Tag Archives: code

How not to become the maintenance developer

As a developer it seems, you always seem to strive towards producing ever more complicated code. Utilizing new frameworks, adopting an ever evolving “convention before configuration”, pushing object-oriented programming – maybe Domain Driven Development – are practices introduced, refined and explored in the quest to prove yourself as a steadily better developer with rising skills.


Yet to what point?

While the intricate complications may impress fellow developers, doing so often digs a hole which may be pretty hard to get out of. Every complication – not matter if it is in the design, the architecture or the structure of the code – often provides the opposite effect of the desired outcome. The whims of your current self to impress developers with the latest fashionable technique, is short termed reward for a long term pain.

I accept some fashions and whims do change and solidify to become better practice, often the urge to over use the latest and greatest frameworks, techniques and paradigms, often only leads to a painful maintenance in years to come – and as you’ve complicated things beyond comprehension you’ll probably be the trapped in the maintenance for the lifetime of the developed code.

Keep It Simple

As new development challenges often are much more fun, than maintaining legacy code, there are a few basic things you can do to keep yourself from being the eventual eternal maintenance developer and they are straightforward:
Keep it simple
When solving a problem, make as simple and as little code as needed. Don’t wrap everything in object hierarchies, split configuration, views, models and controllers in individual files – do it only, when it provide clear and apparent value.

Names matter

Choose short, but descriptive names for variables, functions, classes and objects in your code. An object containing content for an invoice should be named $invoice, not just $x, $y or $z. Using naming of artifacts in the code provide clues to content and functionality makes it much easier for anyone – including your future self – to comprehend and understand the code when doing maintenance.

Don’t fear comments

Comments does not slow down your code. Al code is compiled at the latest at run-time and a few well placed comments may often be very valuable for the eventual maintainer. Don’t comment obvious code constructs (“don’t state the obvious”) , but do reference business rules or why something tricky is going on.

Be consistent

Find a consistent way to solve the same task/pattern every time, as it will help you focus on what the code is doing instead of the syntax expressed. If you during development find a better way to do something, remember to go back and fix the instances where applicable.

Move on…

Every developer will eventually be stuck with some development, but making your code accessible and easy to understand – the odds of you being stuck forever on maintenance duty is much lower. Great code move on from the parent and have a life on it’s own in the care of other developers if you’ve done your job right.

Build-in time bombs

I’ve been refactoring and refactoring some old code, and it’s kind of odd what short-cuts (or even time bombs), you’ll find in code, which apparently wasn’t supposed to live on for years.
In a now retired CMS system, we had an issue every new year, when some kind of bug would reset all “schedules” for upcoming stories and content. No-one ever got around to fix it, as the system was soon to be decommissioned – but sadly the bug did survive a few years anyway.

These days, I’m was working in the system, which came to replace the broken system from before. Here’s another odd thing – It was apparently hard coded into the editor in the backend, that stories need to have a “published date” between 1996 and 2011. As there really isn’t any documentation and the original developer has left the company, it’s hard to know why it was made so. While there probably was a reason, it’s lost by now.

 <select name="year" size="1" style="width:55px;" title="Year">
   for ($i = 1996; $i < 2011; $i++) {
       printf("<option value=\"%1\$d\"%2\$s>%1\$d</option>",$i,($year == $i) ? " selected" : "");

We fixed it by making the latest “published date” go between 1996 and current year plus one.

While it was an odd thing, I’m surely glad that we from time to time do some sort of maintenance of old code – even while it seems to work perfectly. It’s far from the only bad thing we found, and while most people worry mainly about new code, sometimes you should also remember the old stuff.

Code archeology

I’ve been spending quite some time the past days digging around in old code (3+ years old with no or very little changes). It’s quite fun noticing what efforts pay off and which doesn’t when you go back to make chance to old stuff. I’m sure my observations aren’t generally applicable. We’re web developers and are keeping web platform (several pretty big websites on a common codebase) alive year after year.

Proper and sane variable- and function names pays off instantly. Incredibly short or misguiding function and variable names doesn’t. While it may be fun naming functions “doMagic” or likewise, chances that you – or someone else maintaining the code years after will probably not appreciate it at all.

Reasonable commenting on functions and tricky code parts often come to good use, but too much commenting is distracting. Some is good, and less is often more valuable.

Version control logs can be quite valuable, if they’re descriptive for the change made. Too often though, was the comment “misc. bug fixing”, “problem solved” or something which years later was of no use or value at all.

Documentation kept apart from the source code seem to have none or very little value. Not once have I bothered to look in the wiki-documents or any other documentation which was in the code. In the few instances I did, minor changes and bug fixes had changed the code to such an extend (while not updating the documentation) that it was misleading at best.

The only cases where the documentation apart seem to make a positive is database diagrams and descriptions. They do seem to have value.