Want Your Team to Write Maintainable JavaScript? Start Making Them Think Alike…

A colleague at work today posted a couple of JavaScript/Front-End Development conferences that are coming up in the near future. One of them, the O’Reilly conference has a speaker talking about writing maintainable JavaScript. I did a bit of searching on him speaking about this topic, and the material that he presents is generally pretty good – at least from a coding standpoint. But I think that focusing only on coding won’t solve the problem. From personal experience, nothing can mess up maintainable code more than bad or non-existent design practices.

I know I don’t get too much traffic to this blog, but for those who have read my technology articles, they’ll know that I have a real design focus. Why? Simply because high-quality, easily maintainable software starts with good design, and I have LOTS of personal experience in this. I was able to get roughly 200 front-end engineers at a previous company to code the same way – in a maintainable fashion – by first teaching them good design practices. It all started out with using UML as the way to communicate our designs, then writing good technical design documents to describe and discuss the diagrams, then writing code that followed the designs. Of course, included in the process were both design and code reviews ensuring that the final product that was produced with lots of input and feedback.

Most would think that adding all this onto the development process would tack on more time to development. Admittedly, at first it does. That’s the “learning tax.” But once people are used to doing designs, and going through a few review processes to defend their designs and code, they become faster at development; much faster than they were before they started practicing “design first, code later.” While this also requires an overall organizational acceptance, it’s an easy sell because the overall code quality will shoot through the roof.

Plus, doing design then coding is the fundamental difference between software engineers and code monkeys. I’ve been around long enough in this industry to say that most software developers, though they like to think of themselves as engineers are code monkeys; albeit, with varying levels of experience. The more experienced developers will most likely be able to tackle a problem and get it right a lot of the time, but to me, when there’s not a design to accompany the development, there’s always a risk that problems that could’ve been mitigated and avoided with a design will trickle through. That’s not to say that a design will mitigate all bugs. That’s ridiculous. But you can avoid lots of problems simply by doing a design and following it; that is, implementing code according to what’s described in the design.

To crystallize the point further, let me say this: Code is PRODUCT; design is engineering. And when people are designing in the same way, they will tend to adopt coding practices and standards that are similar and maintainable throughout the organization.

So which do you want to be, engineer or code monkey? If you’re not already doing design, you know who you are…

A Real Pet-Peeve

Now that I’ve pontificated on the virtues of design, I’ll discuss code. The speaker on writing maintainable JavaScript, Nicholas Zakas, is quite an engineer, currently a principal at Yahoo. But in reading through his blog and reading through the conference highlights, plus reading this article that he wrote on the subject, he missed a VERY important point that is one of the very things that pisses me of more than anything else and that is lack of comments. I’m very good about commenting my code simply because once I’ve got it checked in, I want to be able to get a gist of the flow when I return to it weeks, months, or years from when I wrote it. I also do it so that others who may maintain my code after I’ve left know what I’m doing in my code.

I’ll just say it plainly: Commenting code is Programming I; not 101. You should be commenting your code from the get-go. Period. It’s such a key component to team coding and writing maintainable code, but it is often missed in talks and lectures because it’s assumed people do it. Nick, believe me, they don’t. 🙂

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