Sunday, June 17, 2007

Things they wouldn't teach you of in college - Part 2

In my previous post, I focused on some of the scope differences between software project assignment in the university, and real world projects, Pointing out that there is no maintenance phase. Well, it ca be if you fail the exam and have to evolve your personal assignment, ....but don't take it as an advice.

You are not alone
Well, time is not the greatest scope limitation you have to cross: being in a team can be far more challenging. One of the first thing you'll have to learn is sharing your code with your team, a practice which involves knowledge of SCM tools mechanics (first encounter with a CVS, Subversion or VSS is often a sort of initiation ceremony) and of the group mechanics as well. Something like "who breaks the build takes the blame" or "the last one to commit gets the conflict", but it's just the fact that the team as a whole carrying on the burden of the whole development. So you need coordination, and you need to agree with your teammates on the borders of your own activity.

Sharing the code also shows the symptoms of the "it works here!" syndrome, making it clear that you can't rely on your IDE (or on your memory) anymore, but you need more specific tools such as Ant or Maven to carry on the build process. The notion of repeatability, platform independence, environments and so on (have you ever heard the term "production environment" while at the university? I didn't).

A more subtle question is related to the notion of good code. Writing code just for yourself is close being an onanistic practice: good code is something somebody else finds useful. Which means that:
  1. it works
  2. easily
  3. understandably
Code must work. This might sound trivial, but the point is that code should do what is expected to do. Expectations, unfortunately, could be quite non deterministic if left alone. So you gotta get a grip on what people expects your software to do, and to the average developer's expectation, which leads basically to one word (and one adjective): good documentation.

Documentation can make a lot on ease of use, but doesn't address point 2 completely. Software must be easy to use: doesn't matter if steps from 1 to 17 are thoroughly documented in MyFabulousPieceOfSoftware.howto, if you can achieve the same result in 3 steps, or one. The two things come together: as Vincent Massol points out in an old post about documentation driven development, documentation could be a good test for code and an inspiration for refactoring. If documenting takes too much it's probably because interfaces are far too complicated, or are not placed at the right level of abstraction. It's too easy to mess with interfaces and method signatures when we design both the client and the server class, for example 'cause we are stuck in the mud doing it, but we forget that we don't want classes that call our methods to be stuck in the same complexity that we are.

Understandability of the code refers to the internal mechanics of our systems. And to the beauty of the design. This is a tough lesson: a clean model is potentially useless if nobody else can understand it. It will lead to a cathedral in the desert, or - worse - to the code equivalent of a ghost town. Even if you are the best OO designer around, you can't write code that nobody else can maintain. Elegance in software can have dreadful effects, if nobody but you can appreciate it. Don't get me wrong, clean elegant software it's most of the time better than spaghetti code, but in a team, design elegance must stabilize on a level that can be reachable by a large enough number of teammates. To achieve this you can lower down your expectations, or raise team modeling skills. I tend to favor the second option as much as I can.

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