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Close Spatial Proximity

Even on software development projects with agreed-to coding rules, it’s hard to (and often painful to all parties) “enforce” the rules. This is especially true if the rules cover superficial items like indenting, brace alignment, comment frequency/formatting, variable/method name letter capitalization/underscoring. IMHO, programmers are smart enough to not get obstructed from doing their jobs when trivial, finely grained rules like those are violated. It (rightly) pisses them off if they are forced to waste time on minutiae dictated by software “leads” that don’t write any code and (especially) former programmers who’ve been promoted to bureaucratic stooges.

Take the example below. The segment on the right reflects (almost) correct conformance to the commenting rule “every line in a class declaration shall be prefaced with one or more comment lines”. A stricter version of the rule may be “every line in a class declaration shall be prefaced with one or more Doxygenated comment lines”.

Obviously, the code on the left violates the example commenting rule – but is it less understandable and maintainable than the code on the right? The result of diligently applying the “rule” can be interpreted as fragmenting/dispersing the code and rendering it less understandable than the sparser commented code on the left. Personally, I like to see necessarily cohesive code lines in close spatial proximity to each other. It’s simply easier for me to understand the local picture and the essence of what makes the code cohesive.

Even if you insert an automated tool into your process that explicitly nags about coding rule violations, forcing a programmer to conform to standards that he/she thinks are a waste of time can cause the counterproductive results of subversive, passive-aggressive behavior to appear in other, more important, areas of the project. So, if you’re a software lead crafting some coding rules to dump on your “team”, beware of the level of granularity that you specify your coding rules. Better yet, don’t call them rules. Call them guidelines to show that you respect and trust your team mates.

If you’re a software lead that doesn’t write code anymore because it’s “beneath” you or a bureaucrat who doesn’t write code but who does write corpo level coding rules, this post probably went right over your head.

Note: For an example of a minimal set of C++ coding guidelines (except in rare cases, I don’t like to use the word “rule”) that I personally try to stick to, check this post out: project-specific coding guidelines.

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