Is Coding Style still a thing?

Make it readable, minimize scrolling.. provide context, clarify complexity.

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I can hear it now.. the moans and groans, the wailing and gnashing of teeth.. “Another post about coding style / formatting? REALLY!? Why can’t we all just get along read/write/paste code in our own environment and let our IDE/toolset worry about the format?” I hear you, really I do. But you’re missing the point. The single most important trait of good code is readability. Readability should be platform-independent, i.e. it should not vary (too greatly) depending on your viewing medium or environment.

The ratio of time spent reading (code) versus writing is well over 10 to 1 … (therefore) making it easy to read makes it easier to write.

-Robert C. “Uncle Bob” Martin, Clean Code

And yet, all around the web, I continue to find terribly formatted, nigh-unreadable code samples. Specifically, SQL scripts. That’s me; that’s my focus, so that’s what I pay the most attention to. But I have no doubt that the same applies to most other languages that Devs & IT folks find themselves scouring the tubes for on a daily basis. There is just an excessive amount of bad, inconsistent, language-inappropriate formatting out there. And honestly, it’s not that surprising — after all, there are millions of people writing said code — but it’s still a source of annoyance.

Clean code always looks like it was written by someone who cares.

-Michael Feathers, Clean Code

Don’t you care about your fellow programmers?

Maybe it stems from my early days working in a small shop, where we all had to read each other’s code all the time, and we didn’t have these fancy automated toolsets that take the human eyeballs out of so much of the workflow/SDLC. So we agreed upon a simple set of coding style/layout rules that we could all follow, mostly in-line with Visual Studio’s default settings. And even though we occasionally had little tiffs about whether it was smarter to use tabs or spaces for indentation (protip: it’s tabs!), we all agreed it was helpful for doing code reviews and indoctrinating onboarding new team members.

My plea to you, dear reader, is simple. Be conscious of what you write and what you put out there for public consumption. Be aware of the fact that not everybody will have the exact same environment and tooling that you use, and that your code sample needs to be clean & structured enough to be viewed easily in various editors of various sizes. Not only that, but be mindful of your personal quirks & preferences showing through your code.

That last part is really difficult for me. I’m a bit of an anal-retentive bastard a stickler for SQL formatting, particularly when it doesn’t match “my way”. So that’s not the point of this post – I don’t mean to, nor should I ever, try to impose my own personal style nuances on a wide audience. (Sure, on my direct reports, but that’s why we hire underlings, no? To force our doctrine upon them? Oh, my bad…)

 

All I’m saying is, try to match the most widely accepted & prevalent style guidelines for your language, especially if it’s largely enforced by the IDE/environment-of-choice or platform-of-choice for said language. And I’m not talking about syntax-highlighting, color-coded keywords, and that stuff – those are things given to us by the wonderful IDEs we use. Mostly, I mean the layout stuff – your whitespace, your line breaks, your width vs. height ratio, etc.

For example, Visual Studio. We can all agree that this is the de-facto standard for C# coding projects, yes? Probably for other MS-stack-centric languages as well, but this is just an example. And in its default settings, certain style guides are set: curly braces on their own lines, cascading smart-indents, 4-space tab width, etc. Could we not publish C# code samples to StackOverflow that have 7 or 8 spaced tabs, curly braces all over the place (some on the same line as the header code or the closing statement of the block; some 3 lines down and spaced 17 tabs over because “woops, I forgot a closing paren. in a line above, I fixed it but I was too lazy to go down and fix the indentation on the subsequent lines!”).  GRRR!

Always code as if the [person] who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live.

John Woods

Now, on to SQL. Specifically, TSQL (MS SQL). Okay, I will concede that the de-facto environment, SSMS, does NOT have what we’d call “great” default style/layout settings. It doesn’t even force you to use what little guidelines there are, because it’s not an IDE, so it doesn’t do smart auto-formatting (or what I’ve come to call “auto-format-fixing, in VS) for you. And sure, there are add-ins like RedGate SQL Prompt, SSMSBoost, Poor Man’s T-SQL Formatter, etc. But even they can’t agree on a nice happy compromised set of defaults. So what do we do? Maybe just apply some good old fashioned common sense. (Also, if you’re using such an add-in, tweak it to match your standards – play with those settings, don’t be shy!)

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have to horizontally-scroll to read the tail-end of a long SQL CASE expression, only to encounter a list of 10+ literal values in an IN () expression in the WHERE clause, that are broken-out to 1-per-line! Or even worse, a BETWEEN expression where the AND <end-value> is on a brand new line – REALLY?? You couldn’t break-up the convoluted CASE expression, but you had to line-break in the middle of a BETWEEN? Come on.

youre-killin-me-smalls
You’re killin’ me, Smalls!

Or how about the classic JOIN debate? Do we put the right-hand table on the same line as the left-hand table? Do we also put the ON predicates in the same line? Do we sub-indent everything off the first FROM table? Use liberal tabs/spaces so that all the join-predicates line up way over on the right side of the page? Again, common sense.

Make it readable, minimize scrolling, call-out (emphasize) important elements/lines (tables, predicates, functional blocks, control-flow elements, variables). It’s not revolutionary; just stop putting so much crap on one line that in a non-word-wrapped editor, you’re forced to H-scroll for miles. (FYI, I try to turn word-wrap on in most of my editors, then at least if I have some crazy-wide code, I can still read it all.)

SWYMMWYS. Say what you mean, mean what you say. (“Swim wiz”? “Swimmies”? I don’t know, I usually like to phoneticize my acronyms, but this one may prove troublesome.)

swimmies
swimmies!

Modern languages are expressive enough that you can generally make your structure match your intended purpose and workflow. Make it obvious. And if you can’t, comment. Every language worth its salt supports comments of some kind – comment, meaning, a piece of text that is not compiled/run, but rather just displayed to the editor/viewer of the code. Comments need to provide context, convey intent, and clarify complexity.

So what’s my point? Basically, let’s all try to make our code samples a bit easier to read and digest, by using industry-standard/accepted best-practices in terms of layout & style.

Drafted with StackEdit, finished with WordPress.


PS: Just to eat my own words, here’s an example of my preference to how a somewhat complex FROM clause would look, if I was king of the auto-formatter world:

SQL-sample-dark-code
Hipster dark theme FTW!

Send comments, thumb-ups, and hate-mail to my Contact page. 😛

Header image: our husky Keira at 2.5 months, being a sleepy-head!

Author: natethedba

I'm a SQL Server DBA, family man, and all-around computer geek.

4 thoughts on “Is Coding Style still a thing?”

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