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Dogma-driven development

You can find plenty of dogmatic positions in software development, in blogs, in podcasts, in books, and even in academic articles. “You should (always/never) write tests before writing code.” “Pair programming is a (good/bad) use of time.” “(X/not X) considered harmful.” “The opening brace should go on the (same/next) line.”

Let us ignore, for the moment, that only a maximum of 50% of these commandments can actually be beneficial. Let us skip past the fact that demonstrating which is the correct position to take is fraught with problems. Instead we shall consider this question: dogmatic rules in software engineering are useful to whom?

The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition tells us that novices at any skill, not just programming, understand the skill in only a superficial way. Their recollection of rules is non-situational; in other words they will try to apply any rule they know at any time. Their ability to recognise previously penchant free scenarios is small-scale, not holistic. They make decisions by analysis.

The Dreyfus brothers proposed that the first level up from novice was competence. Competents have moved to a situational recollection of the rules. They know which do or do not apply in their circumstances. Those who are competent can become proficient, when their recognition becomes holistic. In other words, the proficient see the whole problem, rather than a few small disjointed parts of it.

After proficiency comes expertise. The expert is no longer analytical but intuitive, they have internalised their craft and can feel the correct way to approach a problem.

“Rules” of software development mean nothing to the experts or the proficient, who are able to see their problem for what it is and come up with a context-appropriate solution. They can be confusing to novices, who may be willing to accept the rule as a truth of our work but unable to see in which contexts it applies. Only the competent programmers have a need to work according to rules, and the situational awareness to understand when the rules apply.

But competent programmers are also proficient programmers waiting to happen. Rather than being given more arbitrary rules to follow, they can benefit from being shown the big picture, from being led to understand their work more holistically than as a set of distinct parts to which rulaes can be mechanistically – or dogmatically – applied.

Pronouncements like coding standards and methodological commandments can be useful, but not on their own. By themselves they help competent programmers to remain competent. They can be situated and evaluated, to help novices progress to competence. They can be presented as a small part of a bigger picture, to help competents progress to proficiency. As isolated documents they are significantly less valuable.

Dogmatism considered harmful.

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