Coding conventions

Another mini-rant on coding this week, originally composed as a response to someone who didn’t see why conforming to coding standards was such a big deal. In this case (roughly sorting header #include statements alphabetically) the defence was “it’s trivial to do that automatically, so why should you care whether a coder does it themselves?” That’s a pretty typical response, but the answer to it for me sums up exactly why following conventions is important, and it is nothing to do with the conventions themselves, and everything to do with how you work as a team.

First off I’d agree that this case in particular is not a major issue. None of them (indenting conventions, space conventions, capitalisation conventsion) are, but that isn’t why it gets people worked up when one coder decides to go ahead regardless. The problem is that you have a choice between:

  • Original coder does it as agreed first time

or

  • Original coder decides to ignore convention previously agreed on
  • Entire team endures negative effects of said change until either:
    • Another coder takes time out from whatever else they’re doing to fix it:
      • If they do it as part of a commit they’re already doing, it obscures the diffs for the ‘real’ changes they’re making.
      • If they do it as a separate commit, they’ve got to take the time to make sure that they’ve not accidentally broken something everyone chooses to leave it as it is and over time the entire codebase degenerates into a collection of such issues
    • Somebody writes an automatic tool to fix the problem

Fixing it after the fact is not a good solution, because it’s far more expensive than just doing it right the first time. If there’s a policy, then everyone should stick to it. If they don’t agree with the policy, then they should take that up amongst the team, not just ignore it because they don’t agree and they expect someone (or something) else to fix it later. If it’s a stupid policy, then the team can agree to get rid of it. If it has merit for others then they should respect that even if they don’t personally agree with it: because they’re working as part of a team, not just as individuals, and that should entail a certain amount of respect to your team-mates.

Most of us will have known ‘renegade’ coders, who go off into their own zone and implement some big bit of functionality without consulting with the rest of the team. Sometimes that works well, and other times they come back, throw the code over the fence at the rest of the team and act surprised when they have problems integrating it. That is no way to work, and not only will it lead to friction amongst the team, it also generally means a bunch of wasted effort that could have been avoided with better communication up front. Not respecting coding conventions isn’t nearly as bad as that, but I feel like it’s the first step down the road towards it.

When you’re working in a team, you don’t have the luxury of implementing things in a bubble: you have to work with other peoples’ code, and they have to work with yours. Coming to a common agreement as to how to work with each other is the most basic part of that, otherwise you’ll find yourself working at odds with each other. There can and should be compromises to get to that agreement, but ‘agreeing to disagree’ is generally not a viable option.

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Last modified: May 28 2017.