Hot Koehls

The more you know, the more you don’t know

This content is a little crusty, having been with me through 3 separate platform changes. Formatting may be rough, and I am slightly less stupid today than when I wrote it.
12 Dec 2008

Smash bugs, don't treat symptoms

I previously discussed why certain “automagical” features can sometimes facilitate the creation of crappy code. However they only create a possibility of crappy code. Today I want to warn you against a practice that will create crappy code 100% of the time. First a scenario – you have written a program in your language of choice. It’s fairly complex, partially because of the basic needs of your client or employer, and partly because every project is a moving target to a certain extent. At some point in the logic flow, your code behaves aberrantly; let’s keep it really simple and say that it’s outputting dashes instead of spaces in a block of text. “Well these shouldn’t be here at this point,” you think. “That text was scrubbed out when it came out of the database.” You confirm the scrubbing occurs, and check some things along the way to the output. Everything checks out. However there’s a huge nebulous area that you conveniently sidestep, a big ol’ chunk of code written by Larry. The same Larry who got fired last month for half-assing that reporting module for the marketing team. A piece of his code still sits between your perfect database setup and your equally perfect outputting logic. You don’t want to touch Larry’s code with a 10-foot pole. “The problem MUST be in there,” you decide. “I’ll just undo the text change on the other side and be done with it.” In other words, you treated the symptom, and didn’t solve problem. This time-saving decision, while fairly innocent on its own, has far-reaching consequences for both your software and your own career as a developer. None of them are good. Because you did not identify for certain where the problem lies, you have absolutely zero guarantee that Larry’s code is the problem at all. It could very well be in Larry’s code, but you didn’t look everywhere so you can’t say for sure. The symptom you treated may well lead to a much larger problem. Perhaps it’s not only replacing spaces with dashes, but also truncating the text beyond a certain length. You won’t see that until a long-enough string passes by, and it may not pass by a person’s eyes for even longer. That’s the nasty thing about bugs, a human being must find and remove them. No matter what your philosopher-slash-uber coder friend says, the Matrix and its self-making code does not exist, so get in there and clean up the mess. In short, with that one move, you’ve started down the path of writing crappy code. Keep taking that shortcut, and it won’t be long before you’re fired too, because your code will be a bug-ridden mess. Kind of like Larry, right? That because it’s the same path taken by Larry and every other lazy coder you’ve ever known. The good news is that this path is easily avoidable: don’t be lazy. Do the work right the first time, stick with your syntax rules, and get to the root of every problem, every time. Also, if the hypothetical scenario sounds eerily familiar, you might want to finish reading this post and go double-check that page slug creation code you wrote.

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