Monday, March 3, 2014

Software Craftsmanship: Simplicity

In my previous post Software Craftsmanship: The need to understand maintainability I made the case for needing to understand software maintainability. One of the cornerstones to maintainability is simplicity. The simpler a design or implementation is the less difficult it is to maintain as its intent and purpose is clear to the maintainer.

In the software world we have an acronym which jovially sums up the desire to keep a design or implementation simple. That acronym is KISS which stands for keep it simple stupid. While this is an oft used acronym I rarely run across a user that describes what they mean as they're using it.

So what does it mean to keep it simple? While most people I've worked with over the years have had slightly different opinions on simplicity I do think it's possible to come up with some suggestions that most of us can agree on.
  • Use meaningful names
  • Reduce the number of lines of code and nested statements
  • Test your code
Meaningful Names

Take this snippet of code as an example

for (int i=0; i < j; i++)


What's that code doing? No matter how much time you spend looking at it your guess is just that... a guess. How comfortable would you be if I asked you to change it?

Now let's just change the names of things and see how much simpler we can make this code.

for (int dinnerGuest=0; dinnerGuest < numberOfGuestsToNotify; dinnerGuest++)


Now tell me what that code is doing. I bet you figured it out in less than five seconds. What if I asked you to modify this code now. Would you feel more comfortable modifying it?

Reducing The Number Of Lines Of Code And Nested Statements

The more lines of code you have to read at any one time means that you have to keep the entire context of that code in mind when trying to modify it. This is especially difficult to do when the code is doing multiple things. Every loop and every conditional forces the modifier to have to try to keep state in his/her mind while tracing through all the possible code paths. The more conditionals and loops in any set of code the more possible paths the maintainer is going to have to juggle.

One way to keep a complex algorithm simple is to encapsulate the pieces of the algorithm into their own methods. Separate out each conditional or body of a loop into it's own method and you're helping the maintainer to understand the flow of the algorithm without having to already know the algorithm. The benefit of this is that when going into a piece of code to maintain it the code provides a more readable and understandable blueprint for the maintainer. This increases the likelihood of a successful modification without any new bugs.

Test Your Code

One of the best ways I know of to keep code simple is to test it. Using a technique called Test Driven Development (TDD) allows you to think about your code from the standpoint of the business value it's supposed to provide first and it's technical merit second. Technical implementation is EXTREMELY important but it is secondary to providing business value.

Once your code can provide business value and you have a way to ensure that it always provides that business value (i.e. your tests) you are free to improve upon the technical implementation using a technique called refactoring.

While this has not been an exhaustive list of all the things you can do to keep your software simple my hope is that it provides you with direction on where to start.

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