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A book of wrongheadedness from O’Reilly

January 11th, 2016 1 comment

Writers of recommended practice documents usually restrict themselves to truisms, platitudes and suggestions that doing so and so might not be a good idea. However, every now and again somebody is foolish enough to specify limits on things like lines of code in a function/method body or some complexity measure.

The new O’Reilly book “Building Maintainable Software Ten Guidelines for Future-Proof Code”
(free pdf download until 25th January) is a case study in wrongheaded guideline thinking; probably not the kind of promotional vehicle for the Software Improvement Group, where the authors work, that was intended.

A quick recap of some wrongheaded guideline thinking:

  1. if something causes problems, recommend against it,
  2. if something has desirable behavior, recommend use it,
  3. ignore the possibility that any existing usage is the least worst way of doing things,
  4. if small numbers are involved, talk about the number 7 and human short term memory,
  5. discuss something that sounds true and summarize by repeating the magical things that will happen developer people follow your rules.

Needless to say, despite a breathless enumeration of how many papers the authors have published, no actual experimental evidence is cited as supporting any of the guidelines.

Let’s look at the first rule:

Limit the length of code units to 15 lines of code

Various advantages of short methods are enumerated; this looks like a case of wrongheaded item 2. Perhaps splitting up a long method will create lots of small methods with desirable properties. But what of the communication overhead of what presumably is a tightly coupled collection of methods? There is a reason long methods are long (apart from the person writing the code not knowing what they are doing), having everything together in one place can be more a more cost-effective use of developer resources than lots of tiny, tightly coupled methods.

This is a much lower limit than usually specified, where did it come from? The authors cite a study of 28,000 lines of Java code (yes, thousand not million) found that 95.4% of the methods contained at most 15 lines. Me thinks that methods with 14 or fewer lines came in just under 95%.

Next chapter/rule:

Limit the number of branch points per unit to 4

I think wrongheaded items 2, 3 & 5 cover this.

Next:

Do not copy code

Wrongheaded item 1 & 3 for sure. Oh, yes, there is empirical research showing that most code is never changed and cloned code contains fewer faults (but not replicated as far as I know).

Next:

Limit the number of parameters per unit to at most 4

Wrongheaded item 2. The alternatives are surely much worse. I have mostly seen this kind of rule applied to embedded systems code where number of parameters can be a performance issue. Definitely not a top 10 guideline issue.

Next…: left as an exercise for the reader…

What were the authors thinking when they wrote this nonsense book?

Of course any thrower of stones should give the location of his own glass house. Which is 10 times longer, measures a lot more than 28k of source and cites loads of stuff, but only manages to provide a handful of nebulous guidelines. Actually the main guideline output is that we know almost nothing about developer’s cognitive functioning (apart from the fact that people are sometimes very different, which is not very helpful) or the comparative advantages/disadvantages of various language constructs.