The Principle of Two Hacks

2012-06-18 20:19

At work I’ve got a colleague who displays unusual aptitude in coming up with amusing terminology for everyday (coding) things. Among those, the Cake Pattern is always certain to provoke few laughs.

Recently, though, I heard him mention a great common sense rule for any development decision, from the grand architecture down to single line of code. It can be phrased like this:

One hack is fine. But if you need another one on top of the first, it’s probably high time to really consider what you are doing.

For good measure, I’ll call it a Principle of Two Hacks, and I’m pretty convinced that it’s a very beneficial rule to apply in programming – especially when creating any non-trivial, not throw-away programs.

At first it may sound rather vague, however. It’s concept of a “hack” is not easily explicable, or put into indisputable definitions. But that’s what makes it powerful: we don’t need to invoke elaborate (and often controversial) notions of design patterns or abstraction to be able to discuss them.

At best, the ideas of accidental complexity or technical debt might be somewhat close to what developers typically deem as a hack. In practice, this is mostly an opaque intuition that stems from experience or skill, and it’s usually very hard to express in words. Yet, it’s always apparent whenever we encounter it, even though the exact sensation may vary considerably: from a dim feeling that something is maybe a bit off, up to severe intellectual nausea caused by looking at really bad code.

I also like how extremely pragmatic this principle is. Quick-and-dirty fixes making it into production code are just a fact of life, and we are not prohibited from letting them slip. What we are strongly advised here is to maintain integrity of the software we’re writing, trying not to stack one hack upon another.

But even that is not absolute, nonnegotiable gospel; there might still be valid reasons to loosen up its structure. The important part, however, is to notice when we’re doing something fishy and consciously decide whether or not it is a good idea. It is much better than just plunging forward with total disregard of sanity of future maintainers.

Ultimately, this principle is just subtly telling us to think, and that is never a bad advice.

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Author: Xion, posted under Programming »

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