08 June 2012

Source-control ‘wet-work’?

When a design or creative work is flawed beyond remedy, it is often best to destroy it and start again.

The other day, I lost the code to a long and intricate SQL batch I was working on. I’d thought it was impossible, but it happened. With all the technology around that is designed to prevent this occurring, this sort of accident has become a rare event.  If it weren’t for a deranged laptop, and my distraction, the code wouldn’t have been lost this time.  As always, I sighed, had a soothing cup of tea, and typed it all in again.  The new code I hastily tapped in  was much better: I’d held in my head the essence of how the code should work rather than the details: I now knew for certain  the start point, the end, and how it should be achieved. Instantly the detritus of half-baked thoughts fell away and I was able to write logical code that performed better.  Because I could work so quickly, I was able to hold the details of all the columns and variables in my head, and the dynamics of the flow of data. It was, in fact, easier and quicker to start from scratch rather than tidy up and refactor the existing code with its inevitable fumbling and half-baked ideas.

What a shame that technology is now so good that developers rarely experience the cleansing shock of losing one’s code and having to rewrite it from scratch.  If you’ve never accidentally lost  your code, then it is worth doing it deliberately once for the experience. Creative people have, until Technology mistakenly prevented it, torn up their drafts or sketches, threw them in the bin, and started again from scratch.  Leonardo’s obsessive reworking of the Mona Lisa was renowned because it was so unusual:  Most artists have been utterly ruthless in destroying work that didn’t quite make it. Authors are particularly keen on writing afresh, and the results are generally positive. Lawrence of Arabia actually lost the entire 250,000 word manuscript of ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by accidentally leaving it on a train at Reading station, before rewriting a much better version.  Now, any writer or artist is seduced by technology into altering or refining their work rather than casting it dramatically in the bin or setting a light to it on a bonfire, and rewriting it from the blank page.  It is easy to pick away at a flawed work, but the real creative process is far more brutal.

Once, many years ago whilst running a software house that supplied commercial software to local businesses, I’d been supervising an accounting system for a farming cooperative. No packaged system met their needs, and it was all hand-cut code.  For us, it represented a breakthrough as it was for a government organisation, and success would guarantee more contracts. As you’ve probably guessed, the code got mangled in a disk crash just a week before the deadline for delivery, and the many backups all proved to be entirely corrupted by a faulty tape drive.  There were some fragments left on individual machines, but they were all of different versions.  The developers were in despair.  Strangely, I managed to re-write the bulk of a three-month project in a manic and caffeine-soaked weekend.  Sure, that elegant universally-applicable input-form routine was’nt quite so elegant, but it didn’t really need to be as we knew what forms it needed to support.  Yes, the code lacked architectural elegance and reusability. By dawn on Monday, the application passed its integration tests. The developers rose to the occasion after I’d collapsed, and tidied up what I’d done, though they were reproachful that some of the style and elegance had gone out of the application. By the delivery date, we were able to install it. It was a smaller, faster application than the beta they’d seen and the user-interface had a new, rather Spartan, appearance that we swore was done to conform to the latest in user-interface guidelines. (we switched to Helvetica font to look more ‘Bauhaus’ ). The client was so delighted that he forgave the new bugs that had crept in. I still have the disk that crashed, up in the attic.

In IT, we have had mixed experiences from complete re-writes. Lotus 123 never really recovered from a complete rewrite from assembler into C, Borland made the mistake with Arago and Quattro Pro  and Netscape’s complete rewrite of their Navigator 4 browser was a white-knuckle ride. In all cases, the decision to rewrite was a result of extreme circumstances where no other course of action seemed possible.   The rewrite didn’t come out of the blue. I prefer to remember the rewrite of Minix by young Linus Torvalds, or the rewrite of Bitkeeper by a slightly older Linus.  The rewrite of CP/M didn’t do too badly either, did it? Come to think of it, the guy who decided to rewrite the windowing system of the Xerox Star never regretted the decision.

I’ll agree that one should often resist calls for a rewrite. One of the worst habits of the more inexperienced programmer is to denigrate whatever code he or she inherits, and then call loudly for a complete rewrite. They are buoyed up by the mistaken belief that they can do better. This, however, is a different psychological phenomenon, more related to the idea of some motorcyclists that they are operating on infinite lives, or the occasional squaddies that if they charge the machine-guns determinedly enough all will be well. Grim experience brings out the humility in any experienced programmer.  I’m referring to quite different circumstances here. Where a team knows the requirements perfectly, are of one mind on methodology and coding standards, and they already have a solution, then what is wrong with considering  a complete rewrite?

Rewrites are so painful in the early stages, until that point where one realises the payoff, that even I quail at the thought. One needs a natural disaster to push one over the edge. The trouble is that source-control systems, and disaster recovery systems, are just too good nowadays.   If I were to lose this draft of this very blog post, I know I’d rewrite it much better. However, if you read this, you’ll know I didn’t have the nerve to delete it and start again.  There was a time that one prayed that unreliable hardware would deliver you from an unmaintainable mess of a codebase, but now technology has made us almost entirely immune to such a merciful act of God.

An old friend of mine with long experience in the software industry has long had the idea of the ‘source-control wet-work’,  where one hires a malicious hacker in some wild eastern country to hack into one’s own  source control system to destroy all trace of the source to an application. Alas, backup systems are just too good to make this any more than a pipedream. Somehow, it would be difficult to promote the idea. As an alternative, could one construct a source control system that, on doing all the code-quality metrics, would systematically destroy all trace of source code that failed the quality test? Alas, I can’t see many managers buying into the idea.

In reading the full story of the near-loss of Toy Story 2, it set me thinking. It turned out that the lucky restoration of the code wasn’t the happy ending one first imagined it to be, because they eventually came to the conclusion that the plot was fundamentally flawed and it all had to be rewritten anyway.  Was this an early  case of the ‘source-control wet-job’?’ It is very hard nowadays to do a rapid U-turn in a development project because we are far too prone to cling to our existing source-code.

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