Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sticky Standards (Coding, the IKEA way - part 2)

Right after publishing this post, I’ve got the feeling of something missing, that still could be extracted from the IKEA metaphor. Mounting drawers handles was indeed only the second part of the job, after building the whole closet (well, in fact you could have chosen another way too: mounting handles, or simply drilling before building the whole stuff).

So, how do you do that? You just unpack the pieces, and start following the instructions. Don’t believe those folks blaming on the quality of IKEA papers, they’re pretty good: only drawings, no text (to get rid of i18n issues) but if you follow the plan you can’t miss. Drawings provide details about which side goes up, which part to start from reducing degrees of freedom that you might have in doing even the simplest stuff without having a plan. This way they can avoid maintaining a huge F.A.Q. section answering things like “how to attach legs to a closet after you filled it up” and so on.

What’s the difference from coding? It’s in the fact that many developers tend to favour copying some colleague’s code instead of following a detailed HowTo. A good reason for that is that you can ask clarifications to the author of the code if needed (which is efficient on a small scale, but it’s not on a large one). A not so good reason it’s just in developer’s mind: following a plan might be easy, and leads to predictable results. Put in another way it’s boring. Fun is solving a problem, and if there’s no problem there’s no fun.

Some might already have spotted the underlying danger in this practice, but to achieve a little more thrill, I’ll start telling a completely different story.

The unpredictable standard
The keyboard in front of you has an interesting story: the so called QWERTY standard, was originally developed for mechanical type writers, replacing the dominant hunt-and-peek system (requiring two actions for every key) which was dominant at that time. In absence of standards there was plenty of freedom in choosing how to place the chars on the keyboard, and the main reason which led to the odd QWERTY disposition was to protect the underlying mechanics. Put in another way, it was designed to slow down typing to avoid collisions between mechanical parts. Well it was still a lot faster than the previous standard, but the decision was to sacrifice part of the potential for short term needs. If you are interested in a full review of the QWERTY story, please read this article.

History made the rest. QWERTY standard survived far beyond expectations, and once mechanics were not a bottleneck anymore the standard itself become the next. But every attempt to move a step forward failed, due to the critical mass achieved by QWERTY users.

Drawing conclusions
Many things, and code is one of them, persist more than they were intended. In a single project lifecycle, the thing you don’t want is an anti-pattern calling for refactoring. The most efficient way to shield you from this is to provide the team with a bullet-proof prototype, that developers can sack in the usual way. This won’t ensure you that the team got it right, but will reduce a lot the diffusion of “alternative solutions” to already solved problems.

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