Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Will Your Successor Be a Superstar Programmer?

Something I struggle with when writing code is trying to factor in what the maintenance programmer that comes after me will be like. I’ve touched on this before in “Can Code Be Too Simple?” when I showed some code that could be succinctly implemented in C++, but might not be quite as obvious to someone more well versed in other languages. As such can they maintain the code you’ve written?

It might sound ridiculous asking someone who is not an “expert” in a particular programming language to fix a problem but that is exactly what has happened in some of the companies I’ve worked in. The likes of GitHub and Google might get to hire the cream of the crop and therefore have a level of expertise in their programmers that ensures they can write the best code possible, but those who don’t quite cut the mustard will end up somewhere else. As such the average level of programmer ability in the rest of the world is likely to be somewhat lower than the industry’s superstars.

Of course that assumes the code is maintained by the programmers who originally built the system in the first place. One client I worked at has a more unusual approach to handling software maintenance - give it to the support team. That’s right, they hire some experienced developers to build them a system and then on release they hand the codebase over to the support team to maintain it. Don’t get me wrong the support team are not idiots, far from it, but their day job is operational support and system administration, not becoming the best programmer they can be. I’m not sure whether I should find it condescending or not that my client considers the code I write as being so simple as to be maintainable by someone who does it only part-time.

When I was working on that project I had a brief discussion with a colleague about this setup. I voiced my concerns about the fact that this codebase was going to be supported by people who were most probably not nearly as experienced as the programmers that were going to develop it. In the back on my mind I always have that quote from Brian Kernighan [1]:

“Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it.”

His reply, which I think is a perfectly valid viewpoint, is that it is not our problem if the company that hires us to write their software chooses not to hire people of equal talent (or even more talented) to support it.

Maybe that is the whole point. By writing the absolute best code I can (by using the natural idioms, proper domain types, etc.) the code stands a better chance of being supported by a non-expert? Sadly I won’t be around to find out, because if I was, I’d be the one supporting it [2].


[1] Brian W. Kernighan and P. J. Plauger in The Elements of Programming Style. See Programming Quotes.

[2] Whilst I was around, even on a different project, any changes still came my way. I’m not sure whether that was for convenience, a lack of resources or a risk-reduction measure for this very reason.

1 comment:

  1. Arh.... Now where have I heard that before?
    This was the problem that led me to write High Church C++ -

    14 years since and it still exists.

    Since then I've taken to paraphrasing Arthur C Clerk 'Any sufficiently advanced code will look like unmaintainable code to a less experienced programmer.'