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Strategy vs. Tactics in Coding Standards

I’m starting a new job on March 7. As I wrapped up my time with the company where I’ve spent the past 3 years, I spent some time thinking about the decisions and responsibilities that I was given, and that I took on, while there. One of the reasons I was hired was to bring to the development team my more formal education and professional experience as a software developer. And one of the responsibilities I was allowed was to lead regular discussions with the other developers. The goal of these discussions was to help our team to become more professional in the way we developed software. Of course it was only a matter of time before someone on the team brought up coding standards.

I’ve had enough experience with coding standards to have developed some skepticism to the way that they are typically applied. It sounds good, in theory. Bring some consistency, order, and predictability to the source code produced by the group. But in my experience, the practice rarely delivers on the promise. It’s easy to start a fight on this topic, of course. It tends to be a “religious” topic in that people have strong and entrenched opinions, and are rarely shaken from them regardless of argument. This is unfortunate, because I think there is a way to make them work. But it requires thinking about coding standards in a different kind of way.

The challenge of establishing standards, and the reason standards tend to be so fractious, is that “what works” must necessarily vary depending on the case. But very rarely does an organization who establishes coding standards allow for much variance in response to new problems or process friction. To figure out why this is, and how we can deliver on some of the promise of standards without resorting to brainwashing, let’s take a closer look at the types coding standards we see in the wild.

In my experience, coding standards tend to fall into one of two broad categories. There are strategic coding standards, which are general and outcome-oriented. And there are tactical coding standards, which are specific and mechanics-oriented.

I’ll address the latter first, as these are the kinds of standards that tend to start religious wars. Here are some examples of tactical coding standards:

  • All method headers must include a description, pre-conditions, side-effects, argument descriptions, and return value description.
  • Use C#’s “var” keyword only for variables of anonymous data types.
  • Place each method argument on its own line.

At this point you’re probably at least nodding your head in recognition. Maybe some of you are nodding in satisfied approval, while others are holding back an outburst of disgust. When most people hear the words “coding standards”, the tactical ones are the ones they think of. And these often evoke strong emotional responses. Their most common adherents tend to be managers or project leads, and often regular developers who’ve been around the block a few times.

The reason people want tactical coding standards is simple. They bring a modicum of consistency to a wild and woolly world. You often can’t trust that the guy writing code in the next cube can code his way out of a paper bag. So when you have to take over his code after he’s gone it’s nice to know that, at the very least, he followed the standards. If all else fails, there is one thing that will provide sure footing as you plumb the dangerous depths of their code.

I understand this, and I sympathize. But at the same time, I chafe under these standards. They feel like¬†micromanagement¬†to me. It makes me feel like my coworkers don’t trust me to do the thing that I was hired to do. There are organizations where this can’t be taken for granted. But my own personal response to those environments is to leave them. I want to work with people I can trust at this level, and that can trust me the same.

It’s not all bad for tactical standards, and we’ll circle back in a bit. But for now let’s look at some examples of strategic coding standards.

  • Write informative class headers.
  • Endeavor to keep methods to less than 25 lines in length.
  • Use whitespace and indenting to identify related code.

Strategic coding standards are broad. They do not tell the developer exactly what to write. Rather they set an expectation of the kind of code that should be written, and leave it to the developer as to how exactly that kind of code should be created. In my experience, these are the kinds of standards that are okay to mandate and enforce from a management perspective. Evoke the general feel of the code you want your team to produce, and then let them use their skill, experience, and professionalism to decide how to make it happen.

You can probably tell that in general I feel a lot better about this type of standard than the other. For one, they stay out of your way on a minute-to-minute basis. They’re also far easier to get people to agree upon. Rather than being a cynical defensive measure against bad code, they empower the developer while fostering good coding habits.

Now having said all that, I do think there is a place for tactical standards. One big reason that I named these categories as I did is because I think that the role of establishing each type of standard can map to the organization similarly to how the roles map in the military, from which these terms are taken. Strategic standards can be mandated by leadership without stifling the developers. While the particular tactics can be determined by the people “on the ground”.

There are many cases where tactical coding standards are beneficial. But it almost always serves the organization better to let the developers establish and enforce them. Take a team with multiple people all sharing equally in ownership of a codebase, each working from day to day on code written by the others. Imagine further that the code is sensitive in some way that can’t abide regression bugs or the like. Maybe there is also a huge amount of code, or a large number of coders.

In these types of situations, it’s crucial that the developers be able to pick up a strange piece of code and get a quick picture of what’s going on. And to be able to modify the code without introducing a foreign-looking island of code to trip up the next guy. To do this, the developers have to be comfortable with the low-level style aspects of the code, both to read and to write. The best hope a team has of developing this comfort is to, as a self-directed group, come to agreement on common-denominator style standards over time and through shared experience.

There is a balance to be struck here. We want to ensure quality output from our teams, but we don’t want to turn our developers into code-generators that don’t take responsibility for their own work product. I think this balance is best struck by the proper application of each type of coding standard, in the proper context. If leaders can establish strategic standards that express high-level goals for clean code and understandable designs, then they can empower their teams to find solutions to the lower-granularity challenges such as understanding each other, and reducing the friction involved in cooperation on a shared codebase. This is strategy and tactics in practice, and at its best.