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The Cost of Code Quality

Published: 2024-03-01

I recently came across Peter Taoussanis's London Clojurians talk - Some controversial truths, resonated with me a lot. It's funny that I wouldn't be ready for this talk two years ago (and I'd probably dismissed the ideas immediately and called it heresy). As I spent more and more time in the software industry, I'm finally ready for this talk. Similar ideas had been brewing in my mind for the past few years. I want to touch on code quality more with my experiences.

In his talk, Peter argues that quality doesn't always matter (a statement I would have frowned upon years ago), and I fully agree.

At work, I had always tried to produce the best code I could and meticulously write documentation/commit messages as thoroughly as possible. "What if someone wants to extend this function? Can I anticipate it and make it easier to change in the future?" "What if someone checked the commit message and wants to learn why we changed this line?" "What if no one else is around in ten years, and someone needs to learn from the documentation?"

On the other hand, my old colleague Jeff is almost the polar opposite of my working style. He was best described as a one-person army, delivering high-value features at speed while helping the organization tremendously by aligning the product visions. He tended to submit large quantities of messy code in bursts that were impossible for me to review. I used to self-righteously argue against his coding practice. Gradually, I started seeing the bigger picture - judging Jeff's work solely based on the quality wasn't fair. His time and energy have better impacts elsewhere. The opportunity costs were far greater than the value of the additional code quality I complained about.

Quality is another decision that comes with its tradeoffs. Sometimes, the opportunity costs could be as little as causing a bug in an edge case that no real-life users will ever hit; sometimes, as significant as losing business to competitors, or even worse - going out of business. Similar to what I learned from participating in Game Jams - I could either submit finished games with crapy code or submit crapy unfinished games with beautiful code. (I chose the former for all my past three Game Jams.) The opportunity costs of perfecting code quality were just too high (that it would've impacted the delivery of a playable game).

Similarly, about code reviews (which is also a typical part of ensuring code quality), there are times to review code meticulously because the efforts and social energies are well justified - perhaps you are onboarding new people, or maybe you are aligning on an architectural decision that is hard to reverse. Yet, there are times to strategically let code quality slides when that gives you something better in return.

Lastly, I love this quote I learned from Peter's talk:

Any idiot can build a bridge that stands, but it takes an engineer to build a bridge that barely stands.

Being biased heavily on the code quality side for most of my career, I often need to remind myself to set aside my programmer's pride and look at the bigger picture. To end this on a more optimistic note, as I gained more experiences, the quality of work does come more easily. (With the help of Emacs and magit, of course!)

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