When did you start writing clean code?

I was asked this question this week: “When did you start writing clean code?”. I hadn’t thought of that before. Pondering on the question, I remembered when I started paying more attention to writing better code. It also made me think when I do not write clean code. Here’s what I came up with…

When did I start writing clean code?

Going back in time some 25 years, I was working with good old Clipper. Some of the files I was working with had thousands and thousands of lines of code. I had to print out pages of code on a dot-matrix printer and then draw lines to connect if-blocks and things like that in order to make some sense out of it.

Eventually, I figured out I could move some blocks of code out to separate functions, so instead of reading 5k lines of code, I’d need to read only 2k. As time went by, that codebase was way easier to understand.

When I do not write clean code

For me, it isn’t possible to write clean code all the time. For example:

  • When I’m implementing some new feature and writing tests first
    • In a case like this, once I have a failing test, I’ll write whatever code it takes to make the test pass. That could mean having one class with a lot of ugly code. I don’t care. Once my test is passing, then I’ll look back at the nasty code and will do my best to make it better, given what I currently have available (my skill with the programming language, my knowledge of the framework or libraries used, my understanding of the requirements, the time I have available, etc.);
  • When I’m new to the programming language, framework, libraries, business domain, project…
    • In cases like this, there’s really so much I can do. In the beginning, things will come out a little (or a lot) ugly. As I learn, things will get better.

I remember moving from FoxPro to C#. As much as I though I was a good FoxPro developer and wrote good code, I just know my C# code was terrible. It took a while to learn how to write better C#.

When I moved from C# to Ruby, things were slightly different: I already knew my Ruby code would look bad initially, so I first learned how to write tests! I didn’t even worry about writing clean tests; I only cared about writing some test so I could “write Ruby code with a C# accent”, and once the tests were passing, I’d get help from somebody who knew a lot of Ruby to show me “The Ruby Way” (or more specifically, the Rails Way) for doing certain things.

Summing up

For me, at the end of the day I just want to make sure I wrote the best code I could, once again, given what I currently have available:

  • My skillset in the programming language, framework, libraries, etc.;
  • My understanding of the business domain;
  • My time available
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