About Communication

March 23, 2016

Over the years I have found that the debate about code standards in all programming languages is really never ending and that is probably a good thing. However the many solutions I have come across for enforcing code quality don’t always lend themselves to helping developers produce better code. Why is that and why is it such a contentious issue?

Code Is Communication

I was in my favorite coffee shop the other day writing some code on my laptop when my mind began to drift and I started hearing the conversations going on around me. I wasn’t intentionally listening in (OK, I was a bit). I was mostly just feeling the ebb and flow of the conversations. I started to notice just how much people talk. People put a lot of energy in to their conversations, even when all they’re are talking about is the weather (which is most people, most of the time, in Ireland). If you think about it a certain way, it’s all a bit strange. Communication really is a very complex and very interesting thing.

Talking is just one form of communication but a fascinating one. It invokes a wide range of feelings in us and we mostly just enjoy doing it. Writing is in a similar category. It’s a form of communication and an incredibly powerful one. Carl Sagan once said about books

One glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

Speaking, writing and any other form of communication are also skills that people develop. Being a great speaker or writer is a prized skill and one that can be learned and refined.

Speaking and writing can also be considered art in the right context. Is art also communication? When you look at a painting or listen to a song, what is the purpose of that? What makes a piece of art good? I think a large part of it is the artist’s ability to communicate. This seems to be true in the spoken and written arts and I think it’s also true in many other art forms. The ability to clearly transmit some emotions and contents of your mind in to the minds of other human beings.

Does this apply to software at all? Do you consider a program’s source code a form of communication?

It is possible, even helpful, when writing code to imagine you are communicating with somebody as you write it. Admittedly it’s most often yourself some time in the future but in many cases it will be other people, even people that you may never know. As you write code you want what you have written to be easy to understand and even in some way aesthetically pleasing.

It can be said code is just a way to communicate with machines. That is not entirely true anymore. If you were to communicate directly with a machine you would be doing things completely alien to most contemporary programmers. The code we write is designed to be written, read and maintained by humans. Of course a programmer having a deep understanding of the technical aspects is still important. It is just becoming true that writing difficult to read code to suit the compiler or machine is becoming much less important as compilers/interpreters adapt to optimize for things that suit humans better than them.

Keeping Code Communicating

As we write more and more code, we start to develop our own preferences about how it should look. We are influenced by code we read, styles we see in books or style guides we come across. Whether it’s open source, a startup or in enterprise, the issue of code style is something you will inevitably encounter over and over. How much time is taken up by this? What are the methods you have seen to deal with this issue? Here we will go over some that you will likely have encountered or you likely will if you haven’t yet and you work as a programmer.

The Coding Standards/Conventions Document

Coding standard documents are well intentioned. Sometimes, so much effort goes into them that they almost become sacred texts and we know how humans can get about sacred texts. I know the alternative of having nothing to keep code style consistent is much worse but a document that all developers must read and remember to adhere to is not something that should be considered an acceptable solution either.

One of the first documents of this nature I ever saw was the Java one which is nearly 20 years old now. It’s a whopper at 24 pages. Some fun light reading that must have brought a lot of pleasure to the life of many a developer.

There’s also the fairly hilarious Linux Kernel Coding Style Doc. This at least is funny. There’s some good advise at the start too.

First off, I’d suggest printing out a copy of the GNU coding standards, and NOT read it. Burn them, it’s a great symbolic gesture.

The GNU standards are tough going and a bit mad (in my humble opinion). Feel free to look here and decide that for yourself though.

Google have theirs too such as their Java Guide. It’s not too massive at least. They do make a good point at the start:

Like other programming style guides, the issues covered span not only aesthetic issues of formatting, but other types of conventions or coding standards as well. However, this document focuses primarily on the hard-and-fast rules that we follow universally, and avoids giving advice that isn’t clearly enforceable (whether by human or tool).

The document should be enforceable by a tool. That’s very important.

I’ll focus on Java a bit here but these points cover a lot of languages indirectly. A particular pain point for me is Javadocs. A code convention that keeps cropping up over and over is the requirement to Javadoc everything. Even private methods! This happens. This is a very bad code convention for a number of reasons.

It’s worth exploring the reason a convention like this might exist first. If you are building a library, Javadocs are very handy of course. It’s great to have documentation generated in HTML and available to users of your library. Particularly if you consider that they may not even have access to the source code. This is obviously much better than crafting the documents by hand and a convention for Javadocs on public and protected fields makes perfect sense then. No objections there.

