One thing I hear very often from less experienced developers is how difficult it can be for them to understand modular code.
The principles of modular design – that modules should:
- Do one job
- Hide their inner workings
- Have swappable dependencies
– tend to lead to code that’s composed of small pieces that bind to abstractions for the other modules they use to do their jobs.
The key to making this work in practice rests on two factors: firstly, that developers get good at naming the boxes clearly enough so that people don’t have to look inside them to understand what they do, and secondly that developers accustom themselves to reading highly-composed code. More bluntly, developers have to learn how to read and write modular code.
Schools, universities and code clubs generally don’t get as far as modularity when they teach programming. Well, they may teach the mechanics of declaring and using modules, but they don’t present students with much opportunity to write larger, composed systems. The self-contained nature of programming problems in education typically presents students with algorithms whose implementations are all laid out on the screen in front of them.
Software at scale, though, doesn’t fit on a screen. They are jigsaw puzzles, and much more attention to how the pieces fit together is needed. Software design grows from being about algorithms and program flow to being about relationships between parts, at multiple levels of code organisation.
In this sense, young programmers leave school like freshly-minted playwrights who’ve only ever written short monologues. They know nothing of character, or motivation, or dialogue, of plotting, or pacing, or the three-act structure, nor have they ever concerned themselves with staging and practical considerations that just don’t come up when a single actor reads a single page standing centre-stage under a single spotlight.
Then they get their first job as a script assistant on a production of Noises Off and are all like “What are all these ‘stage directions’? Why are there so many scenes? I can’t follow this plot. Can we have just one character say all the lines?”
Here’s the thing; reading and writing modular code is an acquired skill. It doesn’t just happen overnight. As more and more young developers flood into the industry, I see more and more teams full of people who are easily bamboozled by modular, composed code.
Readability is about the audience. Programmers have a “reading age” defined by their ability to understand code, and code needs to be pitched to the audience’s reading age. This means that we may have to sacrifice some modularity for teams of less experienced developers. They’re not ready for it yet.
Having said all of that, of course, we get better at reading by being challenged. If we only ever read books that contained words we already know, we’d learn no new words.
I learned to read OO code by reading OO code written by more experienced programmers than me. They simultaneously pitched the code to be accessible to my level of understanding, and also a very little out of my current reach so that I had to stretch to follow the logic.
I know I’m a broken record on this topic, but that’s where mentoring comes in. Yes, there are many, many developers who lack the ability to read and write modular code. But every one of those teams could have someone who has lots of experience writing modular code who can challenge and guide them and bring them along over time – until one day it’s their turn to pay it forward.
The woeful lack of structured mentoring in our profession means that many developers go their entire careers never learning this skill. A lack of understanding combined with a lot of experience can be a dangerous mixture. “It is not that I don’t understand this play. This play is badly written. Good plays have a single character who stands in the centre of the stage under a single spotlight and reads out a 100-page monologue. Always.”
For those developers, a late-career Damascene conversion is unlikely to happen. I wish them luck.
For new developers, though, there’s a balance to be struck between working at a level they’re comfortable with today, and moving them forward to reading and writing more modular code in the future. Every program we write is both a solution to a problem today, and a learning experience to help us write a better solution tomorrow.