Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Friday, February 5, 2021

“Best practice” is less of a scam than claimed

Another day, another developer explaining that they don’t follow some popular practice. And their reason? Nothing more than because other people do the thing. “Best practices don’t exist,” they airily intone. “They’re really mediocre practices”.

In one sense, they’re correct. Best practices need to be evidence-based, and there’s precious little evidence in software engineering. In a regulated profession, you could avoid using accepted best practice, but if something went wrong and you ended up on the receiving end of a malpractice suit, you would lose.

So best practice as an argument in software engineering has two weaknesses: the first is that there’s no basis in evaluation of practice; and the second is that being a monetised hobby rather than a profession there’s no incentive to discover and adopt best practice anyway.

But those arguments mean that best practices are indistinguishable from alternative practices, not inherently worse. If a programmer discards a practice because they claim it’s considered best practice, they’re really just stamping their foot and shouting “I don’t wanna!”

They’re rejecting the remaining evidence in favour of the practice—that it’s survived scrutiny by a large cohort of their peers—in favour of making their monetised hobby look more like their headcanonical version of the hobby. “We are uncovering better ways of making software by doing it and by helping others to do it” be damned: I want to use this thing I read a substack post about yesterday!

Dig deeper, and you’ll find only platitudinous justification based on thought-terminating cliche: I’ve already covered “Reasoning about code”, and maybe some time I’ll cover “Right tool for the job”. This time, let’s look at “things won’t advance unless some of us try new ways of doing it”.

People tried new ways of making new steam engines all the time, during the industrial revolution. People tried new ways of making chimneys all the time, during the 15th and 16th centuries. A lot of factories and trains exploded, and a lot of buildings burnt down. If you live in a house with a chimney now, or you have ever taken a train, it’s significantly less likely to have self-immolated than at earlier times in history.

It’s not, for the most part, due to misunderstood lone geniuses rejecting what everybody else was doing, but a small amount of incremental development and a large amount of theoretical advance. It’s no coincidence that the field of thermodynamics advanced leaps and bounds during the steam age. Brad Cox makes this point about software too, in almost everything he wrote on the topic: you don’t get as much advance from random walks in the cottage industry as you do from standardisation, mass production, the division of labour, and interchangeable parts that can be evaluated on merit with reference to a strong theoretical underpinning.

Of course, the “reason about code” crowd try to stop this from happening, because if that advance happened then the code-reasoning would quickly disappear to be replaced with the problem-domain-reasoning that’s significantly harder and less of a hobby. Hence the sabotage of best practice: let’s put a stop to this before anybody realises it’s more than sufficient to the task at hand.

Alan Kay once referred to a LISP evaluator written in LISP as “the Maxwell’s Equations of software”. But what software needs before a James Clerk Maxwell are the Gibbs, Boltzmanns, Joules and Lavoisiers, the people who can stop us from blowing things up in production.

posted by Graham at 08:21  

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