demands of the developers and authorize the grand redesign in the sky. A new tiger team is selected. Everyone wants to be on this team because it’s a greenfield project. They get to start over and create something truly beautiful. But only the best and brightest are chosen for the tiger team. Everyone else must continue to maintain the current system. Now the two teams are in a race. The tiger team must build a new system that does everything that the old system does. Not only that, they have to keep up with the changes that are continuously being made to the old system. Management will not replace the old system until the new system can do everything that the old system does. This race can go on for a very long time. I’ve seen it take 10 years. And by the time it’s done, the original members of the tiger team are long gone, and the current members are demanding that the new system be redesigned because it’s such a mess. If you have experienced even one small part of the story I just told, then you already know that spending time keeping your code clean is not just cost effective; it’s a matter of professional survival
Have you ever waded through a mess so grave that it took weeks to do what should have taken hours? Have you seen what should have been a one-line change, made instead in hundreds of different modules? These symptoms are all too common. Why does this happen to code? Why does good code rot so quickly into bad code? We have lots of explanations for it. We complain that the requirements changed in ways that thwart the original design. We bemoan the schedules that were too tight to do things right. We blather about stupid managers and intolerant customers and useless marketing types and telephone sanitizers. But the fault, dear Dilbert, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. We are unprofessional. This may be a bitter pill to swallow. How could this mess be our fault? What about the requirements? What about the schedule? What about the stupid managers and the useless marketing types? Don’t they bear some of the blame? No. The managers and marketers look to us for the information they need to make promises and commitments; and even when they don’t look to us, we should not be shy about telling them what we think. The users look to us to validate the way the requirements will fit into the system. The project managers look to us to help work out the schedule.
Clean Code are deeply complicit in the planning of the project and share a great deal of the responsibility for any failures; especially if those failures have to do with bad code! “But wait!” you say. “If I don’t do what my manager says, I’ll be fired.” Probably not. Most managers want the truth, even when they don’t act like it. Most managers want good code, even when they are obsessing about the schedule. They may defend the schedule and requirements with passion; but that’s their job. It’s your job to defend the code with equal passion. To drive this point home, what if you were a doctor and had a patient who demanded that you stop all the silly hand-washing in preparation for surgery because it was taking too much time?2 Clearly the patient is the boss; and yet the doctor should absolutely refuse to comply. Why? Because the doctor knows more than the patient about the risks of disease and infection. It would be unprofessional (never mind criminal) for the doctor to comply with the patient. So too it is unprofessional for programmers to bend to the will of managers who don’t understand the risks of making messes.