• Book Name: Clean Code – A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship
  • Author: Robert C. Martiny
  • Pages: 462
  • Size: 5 MB

One of our favorite candies here in Denmark is Ga-Jol, whose strong licorice vapors are a perfect complement to our damp and often chilly weather. Part of the charm of Ga-Jol to us Danes is the wise or witty sayings printed on the flap of every box top. I bought a twopack of the delicacy this morning and found that it bore this old Danish saw: Ærlighed i små ting er ikke nogen lille ting. “Honesty in small things is not a small thing.” It was a good omen consistent with what I already wanted to say here. Small things matter. This is a book about humble concerns whose value is nonetheless far from small. God is in the details, said the architect Ludwig mies van der Rohe. This quote recalls contemporary arguments about the role of architecture in software development, and particularly in the Agile world. Bob and I occasionally find ourselves passionately engaged in this dialogue.

And yes, mies van der Rohe was attentive to utility and to the timeless forms of building that underlie great architecture. On the other hand, he also personally selected every doorknob for every house he designed. Why? Because small things matter. In our ongoing “debate” on TDD, Bob and I have discovered that we agree that software architecture has an important place in development, though we likely have different visions of exactly what that means. Such quibbles are relatively unimportant, however, because we can accept for granted that responsible professionals give some time to thinking and planning at the outset of a project. The late-1990s notions of design driven only by the tests and the code are long gone. Yet attentiveness to detail is an even more critical foundation of professionalism than is any grand vision. First, it is through practice in the small that professionals gain proficiency and trust for practice in the large. Second, the smallest bit of sloppy construction, of the door that does not close tightly or the slightly crooked tile on the floor, or even the messy desk, completely dispels the charm of the larger whole. That is what clean code is about. Still, architecture is just one metaphor for software development, and in particular for that part of software that delivers the initial product in the same sense that an architect delivers a pristine building. In these days of Scrum and Agile, the focus is on quickly bringing product to market. We want the factory running at top speed to produce software. These are human factories: thinking, feeling coders who are working from a product backlog or user story to create product. The manufacturing metaphor looms ever strong in such thinking. The production aspects of Japanese auto manufacturing, of an assembly-line world, inspire much of Scrum.


Yet even in the auto industry, the bulk of the work lies not in manufacturing but in maintenance—or its avoidance. In software, 80% or more of what we do is quaintly called “maintenance”: the act of repair. Rather than embracing the typical Western focus on producing good software, we should be thinking more like home repairmen in the building industry, or auto mechanics in the automotive field. What does Japanese management have to say about that? In about 1951, a quality approach called Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) came on the Japanese scene. Its focus is on maintenance rather than on production.

One of the major pillars of TPM is the set of so-called 5S principles. 5S is a set of disciplines—and here I use the term “discipline” instructively. These 5S principles are in fact at the foundations of Lean—another buzzword on the Western scene, and an increasingly prominent buzzword in software circles. These principles are not an option. As Uncle Bob relates in his front matter, good software practice requires such discipline: focus, presence of mind, and thinking. It is not always just about doing, about pushing the factory equipment to produce at the optimal velocity. The 5S philosophy comprises these concepts: • Seiri, or organization (think “sort” in English). Knowing where things are—using approaches such as suitable naming—is crucial. You think naming identifiers isn’t important? Read on in the following chapters. • Seiton, or tidiness (think “systematize” in English). There is an old American saying: A place for everything, and everything in its place. A piece of code should be where you expect to find it—and, if not, you should re-factor to get it there. • Seiso, or cleaning (think “shine” in English): Keep the workplace free of hanging wires, grease, scraps, and waste. What do the authors here say about littering your code with comments and commented-out code lines that capture history or wishes for the future? Get rid of them. • Seiketsu, or standardization: The group agrees about how to keep the workplace clean. Do you think this book says anything about having a consistent coding style and set of practices within the group? Where do those standards come from? Read on. • Shutsuke, or discipline (self-discipline). This means having the discipline to follow the practices and to frequently reflect on one’s work and be willing to change. If you take up the challenge—yes, the challenge—of reading and applying this book, you’ll come to understand and appreciate the last point. Here, we are finally driving to the roots of responsible professionalism in a profession that should be concerned with the life cycle of a product. As we maintain automobiles and other machines under TPM, breakdown maintenance—waiting for bugs to surface—is the exception. Instead, we go up a level: inspect the machines every day and fix wearing parts before they break, or do the equivalent of the proverbial 10,000-mile oil change to forestall wear and tear. In code, refactor mercilessly. You can improve yet one level further, as the TPM movement innovated over 50 years ago: build machines that are more maintainable in the first place. Making your code readable is as important as making it executable.

