Ink and Rubber

To a developer, an unfamiliar system can be like a picture drawn with an Etch-A-Sketch. You can see what is there, and some relationships between the pieces, by location, style or theme. When you have to alter the picture, though, difficulties arise. The Etch-A-Sketch eraser is quite coarse. It is easy to destroy existing parts of the picture. This is if you can find the eraser at all, and it hasn’t fallen behind the couch, or been chewed by the dog. If you really have to remove something, you may as well just pick up the whole thing and shake it back to a blank slate.

If you are very attached to the picture, it is still possible to add detail on existing empty ground. When large areas of white space are still free, you can choose a space to draw something new fairly easily. Once the picture is detailed, or you need to make a change related in a specific way to the existing picture, this is basically reduced to coloring in between the lines.

We code like we are painting with ink.

Our instinct is not to reuse and refactor, but to tweak and rewrite. Why? Fear and pride, perhaps. We aren’t born coding, though, so these emotional reactions are learnt because of some aspect of working with software. I’d suggest both behaviours stem from incomplete or untrusted knowledge of the existing code.

Peter Naur described programming as theory building.

Programming in this sense primarily must be the programmers’ building up knowledge of a certain kind, knowledge taken to be basically the programmers’ immediate possession, any documentation being an auxiliary, secondary product.

Naur is talking of a mental model, not the formal and external symbolic expression of an equation or a Java class. The model may need to be sophisticated, but it is also defined by its working immediacy. Your model of the code today may easily be different to a year ago, even if the code has not changed. Naur doesn’t relate the two, but to me it is also reminiscent of what sociologist Patricia Hill Collins calls everyday theory. Hill Collins is referring to theories of society, and she contrasts everyday theory with High Theory constructed in and for an academic setting, like, say, Marx’s dialectical materialism. Everyday theory is collective and social, may lack scholarly depth at times, but it also has the workaday vigour of something used every day to navigate a system.

If we follow Naur in considering the main activity in programming to be building mental models, even if the deliverables are software artefacts, one implication is the cost of building a theory – the cost of learning – dominates everyday coding. Writing a new class is then easier because the mental model is built by the writer while they are writing. At a larger scale, this suggests why the greenfield myth is so beguiling. Architecture suffers the same costs of understanding as programs. There’s a lot of interest in microservices at the moment, which is basically the rewrite elevated to an architectural ideal. I guess it works very well in certain domains and organisations, but I haven’t used auto-balkanisation of this sort myself, and at any rate there are many running systems not written that way.

Colouring-in behaviour is a bit harder to describe. It’s when a developer goes to painstaking effort to minimise changes to lines of code, especially structural elements like methods and classes. It’s similar to what Michael Feathers recently described as shoving, except he is using a different spatial metaphor.

Colouring-in is mentally cheaper because of scope. The scope of your working theory doesn’t have to include the interaction of class structures and broader parts of the codebase. From the perspective of the developer and that specific fix, it can even seem neater than more structurally impactful solutions, such as factoring out new methods or consolidating emerging redundancy. Poor unit tests exacerbate this, increasing the risk of errors after changes are made, discouraging refactoring.

Unit tests are also interesting for mental models because they are effectively worked examples of the theory the developer was using at the time. Good tests illustrate an idea as well as describing edge cases, and this decreases the cost of learning, and provides quicker feedback on the suitability of the programmer’s working theory.

The computational material of software is often brittle for a user in the way it runs, but the material itself is strikingly plastic at development time. It’s less like ink painted on paper and more like lego fused with rubber bands. Refactoring recognises this plasticity, and works with it. Compared to reinforced concrete, software is easy to change. Sometimes our minds are not.

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One thought on “Ink and Rubber

  1. Pingback: Symbiotic Design | Conflated Automatons

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