Write the Wrong Code First

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I rewrite code often.

If I were a better programmer, designer, or businessman, I would rewrite my code much less frequently—but I get things wrong about as often as I get them right. Even with years of practical experience, software's still too difficult to predict with any degree of accuracy.

As a case in point, I've been revising some financial software in the past week. In reviewing the calculations, I found a way to simplify them dramatically. Even better, these simplifications allow me to simplify the interface and user experience.

That means rewriting a lot of code. That means throwing out code and revising the storage model and making a lot of changes.

I'm fortunate to have a good test suite that runs in 15 to 20 seconds and lets me know that everything I most need to work continues to work. That's a lot of confidence. People who like to talk about test-driven development and refactoring tout this as one of the benefits of well-tested software: you can refactor with confidence.

I'm not refactoring. I'm throwing away parts of this application and adding others. I'm changing how it behaves. Even though my test suite helps, that's not refactoring.

As part of this project, I've added an SVG graph to a class of web pages. I started by creating the SVG in Inkscape. Then I exported it as plain SVG. Then I made a template for that SVG to include from the page template.

That was still the example SVG with sample data, still the proof of concept.

I then extracted one piece of hard-coded data and made it a templated value. One. Everything still worked. Then I extracted the second piece of data and so on.

It's one step at a time. It's one change at a time. I'm using Git, so I could even commit after every single change, no matter that it's a few characters or even merely changing the color of a bar in the graph. I can work in steps as small and discrete as possible, and then squash them into one big commit or rewrite them into functional units, or do whatever I want with them.

That's the same principle behind test-driven development (or test-driven design or even behavior-driven development, if you need to hang a new name on the same idea). Do one thing at a time. Make your code do a little more of what it needs to do. Prove that it all hangs together, that it all works, that it does what you intended.

Then clean up a little bit. That's refactoring, in your code and in your tests. That's rebasing in Git.

Sure, I wish I could know exactly what I needed to write from the start. I wish sometimes that programming were mere transcription of the voice of an ephemeral muse (though I find it difficult to imagine a muse dictating Perl or JavaScript or Haskell or J aloud). I wish I were the Beethoven of programming (without the mercurial temperament and the hearing loss).

Usually I don't get things right from the start. Fortunately, a little discipline and the willingness to work in small steps, to erect and replace the scaffolding as I go, and I usually get a lot closer to the right code than if I guessed.

Maybe that means I've thrown out more code than I've written. (It's satisfying to delete unused code, after all.) Maybe any project which starts as a proof of concept, then has to pivot in other directions to do what it's always needed to do always becomes a Ship of Theseus.

I'm okay with that. It's more important to me to create something useful and then make it right than to wait on getting it right before other people can find value in it. I may never write the right code from the start, but I believe I can make almost-right code much, much more right, with discipline and care and feedback.

6 Comments

SVG as template? Acghh, arck, YES.
Well that makes a situation at work a lot easier.

Do some of your target audience use IE8 or below? It doesn't do well with SVG.

I can happily ignore IE8 and worse. The web component gladly embraces HTML 5.

I'll try to contain my envy. HTML5 provides so much good stuff. Coding for IE8 has consumed over half of my dev time and the results look worse.

I completely agree with your post. Most of the software problems are wicked. you have to solve once to understand it better. Once I understood this, I stopped dreaming of writing a perfect software. I mean it won't happen in first attempt.

"There is no great writing, only great rewriting" - Louis Brandeis

Unfortunately I can no longer ignore IE 8. Fortunately, I think I've found a workaround that only requires a couple of lines of code.

One question related to the web programming area: When 'The little book of plack' will became reality?

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on May 9, 2012 11:37 AM.

NYTProf, File IO, and an Optimization Gone Awry was the previous entry in this blog.

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