How Perfect Should Our Software Be?

I’ve a fan of Basecamp (formerly 37Signals). I think that Jason and David run their company, business, design, and software in a fascinating way. If I didn’t work for an amazing company (Redgate Software), I’d might see if they want a DBA/evangelist.

Over the years I’ve read a number of interesting posts from them, including their ReWork book, and I’ve learned a lot. They make me think, give me ideas, and a perspective I might otherwise miss about work, life, or something else. They tend to focus on software and since I’m a part of that business, I like reading those posts. I ran across a good one from Jonas Downey called “The right amount of perfect“.

The piece talks about the tendency to want our work to be perfect. We want our new software, class, table, method, stored procedure to be right. We craft systems to work well and meet requirements. Sometimes, perhaps often, we over engineer things. At least, the very talented people I know tend to over engineer. The less talented more often than not just barely get things working, meeting only one particular case, and leave behind a load of technical debt, often in a steaming pile.

Finding a balance for how good our software should be can be hard. I do think that often it doesn’t take longer to write good code than bad code, but it does take time to learn to write better code and practice using patterns that perform well, both in terms of solving a problem and not using too many resources. Early on, when experimenting, it does seem more important to try things, even if they don’t work well. Later, when we are more confident that this particular feature/view/method/etc. is highly likely to be used, we ought to ensure we refactor code or adjust our design to become more “perfect”. We still have to balance how robust we make code given the fact that we always have more work than time, but it should be better than a the first, quick cut at getting a working feature.

The worry I have had, and likely many of you, is that our quick design, our hasty prototype, will be used in production without any time given to rebuild the underlying code properly. That is certainly a concern, and I don’t have a good solution if your management insists on releasing poor code and living with poor performance. The one piece of advice I can give is to learn patterns that work well for queries, for database design, for error handling, or any other task. That won’t allow you to build an extremely robust system quickly, but it can help you minimize the amount of poor coding you do when under time constraints. You’ll write more good code the first time.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

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