Thursday, July 19, 2012

Are Coding Philosophies Irrelevant?

I recently read a rant opinion piece about how the behind the scenes part of an application is irrelevant. The author had some good points. One was, from an end user's perspective, how an application is put together is irrelevant. Another one was that success in the marketplace is not determined by which patterns are used, what the development tool-chain looks like or which language is used. I agree with all this. However he went on to say that therefore, these behind-the-scenes things are irrelevant.

To this I respectfully disagree. If the code base for an application is only to instruct the computer how to do something now, then I suppose the author might have a point. But, I think the author forgot that the end user is only one user of the application and source code is important for more than the current compile. Another very important user is the developer. Over the course of an application's lifetime, there might be many developers who will work with that code. Or there might be one who maintains it for its entire life. In either case, the source is used as much, if not more, to communicate to those reading the code what is going on as it is for the computer.

The computer just does as it's told. It doesn't care what it's told or the meaning behind the why or how. It doesn't have any concept about patterns or tool-chains or philosophies. These things are not used to communicate intent to the computer. As a simplistic example, the assignment of the sum of y and z to x, to the computer is meaningless. It doesn't care why this addition is done, or the importance of assigning the result to one place over another. The mechanics of line
x = y + z
are clear to both computer and programmer but it could mean anything. And, the meaning is irrelevant to the computer. But, to the developer, it is crucial to understanding the bigger picture.

To the computer, these two lines are equivalent to the one above.
balance = beginningBalance + deposit
newHeading = currentHeading + errorDelta
However, to a developer, assuming the variable names are accurate for the problem domain, they communicate very different things.

In the same way, other more abstract organizations of how a given piece of software is written communicate, to various degrees and with various success, important information to the developer. Patterns, tool-chains and coding philosophies are irrelevant to the compiler. To the developer, they can, if effectively used, convey information crucial to understanding the problem the software attempts to solve and the original author's vision of how to do it.

In the greater scheme of things, they are far from being irrelevant.

They are critical.

Update: I just ran across this quote I thought was appropriate:
The best programs are written so that computing machines can perform them quickly and so that human beings can understand them clearly. A programmer is ideally an essayist who works with traditional aesthetic and literary forms as well as mathematical concepts, to communicate the way that an algorithm works and to convince a reader that the results will be correct.
-- Donald E. Knuth, Selected Papers on Computer Science
And this reminded me of another quote:
You're creating a vocabulary, not writing a program. Be a poet for a moment.
-- Kent Beck
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