Developers, Code Cowboys and Architecture Astronauts

Developers, Code Cowboys and Architecture Astronauts.
Slums, Skyscrapers and Ghost Cities.
Similar to constructing buildings, there are (at least) three approaches to software development:


Coders = Slums – Quickly built using material and knowledge at hand to develop for a small audience quickly. Good ideas will be copy-pasted from one area to another and modified to suit the individuals needs. We can cover a lot of ground quickly but it doesn’t scale, plumbing and electricity break down.

Developers = Skyscrapers – Construction takes longer, the outcome can result in a uniformity, often piecing together existing architectural concepts or libraries into a fairly standard shape. We can scale to a higher level (density of people) but we need more upfront planning and less individuality.

Architecture Astronauts = Ghost Cities = Master architects devise grand schemes of hugely scaleable systems but there are fundamental flaws in the plan and often the need of actual end users are ignored.

If this conceptual metaphor holds, what could we learn from the building industry?

  • Don’t employ a coder when you need an architect?
  • Sometimes you need to clear a slum, displeasing those residents to replace it with an efficient residential building, which will take time and investment?
  • Building quality needs enforced by external parties?
    Similar to governmental building inspections.
  • Always get the core plumbing right, the facade/paint can be changed later?
  • …?
  • Is there anything they could learn from software development?

Perhaps the most important thing is to decide which category you are aiming for.


The Understated Simplicity of Good Code

Bad Code Accretes

Sometimes while reading code, I get the impression that the person:

  1. Kept throwing more code at the problem until it “worked”.
  2. They never for a moment stepped back and thought about making it simpler.

This small thought can then be applied on a larger scale to languages themselves. PHP was quickly thrown out there at version 1 and early on added to as new features were needed. Java/C#/javascript almost all of them have grown by adding features over time. How many have went back and removed significant features?

Great Code Simplifies

Contrast that approach to Ken Iverson in this video from 1974:


I went from application to application trying to use the same techniques. The most encouraging thing is that they would work. After 2-3 years during which time the language had grown by accretion, it grew and grew, eventually I found it was shrinking.

Essentially the idea was once you look at enough different applications you begin to see what is the general notion. So I came to generalisations that allowed me to take out whole chunks of special things I had put in.

Furthermore to my surprise it turns out the general ideas are usually much simpler to understand than any of the special cases.

Modern Languages are Simplifying Common Cases

Looking at some of the recent changes for example arrow-operators in javascript, records/lambdas in java you can see this attempt to go back and simplify and reduce the noise for getting common actions performed. The questions is will many remove the old noise.

An Example from KDB

I find it worth mentioning how KDB supplies the user with handles to send data. Here we open a handle h to send a query to a remote process and get the result.

q)h:hopen `:localhost:5000;
q)h "2+2"

That last line shows that the handle is 7. Why is KDB using 7 for handles?
Because linux maps files/sockets etc. using those exact same integers. In fact in kdb standard out/error can be used as 0/1. When people first encounter this, they find it confusing, possibly because they are coming from other languages that wrap handles ten layers deep in abstractions. I can’t help but imagine:

  • Some coders take hours to work out what code can be removed
  • Other developers like Arthur may never consider introducing unnecessary abstractions in the first place


Please for the sake of your reviewers take a moment before pushing code to ask yourself, can this be made simpler.