Notes from MenderCon 2021

My notes from MenderCon 2021, an open space conference on modernizing and improving existing codebases.

Keynote - On Platform migration

Scott M. Ford questioned the practice of rewriting most of the application when migrating to a new version of a programming language or framework. As a metaphor, he drew from construction and city planning. “If you change the foundation of a house, you surely have to demolish the whole house, right?” Usually the answer is “yes”, but the answer ignores the opportunity cost - while the house is torn down and rebuilt, the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, the cost of moving (twice), etc.

Ford then showed examples where whole buildings were moved (Chicago, Galveston, Shanghai, AT&T Building), without much interruption for the inhabitants. He then posed the question, if those feats of engineering can be done in the physical world, why not do them for software. This would avoid the numerous problems of rewrites.

The Gilded Rose Kata

This is one of my favourite coding exercises, because it can train so many essential programming skills:

  • Coping with and appreciating legacy code: the initial project has no tests, but it works and brings value
  • Acceptance testing: instead of trying to build unit tests, build an acceptance test from the output of the program.
  • Finding edge cases
  • Refactoring
  • Reading comprehension: the README explains all the business rules
  • Discovering a business domain from code: ignoring the README and letting the tests and coverage guide you.
  • Transforming a procedural-style program into a different paradigm (object oriented or functional) and seeing how the paradigm improves the design and architecture.

We worked on the exercise in a modified Mob programming setting, where there was one navigator instead of all participants “navigating”, switching roles every two minutes. I found this experience more pleasing than past mob programming sessions, which often devolved into lengthy discussions between all the navigators.

I learned a new series of steps and heuristics for writing unit tests - ZOMBIES. You start with the “Zero” cases, where the system under test has no state and you did not interact with it. Then you test the “One” cases, simple examples or scenarios (the “S” in ZOMBIES) with one interaction that delivers a result, side effect or new state. By this time, the interface and behaviour (the “I” and “B” in ZOMBIES) of the class should be clear. You continue with the “Many” cases - complex interactions of behaviour, input parameters and state, also testing exceptional and error states (the “E” in ZOMBIES).

We worked on the Python example and what totally blew me away was the automated safe refactoring of Sourcery. It took the convoluted mess of if statements and created an easy-to-understand switch statement out of it! I wish there were refactoring tools like to for PHP.

Capturing context of decisions, retrospectively

The source code of an application tells the reader what it does and how it does things. The code seldom answers the question why it does things in a certain way, why a feature was implemented or a workaround was put in place. Answers to the question why become important when the original assumptions might longer be true and a piece of code makes us go “huh?”. It’s useful for a maintainer of legacy code to adopt an archeologist or anthropologist mindset and ask the questions “How did this piece of code evolve?” and “What circumstances, culture and assumptions must be true, for this piece of code to make sense?”

We discussed the methods to capture and preserve the “why” of code:

  • Commit messages - Commit messages should answer the “why” of a code change.
  • Commit history - helps to see the evolution of code. git log has parameters to help list changes in specific files.
  • Architectural Decision Records (ADRs) - They document the assumptions and technical decisions a team of developers made.
  • Infrastructure - Ticket systems, discussions on pull requests, sprint planning boards they all answer the “why” and can show which stakeholders were involved in a decision (to ask them for more information, not to blame them of course). The more integrated the infrastructure is with the code and version control, the fewer context switches and (browser) windows the developer has to use to answer questions. One could even imagine a future or system where all those artifacts are stored alongside the code and version history!
  • Literate Programming - We could not find an example, where Literate Programming was employed for a large-scale system. It seems to be suited more for scientific papers, where the code is supporting the text.
  • Comments - We agreed that comments are inferior to other methods of record-keeping. They tend to get outdated, developers are afraid to delete or edit them, and they get in the way when a developer tries to figure out the “what” instead of the “why”. But used sparingly, to inform other developers of the “why”, they can still be a valid tool.

All the artifacts, tools and people of a code base form a Symmathesy.

In our discussion we discovered that the description of “why” uses natural language and we briefly speculated about the evolution of programming languages and if people will ever use “natural” language to tell computer what to do. I highly doubt that. To quote a popular comic: “Do you know the industry term for a project specification that is comprehensive and precise enough to generate a program?” “It’s called ‘code’.”

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