Ask for Forgiveness, Not Permission

2013-06-16 6:08

Even though it’s not a part of the Zen of Python, there is a widely accepted principle in Python community that reads:

It’s better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

For code, it generally means trying to do something and seeing whether it succeeded, rather than checking if it should succeed and then doing it. The first approach produces something like this:

  1. try:
  2.     print dictionary[key]
  3. except KeyError:
  4.     print "Key not found"

and it’s preferred over the more cautious alternative:

  1. if key in dictionary:
  2.     print dictionary[key]
  3. else:
  4.     print "Key not found"

What I realized recently is that there is much more general level of software development where the exact same principle can be applied. It’s not just about individual pieces of code, or catching exceptions versus checking preconditions. It extends to functions, modules, classes and packages – but more importantly, to the whole process of adding features, extending functionality or even conceiving totally new projects.

Taking a bit simplistic view, this process can be thought of having two extremes. On one end, there is a concept of pure “waterfall”. Every bit of work has to fit into predefined set of phases and no later phase can start before the previous one has completely finished. In this setting, design must be done upfront and all knowledge about the future product has to be gathered before coding starts.
By even this short description, it’s hard to stop thinking about all the hilarious ways the waterfall approach can end badly. Curiously, though, there are still companies that not only follow it but flaunt the fact publicly.

The other end is sometimes called “cowboy coding”, an almost derogatory term for churning out code without regard to pretty much any methodology whatsoever. Like in case of waterfall, it sometimes (very rarely) works, but it’s more so by accident rather than by design. And like pure waterfall, it also doesn’t really exist in nature, as long as more than one programmer is involved.

If we frame the spectrum like this, with the two completely opposite points at the edges, the natural tendency is to search for the middle ground. But if we subscribe to the titular principle of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, the right answer will clearly be shifted towards the “lean” side.
What is permission here? That’s a green light from design, architecture, requirements, UX and similar standpoints. You wouldn’t mind having all these before you start coding, but it is not absolutely crucial. Not having it, you can still do things: code, prototype, explore, and see how things pan out.
Even if you end up ripping it all apart, or maybe even fail to produce anything notable, you will still accrue useful knowledge. Say you have to throw away most of the week’s work because you’ve learned you need to do it differently. So what? With the insight you have gained along the way, it may very well take just a few hours now.

And so thou shalt be forgiven.

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Author: Xion, posted under Programming »

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