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The code you wrote six months ago

We have this trope in programming that you should hate the code you wrote six months ago. This is a figurative way of saying that you should be constantly learning and assimilating new ideas, so that you can look at what you were doing earlier this year and have new ways of doing it.

It would be more accurate, though less visceral, to say “you should be proud that the code you wrote six months ago was the best you could do with the knowledge you then had, and should be able to ways to improve upon it with the learning you’ve accomplished since then”. If you actually hate the code, well, that suggests that you think anyone who doesn’t have the knowledge you have now is an idiot. That kind of mentality is actually deleterious to learning, because you’re not going to listen to anyone for whom you have Set the Bozo Bit, including your younger self.

I wrote a lot about learning and teaching in APPropriate Behaviour, and thinking about that motivates me to scale this question up a bit. Never mind my code, how can we ensure that any programmer working today can look at the code I was writing six months ago and identify points for improvement? How can we ensure that I can look at the code any other programmer was working on six months ago, and identify points for improvement?

My suggestion is that programmers should know (or, given the existence of the internet, know how to use the index of) the problems that have already come before, how we solved them, and why particular solutions were taken. Reflecting back on my own career I find a lot of problems I introduced by not knowing things that had already been solved: it wasn’t until about 2008 that I really understood automated testing, a topic that was already being discussed back in 1968. Object-oriented analysis didn’t really click for me until later, even though Alan Kay and a lot of really other clever people had been working on it for decades. We’ll leave discussion of parallel programming aside for the moment.

So perhaps I’m talking about building, disseminating and updating a shared body of knowledge. The building part already been done, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who’s read the whole SWEBOK or referred to any part of it in their own writing or presentations so we’ll call the dissemination part a failure.

Actually, as I said we only really need an index, not the whole BOK itself: these do exist for various parts of the programming endeavour. Well, maybe not indices so much as catalogues; summaries of the state of the art occasionally with helpful references back to the primary material. Some of them are even considered “standards”, in that they are the go-to places for the information they catalogue:

  • If you want an algorithm, you probably want The Art of Computer Programming or Numerical Recipes. Difficulties: you probably won’t understand what’s written in there (the latter book in particular assumes a bunch of degree-level maths).
  • If you want idioms for your language, look for a catalogue called “Effective <name of your language>”. Difficulty: some people will disagree with the content here just to be contrary.
  • If you want a pattern, well! Have we got a catalogue for you! In fact, have we got more catalogues than distinct patterns! There’s the Gang of Four book, the PloP series, and more. If you want a catalogue that looks like it’s about patterns but is actually comprised of random internet commentators trying to prove they know more than Alastair Cockburn, you could try out the Portland Pattern Repository. Difficulty: you probably won’t know what you’re looking for until you’ve already read it—and a load of other stuff.

I’ve already discussed how conference talks are a double-edged sword when it comes to knowledge sharing: they reach a small fraction of the practitioners, take information from an even smaller fraction, and typically set up a subculture with its own values distinct from programming in the large. The same goes for company-internal knowledge sharing programs. I know a few companies that run such programs (we do where I work, and Etsy publish the talks from theirs). They’re great for promoting research, learning and sharing within the company, but you’re always aware that you’re not necessarily discovering things from without.

So I consider this one of the great unsolved problems in programming at the moment. In fact, let me express it as two distinct questions:

  1. How do I make sure that I am not reinventing wheels, solving problems that no longer need solving or making mistakes that have already been fixed?
  2. A new (and for sake of this discussion) inexperienced programmer joins my team. How do I help this person understand the problems that have already been solved, the mistakes that have already been made, and the wheels that have already been invented?

Solve this, and there are only two things left to do: fix concurrency, name things, and improve bounds checking.