Thursday 20 November 2014

My Favourite Quotes

There are a number of quotes, both directly and indirectly related to programming, that I seem to trot out with alarming regularity. I guess that I always feel the need to somehow “show my workings” whenever I’m in a discussion about a program’s design or style as a means of backing up my argument. It feels as though my argument is not worth much by itself, but if I can pull out a quote from one of the “Big Guns” then maybe my argument will carry a bit more weight. I suppose that the quotes below are the ones foremost in my mind when writing software and therefore I suppose could be considered as my guiding principles.

The one I’ve probably quoted most is a pearl from John Carmack. It seems that since switching from C++ to C# the relevance of this quote has grown in orders of magnitude as I struggle with codebases that are massively overcomplicated through the excessive use of design patterns and Silver Bullet frameworks. The lack of free functions and a common fear of the “static” keyword (See “Static - A Force for Good and Evil”) only adds to the bloat of classes.

“Sometimes, the elegant implementation is just a function. Not a method. Not a class. Not a framework. Just a function.”

Along similar lines, and also recently given quite an airing for the same reasons is one from Brian Kernighan. I’m quite happy to admit that I fear complexity. In my recent post “AOP: Attributes vs Functional Composition” I made it quite clear that I’d prefer to choose something I understood and therefore could control over a large black box that did not feel easily to comprehend, even if it cost a little more to use. This is not a case of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome, but one of feeling in control of the technology choices. Entropy will always win in the end, but I’ll try hard to keep it at bay.

“Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it.”

It’s somewhat overused these days but the whole “teach a man to fish” aphorism is definitely one I try and adhere to. However I prefer a slightly different variation that emphasises a more team-wide approach to the notion of advancement. Instead of a teaching a single person to fish, I’d hope that by setting a good example I’m teaching the entire team to fish instead.

“a rising tide lifts all boats”

I used the next quote in my The Art of Code semi-lightning talk which I gave at the ACCU 2014 conference. The ability to read and reason about code is hugely important if we are ever going to stand a chance of maintaining it in the future. The book this quote by Hal Abelson comes from (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs) may be very old but it lays the groundwork for much of what we know about writing good code even today.

“Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.”

The obvious one to pick from Sir Tony Hoare would be the classic “premature optimisation” quote, but I think most people are aware of that, even if they’re not entirely cognisant of the context surrounding its birth. No, my favourite quote from him is once again around the topic of writing simple code and I think that it follows on nicely from the previous one as it suggests what the hopeful outcome is of writing clearly readable code.

“There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.”

By now the trend should be fairly obvious, but I have another simplicity related quote that I think applies to the converse side of the complexity problem - refactoring legacy code. Whilst the earlier quotes seem to me to be most appropriate when writing new code, this one from Antoine de Saint-Exupery feels like the perfect reminder on how to remove that accidental complexity that ended up in the solution whilst moving “from red to green”.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

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