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programming and human factors

Real Ultimate Programming Power

A common response to The Ferengi Programmer:

From what I can see, the problem of "overly-rule-bound developers" is nowhere near the magnitude of the problem of "developers who don't really have a clue."

The majority of developers do not suffer from too much design patterns, or too much SOLID, or agile, or waterfall for that matter. They suffer from whipping out cowboy code in a pure chaos environment, using simplistic drag & drop, data driven, vb-like techniques.

Absolutely.

But here's the paradox: the types of programmers who would most benefit from these guidelines, rules, principles, and checklists are the least likely to read and follow them. Throwing a book of rules at a terrible programmer just creates a terrible programmer with a bruise on their head where the book bounced off. This is something I discussed previously in Mort, Elvis, Einstein, and You:

Thus, if you read the article, you are most assuredly in the twenty percent category. The other eighty percent are not actively thinking about the craft of software development. They would never find that piece, much less read it. They simply don't read programming blogs – other than as the result of web searches to find quick-fix answers to a specific problem they're having. Nor have they read any of the books in my recommended reading list. The defining characteristic of the vast majority of these so-called "vocational" programmers is that they are unreachable. It doesn't matter what you, I or anyone else writes here – they'll never see it.

In the absence of mentoring and apprenticeship, the dissemination of better programming practices is often conveniently packaged into processes and methodologies. How many of these do you know? How many have you practiced?

1969 Structured programming
1975 Jackson Structured Programming
1980 Structured Systems Analysis and Design Methodology
1980 Structured Analysis and Design Technique
1981 Information Engineering
1990 Object-oriented programming
1991 Rapid Application Development
1990 Virtual finite state machine
1995 Dynamic Systems Development Method
1998 Scrum
1999 Extreme Programming
2002 Enterprise Unified Process
2003 Rational Unified Process
2004 Constructionist Design Methodology
2005 Agile Unified Process

And how do we expect the average developer to find out about these? In a word, marketing. (I could have substituted religion here without much change in meaning.) It's no coincidence that a lot of the proponents of these methodologies make their living consulting and teaching about them. And they have their work cut out for them, too, because most programmers are unreachable:

I was sitting in my office chatting with my coworker Jeremy Sheeley. Jeremy leads the dev team for Vault and Fortress. In the course of our discussion, I suddenly realized that none of our marketing efforts would reach Jeremy. He doesn't go to trade shows or conferences. He doesn't read magazines. He doesn't read blogs. He doesn't go to user group meetings.

Jeremy is a decision-maker for the version control tool used by his team, and nothing we are doing would make him aware of our product. How many more Jeremies are out there?

Millions! As Seth Godin notes, the unreachable are now truly unreachable – at least not through marketing.

So, if we know the programmers who would benefit most from these rules and principles and guidelines are:

  1. highly unlikely to ever read them of their own volition
  2. almost impossible to reach through traditional religionmarketing

Remind me again – who, exactly, are we writing these principles, rules, guidelines, and methodologies for? If we're only reaching the programmers who are thoughtful enough to care about their work in the first place, what have we truly accomplished? I agree with Jeff R., who left this comment:

There's nothing wrong with the SOLID principles; they make sense to me. But I've been programming since the days of card readers and teletypes. They won't make sense to those with little experience. They don't know when or how to apply them appropriately. They get bogged down in the attempt.

So trying to follow them changes the focus from result to process. And that's deadly.

It's the job of the lead programmer or manager to see that good principles are followed, perhaps by guiding others invisibly, without explicitly mandating or even mentioning those principles.

In my effort to suck less every year, I've read hundreds of programming books. I've researched every modern programming methodology. I'm even a Certified Scrum Mastertm. All of it, to me, seems like endlessly restated versions of four core fundamentals. But "four core fundamentals?" that's awful marketing. Nobody will listen in rapt, adoring attention to me as I pontificate, nor will they pay the exorbitant consulting fees I demand to support the lifestyle I have become accustomed to. It simply won't do. Not at all. So, I dub this:

The Atwood System

of Real Ultimate Programming Power

  1. DRY

  2. KISS

  3. YAGNI

  4. NAMBLA

All those incredibly detailed rules, guidelines, methodologies, and principles? YAGNI. If it can't be explained on a single double-spaced sheet of paper, it's a waste of your time. Go read and write some code! And if you can't grok these fundamentals in the first three or four years of your programming career, well – this slightly modified R. Lee Ermey quote comes to mind.

My name is Jeff, and I can't stop thinking about programming. And neither should you.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror