Developers and “bad” code

I’m quickly realising that “bad” code is a vast exaggeration.

Listening to many developers talking to me about code that they consider to be bad, it is becoming clear to me that what is meant by bad is not necessarily what the word implies. Instead, many developers seem to mean “I don’t understand this code”. Worse, it’s not that they don’t understand, but that they don’t want to understand. Here’s a couple of examples to explain:

A developer recently told me that he found that writing LINQ one liners was bad practice*. After quizzing him a little he cited several examples of LINQ that he did not instantly understand. After writing imperative versions of the same code, I at least came to the conclusion that the LINQ one liners were in fact more clear than the procedural code. I relayed this to the developer in question, and indeed, he admitted that he did not find any of the procedural versions easy to understand. In short, this developer baulked at the idea that code had been compressed into one line, and did not consider that this description might be easier to understand than the alternative. The sole reason being that he was not used to working with LINQ, and did not have his brain prepared for understanding LINQ statements.

Another developer recently told me that his colleague had written some bad code. He cited several reasons why he considered the code to be bad which all seemed quite reasonable – indeed, I was convinced that the code was poor. On consulting the other developer though, my opinion changed. The second developer explained that he too felt that the code was ugly from that point of view, but that if he had implemented it another way, it would have been more ugly from another point of view. His arguments were enough to sway me that his code was not bad, instead, he’d just thought about the problem from another angle. Of course, one could make an argument that none of the devs (including myself) had thought for long enough about this code. There probably was a solution that solved both sides of the argument neatly, but at some point, we have to write code and produce a working product. The key point here though is that the original complainant had not understood the problem fully, and had therefore declared the code to be “bad” prematurely.

The key to both these problems though was a lack of understanding. A developer’s job is to wrap their head around a problem fast, and to understand it from all angles, in these two cases I’m not convinced that’s happened. In future, I’m going to treat developers telling me about “bad” code with a large pinch of salt. Instead of assuming that the code is actually bad, I will assume that the developer in question has simply not understood the reasoning behind the code yet.

A second piece of this puzzle is the hunt for perfection in developers. Few developers will ever tell you that they consider any piece of code to be good. This includes code that they themselves have written. For any given piece of their code, a developer will typically list several things that can be improved, often in conflicting ways. This contributes heavily to the lack of understanding. A new developer on this code will not only have to understand the original developer’s reason for designing the code in a certain way, but they’ll have to understand where and why they made ugly implementation decisions. It may simply be that they haven’t had time yet to clean up the problems, or that there’s a trade off involved. The fact remains though that this introduces an extra variable to the lack of understanding.

Ultimately, what this boils down to is that no developer is happy unless they have their head well and truly wrapped around a problem. When first starting to understand another developer’s code this is not true. The result is that all too often code is declared to be “ugly”, “bad”, “messy” or any number of other derogatory terms. Instead, typically what is meant is “I don’t understand why this developer did this”.

My gut feeling is that this actually lessens the impact of terms like “terrible” code. These terms should be reserved for code that is actually erroneous, or is inefficient to the point of being in a complexity class it clearly does not need to be in. So please developers, stop using the term to brand all code that you read. Instead, make constructive criticism of the code, and try to understand why it was done that way in the first place.

* LINQ is a functional programming inspired API that allows developers to write clear, concise “queries” to extract data instead of complex loops in loops.