Software archeology

I presented this evening on J2ME for the kickstart meeting at BJUG, where Grady Booch was the featured speaker. After unknowingly knocking UML in his presence, I enjoyed a fine talk on software archeology. This discipline involves looking at larger, historical patterns of software development. Essentially, when we build software, we are building artifacts. And, just as the plans and meetings of the the slave foremen who built the pyramids used are not recorded, so there are aspects of present day software development that are simply lost when the project ends or the programmers die. One of Booch’s projects is to capture as much of that data as possible, because these architectures are full of valuable knowledge that many folks have sweated for. It needs to happen soon, because, in his words, “time is not on our side” when it comes to collecting this kind of data. Man, I could handle that kind of job.

Speaking of architecture, I stumbled on “Effective Enterprise Java” which looks to be a set of rules for enterprise java development. I really enjoy “Effective Java”, by Joshua Bloch, so I hope that Ted Neward’s book lives up to its name. And I certainly hope this project doesn’t get stranded like “Interface Design” apparently did.

Coding Standards

I went to BJUG meeting tonight, and the topic was automatic code standardization tools. Tom Marrs gave a good presentation which covered 4 open source tools that integrate with ant:

Checkstyle checks that code fits existing guidelines. It comes configured to check against Code Conventions for the Java Programming Language. pmd is lint for java; it actually has a page where you can see it run against itself. It also finds generic exceptions and complains. Both of these tool show you where problems exist in your code, usually by generating a nice HTML report, but don’t modify the source.

The next two tools actually modify your .java files. cleanImports fixes erroneous import statements, and cleans up* imports. It’s smart enough, supposedly, to only import the actual classes that are used in a particular file. Jalopy is a bit more ambitious, and attempts to fix missing javadoc, whitespace problems, brace placement and some other problems.

Now, you need a combination of these tools. The style checkers can be very strict, since they don’t have to be smart enough to fix the problems they find. The code beautifiers, on the other hand, actually fix the problems that they find. Tom made some good points that these programs can generate a lot of output, and it makes sense to prioritize in deciding which problems to fix. Especially when you aren’t starting with a blank slate, it makes a lot of sense to ignore some of the lesser evils (who cares about whitespace when you have a constant that isn’t static final).

A member of the audience brought up a good point, which is that using these kind of tools is at least as much a political problem as it is a software problem. Few folks are going to argue that having a consistent coding standard makes maintenance easier, but I think that few folks are going to argue that it’s the most important factor. But, as I see it, there are a couple of different things you can do to enforce coding standards. I list these below in increasing order of intrusiveness.

1. Make the tools available

If you make the tools available on the project, folks will probably use it. After all, who likes writing crappy code? All these tools integrate with ant, and some integrate with popular IDEs. Make developers aware of the tools and add the targets to your standard build files, and encourage folks to use it.

2. Get buy in from the team

If you’re on a team, it may make sense to have ‘tools meeting’ at the beginning of a project (or in the middle, for that matter). Decide on basic standards (and remember, the location of braces isn’t really that important), after explaining how it makes folks’ lives easier. Build a consensus that using one or two of these tools is a good thing to do, and should be done before code is checked in.

3. Have senior staff dictate usage: ‘thou shalt use pmd’

If the senior members of a team feel strongly about this, they can make a preemptive decision that the tools must be used. I’ve been on a few projects where this happened, and I can’t say that it was a huge issue. After all, the senior staff make lots of arbitrary decisions (well, they look arbitrary) about architecture, team membership, etc. One more won’t hurt too much.

4. Make running the tools required before check in

You can put wrapper scripts around CVS. I’ve seen it done it on the client side, but this can be circumvented by just running the cvs command. You can also do it on the server side. I’m not sure what the best option is, but this is a large hammer to wield: it ensures that the code meets a standard, but also displays distrust that the coder can and will do the right thing on their own. Not exactly the kind of attitude you want to convey to folks you’re paying to think for you.

I think that these automatic tools are great. Code inspection, especially of a large number of classes, is something that programs are well suited for–there’s a clear set of rules, it’s a repetitive, boring task. But make sure that you don’t forget the human element. What happens to the reported problems? No matter how much the code is automagically fixed, you need and want the programmer to look at the output of the tools, and strive to improve his or her code.

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