The Disciplined Programmer

Stop whining! You kids are soft. You lack discipline. -Detective John Kimble

When you run across a project that suffers from things like messy code, poor design, or lack of tests, there are two possibilities: The first is that the responsible party was so inexperienced that they had no idea they were making a mess. It honestly never occurred to them that they were doing a poor job. The second possibility is that the responsible party knew they were writing messy code, they knew they weren’t being thoughtful about the design, and despite knowing all about TDD, they still skipped writing tests. This second group is one that I think most developers fall into at some point.

If you’ve ever explained a messy code base, or terrible test coverage with this excuse:

We had no time, we had to get it done ASAP.

then this post is for you. We’ve all felt the pressure of “ASAP”. We’ve all read Rework, which convinced us that “ASAP” is poison. We know that when everything is ASAP, then NOTHING is. And we know that when we rush to get things done ASAP, we inevitably cut corners that hurt us in the long run: We skip writing tests. We commit messy code that we’re embarrassed by. We trade moments of quiet thinking about the problem for frenzied keyboard clacking, as if words-per-minute could ever make up for a deficit in thoughtful design. We do all this despite knowing it’s wrong.

So why do we do it?

I believe it’s one of those classic disconnects between what we intuitively feel versus what intellectually know. Intuitively, we feel like we’re getting things done faster when we blast through code and don’t take the time to TDD. Intellectually, we know that TDD reduces software defects and speeds up development (in the long run), and that thoughtful design yields cascading benefits that permeate entire systems.

Most programmers probably have the same harmful intuition when stressed. However, given the same stressful circumstances, some programmers will behave according to their intuition, and others will behave according to what they know intellectually. Why?


It is the unsexiest of programmer attributes. I think of how many times I’ve heard people talk about the exciting elements of programming: solving hard problems, writing elegant “beautiful” code, being creative, automating away inefficiencies and taming the techno-beast. These things come up when trying to convince others that we are passionate about our craft in a job interview, or explaining why our job doesn’t suck to children at Career Day. But how often have you heard someone talk about methodicalness, or the virtue of embracing routine, or the necessity of regular and critical reflection? What about the discipline that is required by all of those things?

The most productive programmers I know comprise their daily routine from a series of repeatable work flows. They are methodical. Even creative tasks are performed in a methodical manner. Their routines become habit, and they can sense when the routine needs adjustment - like a wobbly wheel that’s out of alignment. In addition to being generally productive, they also tend to produce clean, thoughtful, tested code.

Discipline is not glamorous. I doubt we’ll see “disciplined programmer” supplant “ninja” or “rock star” in job postings any time soon. Nonetheless, I’ll be focusing on it more as a deliberate addition to my programmer psyche, and encouraging it more in others - especially those who shout to others from atop their heap of disastrous code “Sorry about this mess, I was in a rush!”

Posted on 28 Jan 2012 by Jim Garvin

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