What if you’re not building a library though as is probably the case most of the time? What if your code is in your application, constantly changing and being released. Not an artifact that gets released occasionally with documentation for a specific version but something being worked on daily by many people who only want to read the code. Do these conventions make sense then? Does a convention to Javadoc private methods ever make sense?

If you go back to the purpose of a convention like this, it should be obvious that having this for all your code is a misinterpretation of the original intention of Javadocs which is really about generating documentation for people who don’t need to read how your code is implemented.

Application code should be easy to read and change. It should be self documenting where possible, friendly to an editor and friendly to human eyes. An application in the majority of cases is not an artifact that needs generated code documentation. The code is what matters. Comments are not code. If you change a comment it will not affect how the application runs. The code is always the truest representation of what a program does. If a developer never reads a single comment they may still understand how a program works.

If code is a form of communication what are comments in relation to it? If a painting is a form of communication, does a painter need to provide notes to go with the painting to help us understand it? If that was the case wouldn’t that be a pretty bad painting? OK, that’s probably an terrible metaphor. The point though is the description is not the painting or what I really mean, comments are not the code and may even just confuse the reader about the code. Perhaps the worst use of comments is when they are used to gloss over shortcomings in how the code reads.

Code should only in the rarest of cases need comments to be understood. This was not always true and is certainly not true for all languages but for most languages that we use today this is the case. They are designed to be human readable. You can document your code by a good folder structure with good file names and good class name and good function and variable names etc. The ultimate documentation for any code is it’s tests. TDD is one of the best ways to write clean code and is also one of the best ways to document it.

Back to the coding standards document. I am not trying to say they shouldn’t exist and all conventions are bad. The comments issue I mentioned above is a symptom of an abidance of such a document being the rule that is just a bit too difficult to question and change. We should codify coding standards of course but they should be concise, easy to change and easy to understand. More importantly even than being understandable to developers, the document should be easily consumed by static code analysis tools.

Ideally a coding standard document would be in source control and could be updated and checked in after going through a review process. Once checked in the current document could be used for code analysis and to automatically block merges or however you see fit to use it. Something like SonarQube can be configured like this.

Having the coding standard stored and distributed as static document like a PDF for people to study and having it maintained by a small number of people who put a lot of effort and themselves in to it is a recipe for trouble. Wikis are a bit better but still, can be trouble to change. The dynamic of a pull request is better for change than what most Wikis provide. Making it part of the development tool suite that tests it all the time will help ensure that if real problems exist with it, they are more likely to be addressed quickly. Much like a bug in code.

There are a lot of tools that support this type of thing out there. A lot of teams use them already. If you already use a static code analysis tool but also have a coding standard document, it could be time well spent seeing how much of that document could be automated away to your .jshintrc, HLint.hs, lint.xml or whatever you use. Or use something as part of the CI process such as SonarQube as I mentioned before. For things like conventions around indentation etc. consider something like EditorConfig. Almost every editor and IDE supports it. Much better than passing around IDE specific code formatting documents. The editor config file should be stored with the source code where it belongs although you may prefer to have a centralized one that gets pulled in somehow.

It’s worth differentiating between a standards document and a style guide too. Style guides are a nice way to share good patterns. One great example is John Papa’s Angular Style Guide. It’s a great resource for learning sensible patterns for writing code using that particular framework. It’s not about a language style but about patterns for a particular context and these are nice to have.

The Code Review

The code review is a blessing and a curse. The benefits are that other people will see any code that will be checked in and ideally the code will be well critiqued and understood by at least one other person before being merged. This should lead to better code quality over all. If you’re lucky you’ll get in to some really interesting discussions and fun arguments and these are very constructive generally.

Code reviews are important but they don’t always work as we as we would like. One of the biggest issues I have seen is that pull requests for review are often too large. Nobody wants to read them. I won’t go in to this too much as it’s well known and really an issue of personal discipline for developers. If there is a feasible way to automate handling such pull request I haven’t seen it. This is just something people have to work through in their teams and only the team can decide how best to do that. The basic rule of thumb is keep pull requests as small as possible though.

