If you have been a programmer for more than two or three years, you have probably been significantly slowed down by someone else’s messy code. If you have been a programmer for longer than two or three years, you have probably been slowed down by messy code. The degree of the slowdown can be significant. Over the span of a year or two, teams that were moving very fast at the beginning of a project can find themselves moving at a snail’s pace. Every change they make to the code breaks two or three other parts of the code. No change is trivial. Every addition or modification to the system requires that the tangles, twists, and knots be “understood” so that more tangles, twists, and knots can be added. Over time the mess becomes so big and so deep and so tall, they can not clean it up. There is no way at all.
As the mess builds, the productivity of the team continues to decrease, asymptotically approaching zero. As productivity decreases, management does the only thing they can; they add more staff to the project in hopes of increasing productivity. But that new staff is not versed in the design of the system. They don’t know the difference between a change that matches the design intent and a change that thwarts the design intent. Furthermore they, and everyone else on the team, are under horrific pressure to increase productivity. So they all make more and more messes, driving the productivity ever further toward zero.
The Grand Redesign in the Sky
Eventually the team rebels. They inform management that they cannot continue to develop in this odious code base. They demand a redesign. Management does not want to expend the resources on a whole new redesign of the project, but they cannot deny that productivity is terrible. Eventually they bend to the demands of the developers and authorize the grand redesign in the sky.
A new tiger team is selected. Everyone wants to be on this team because it’s a greenfield project. They get to start over and create something truly beautiful. But only the best and brightest are chosen for the tiger team. Everyone else must continue to maintain the current system.
Now the two teams are in a race. The tiger team must build a new system that does everything that the old system does. Not only that, they have to keep up with the changes that are continuously being made to the old system. Management will not replace the old system until the new system can do everything that the old system does.
This race can go on for a very long time. I’ve seen it take 10 years. And by the time it’s done, the original members of the tiger team are long gone, and the current members are demanding that the new system be redesigned because it’s such a mess.
If you have experienced even one small part of the story I just told, then you already know that spending time keeping your code clean is not just cost effective; it’s a matter of professional survival.
You will not make the deadline by making the mess. Indeed, the mess will slow you down instantly, and will force you to miss the deadline. The only way to make the deadline—the only way to go fast—is to keep the code as clean as possible at all times.
Here is a great post stating about why refactoring is better than rewriting, tiger team in Uncle Bob's story did.