Code Smells, Correlations, and Poisoned Coffee

Winston Churchill had a much faster and sharper wit than I have. Consider this* famous exchange:

Lady Astor: “If you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee.”

Churchill: “If I were your husband, I would drink it.”

I, on the other hand, always think of the correct thing to say in an argument a few days later. It’s not just for ex-post-facto arguments, either. I’ve been doing some technical trainings lately, and I try to have a more conversational style than just reading lots of bullet points from slides. I figure that if I don’t understand a topic well enough to speak about it extemporaneously, than I have no business talking about it.

In the last presentation I made, I talked about the practice of refactoring and the concept of code smells.  I gave examples of a few of high-value smells and then gave this little wishy-washy disclaimer.

“When you encounter these code smells, it doesn’t mean that you have to change it, it just means that you should look at your code closely here, as you may have problems.”

It’s not so bad, it’s pretty much what everyone says about refactoring. What I should have said, was this:

Code smells are correlations to quality problems. Heavily commented code blocks aren’t necessarily bad, but lots of comments very strongly correlate to readability problems. You don’t fix it by deleting the comments. You fix it by making your code readable enough to stand without the “how does it work” comments.

Long methods aren’t necessarily bad, but long methods very strongly correlate to cohesion problems. It’s possible, and sometimes required, to have a long method that’s perfectly cohesive, but it’s outside the norm.

And, of course, you don’t fix the problem based on the correlation to the problem, you fix the actual underlying problem. Breaking a long ProcessThings() method into three arbitrary methods called StepOne(), StepTwo(), and StepThree() doesn’t actually make the code any better.

You see, that’s not wishy-washy at all, and it appeals to the distinction between correlation and causation. It’s not as funny as poisoned coffee, but it has some concreteness to it.

*After looking up the Astor/Churchill exchange, I found that it’s very possibly an apocryphal story. Oh well, it’s still funny.

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