The ultimate practice, introduced in TPM circles around 1960, is to focus on introducing entire new machines or industry nor in academia, humbles itself to the lowly station of keeping code clean. Back in my days working in the Bell Labs Software Production Research organization (Production, indeed!) we had some back-of-the-envelope findings that suggested that consistent indentation style was one of the most statistically significant indicators of low bug density. We want it to be that architecture or programming language or some other high notion should be the cause of quality; as people whose supposed professionalism owes to the mastery of tools and lofty design methods, we feel insulted by the value that those factoryfloor machines, the coders, add through the simple consistent application of an indentation style.

To quote my own book of 17 years ago, such style distinguishes excellence from mere competence. The Japanese worldview understands the crucial value of the everyday worker and, more so, of the systems of development that owe to the simple, everyday actions of those workers. Quality is the result of a million selfless acts of care—not just of any great method that descends from the heavens. That these acts are simple doesn’t mean that they are simplistic, and it hardly means that they are easy. They are nonetheless the fabric of greatness and, more so, of beauty, in any human endeavor. To ignore them is not yet to be fully human. Of course, I am still an advocate of thinking at broader scope, and particularly of the value of architectural approaches rooted in deep domain knowledge and software usability. The book isn’t about that—or, at least, it isn’t obviously about that. This book has a subtler message whose profoundness should not be underappreciated.

It fits with the current saw of the really code-based people like Peter Sommerlad, Kevlin Henney and Giovanni Asproni. “The code is the design” and “Simple code” are their mantras. While we must take care to remember that the interface is the program, and that its structures have much to say about our program structure, it is crucial to continuously adopt the humble stance that the design lives in the code. And while rework in the manufacturing metaphor leads to cost, rework in design leads to value. We should view our code as the beautiful articulation of noble efforts of design—design as a process, not a static endpoint. It’s in the code that the architectural metrics of coupling and cohesion play out. If you listen to Larry Constantine describe coupling and cohesion, he speaks in terms of code—not lofty abstract concepts that one might find in UML. Richard Gabriel advises us in his essay, “Abstraction Descant” that abstraction is evil. Code is anti-evil, and clean code is perhaps divine. Going back to my little box of Ga-Jol, I think it’s important to note that the Danish wisdom advises us not just to pay attention to small things, but also to be honest in small things. This means being honest to the code, honest to our colleagues about the state of our code and, most of all, being honest with ourselves about our code. Did we Do our Best to “leave the campground cleaner than we found it”? Did we re-factor our code before checking in? These are not peripheral concerns but concerns that lie squarely in the center of Agile values. It is a recommended practice in Scrum that re-factoring be part of the concept of “Done.” Neither architecture nor clean code insist on perfection, only on honesty and doing the best we can. To err is human; to forgive, divine. In Scrum, we make everything visible. We air our dirty laundry. We are honest about the state of our code because to that greatness in the details. In our profession, we desperately need all the help we can get.

If a clean shop floor reduces accidents, and well-organized shop tools increase productivity, then I’m all for them. As for this book, it is the best pragmatic application of Lean principles to software I have ever seen in print. I expected no less from this practical little group of thinking individuals that has been striving together for years not only to become better, but also to gift their knowledge to the industry in works such as you now find in your hands. It leaves the world a little better than I found it before Uncle Bob sent me the manuscript. Having completed this exercise in lofty insights, I am off to clean my desk.

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