Kent Beck recently gave an interview at the HackSummit which centered a lot around how he’s finding working at Facebook. You can see the recording here. He mentioned that he had the opportunity to gather real data on subjects that he could only have an opinion on before based on his own knowledge and experience. One very interesting observation he had was that the optimal number of reviewers for a code review is one. If you only have one reviewer then that person has a lot of responsibility to ensure the code is good. A large number of reviewers appears to lead to some issues. You can get some variation of the bystander effect or perhaps more accurately a diffusion of responsibility. If the code is difficult to understand, many people will assume it might just be out of their domain and someone else will understand and review it. If one or two people approve then others may well just approve assuming it’s all OK.

Another big issue with pull requests and code reviews is Coding Standards Pollution. For example, a new developer comes along, hasn’t really read the coding standards properly, opens a pull request and then hits a saturation of comments about coding standard violations. Anybody coming late to the party may not easily see what the PR was about any more and is hesitant to add any more comments. Maybe nobody even knows what the code does but it just looks like it got heavily reviewed because of all the comments which in fact don’t address the real workings of the code at all. All we see are piles of comments like ‘missing Javadoc’, ‘wrong indentation’ and many more. I’m sure you can think of a few to add to that list straight away. Eventually the developer fixes all those and gets an approval for fixing the issues commented on and merges. What are the chances the actual code ever really got reviewed? At least the developer got a good lesson on the coding standards I guess.

Obviously the answer there is to automate all that away with code analysis. In the ideal circumstances no code review should ever contain a comment about coding standards. All the discussion should be about how well written the code is, how well it communicates what it is supposed to do. If your code is good enough and the tests are extensive enough, nobody should even have to ask what the code does. If they do then it might be a sign that the code could be improved. Focusing on code quality over adherence to standards is a much better use of time in a code review.

Pair programming

Pair programming is a great way to come to quick agreement on code style and standards. Mob programming is another similar method that’s worth looking into too. Programming is a very human endeavor. Pair programming is a natural thing to do. If two people can come to a consensus on a piece of code then it’s probably OK. If more than two can all agree it’s good, that’s a beautiful thing.

Pair programming seems to be a good answer to some of the problems mentioned in the Code Review section above and is even touted by some as a way to avoid code reviews altogether, allowing faster code integration. I would say that in most places a code review still makes sense even if pair programming is being practiced but if you find code reviews aren’t working as you hoped they would or code quality is a big issue, perhaps give pair programming a shot.

Conclusions

I made the comment that programming is a very human endeavor. This may not always be the case. Maybe AIs will be replacing all us human coders at some stage but for now at least, coding is still primarily done by humans. Trying to force that act of coding to be a regulated clinical act won’t pay off (unless you’re trying to build that AI to replace us all). We get better at coding by constantly challenging ourselves and really caring about the code we produce. Not by memorizing and strictly following a large set of rules.

I genuinely believe it’s a similar thing to so many creative disciplines. Take writing again as an example. I write code in a similar way to how I might write some text, like this blog post. In small units, one or two sentences or a few lines of code:

  1. Think about what needs to be communicated
  2. Write something out
  3. Ensure it fulfills whatever criteria was set out initially
  4. Refactor
  5. Ensure it still fulfills whatever criteria was set out initially
  6. Repeat

Our code is the artifact, the text, the painting, the thing that might be there long after we are (bit melodramatic I know). We should always be focusing on creating the best code. Whatever it takes. Not through standards and regulations but through always asking does the code communicate well enough. Does it look good? Can you quickly understand what this does by reading it?

Every programmer will spend more time reading code than writing it. We should always be able to read it easily or we will be wasting a lot of time. Next time you’re doing a review and you see a block of code you don’t understand, how will you react? Will you ignore it? Will you say ‘please add a comment explaining what this code does’? How about asking is there any way this code can be written that will make it easier to understand?

When you’re writing code, you are not only programming a computer. You are most likely also communicating with another human mind that might never get to ask you anything about what you’ve done.

Some Links

This post is a bit of a rant about some things that have been on my mind but I attempted to also research some of the points and here are some sources I used.

From one of my favorite blogs Coding Horror by Jeff Atwood there’s this post. It’s a great read and does contradict some of what I said here but it’s a similar subject and well worth looking at if you’re interested in it. Another good thread on the subject here.

Another one by Jeff Atwood here on pair programming vs code reviews.

An interesting stack exchange question here which briefly discusses coding standards documents here