Your Code is not Enough

That tells me what, but why?

Although the Agile Manifesto proclaims a preference for “Working software over comprehensive documentation”, that’s a far cry from suggesting no documentation. In fact, the manifesto specifically notes “…there is value in the items on the right”. Some can be tempted to equate the code with the design, but as Ruth Malan has pointed out, this is erroneous:

… but to indicate that the code is the design language and it is the full (and most accurate) expression of the design misses key points. For example, it misses the “negative space” (things we don’t do) directed by the design. It misses the notion that design is an abstraction or conception, and not just any conception — the design is conceived just-so*, and there is a premise (or a conjoint set) that links intent (or aspiration or purpose) with the particular form the design takes, the organization, the elements, their relationships, their articulation or interaction points, their collaborative interactions, and more. The code contains neither the abstraction** nor the premise. Sure, we want the code to speak to the design, to realize the design and to imply and signify and convey the design as best the code can. And if we create the design in the process of writing the code, simultaneously thinking about design issues and code detail, the point still holds — we want the code to be as expressive of the design as we can reasonably make it. But both the code and informal tribal memory are going to be missing bits, so it is good to write and draw the design as design out. Or at least the architecture — the strategically and structurally significant bits. To draw out the relationship of the system to its various contexts, the organization of architectural abstractions (or elements) and their interrelationships and the key mechanisms — with diagrams and descriptions — and explicating the reasoning that drove those design choices (and eliminated others).

* When I say “just so” I don’t by any means mean all at once, but rather that the conception is particular. It is a set of choices (sometimes explicitly reasoned, sometimes more intuitively and implicitly or subconsciously arrived at) that we either can defend or need to try out. We apply insights from experience and knowledge that has been distilled over many experiences, and reason our way to the design approach. And then we test it. Of course.

** Abstractions, yes. Abstractions indicated by the design. But not the design abstraction that contains little of what is in code statements but much of what is in code relationships and form, and in what is not in the code, what is specifically, designedly, not done.

Simon Brown, in his July 2012 Skills Matter presentation, “The code doesn’t tell the whole story”, listed several attributes of a system that code is generally insufficient to document”

  • The “big picture” context of the system
  • Quality of service requirements significant to the architecture
  • Architecturally significant constraints on the design
  • Guiding principles of the design
  • The physical environment (infrastructure) the system will operate in
  • Deployment locations of the code components
  • Operational aspects (monitoring, management, security, disaster recovery)
  • Security

In short, the code the conveys the ‘what’ but not the ‘why’ (arguably the more important aspect). It defines ‘what is’ but is silent regarding ‘what should be’, ‘how fast’, etc. We cannot readily infer from the code the physical layout of the system nor its operating environment.

Although there is a need for documentation beyond the code, the traditional dangers (divergence between the documentation and reality, accessibility of the artifact, audiences ignoring artifacts, etc.) still apply. Documentation needs to be accurate and tailored to the task at hand in order to be effective. Quantity is far from the same thing as quality in this case.

Documentation that can be automatically generated from code, database schema, and other artifacts rather than maintained manually will help prevent divergence. Manual maintenance should be reserved for those things that cannot be generated and only when there is a need for continuity. Documenting architecturally significant design decisions and the rationale behind them makes sense in that the information will apply across a large portion, if not all, of the product’s lifecycle. Lower-level, tactical design documents (where used) will only be useful during the release for which it was created; time spent creating and maintaining these artifacts should be minimized.

Clear communication should be a top priority for all documentation. Diagrams can prove the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words when the focus is on clarity. Semantics will tend to be more important than style or syntactic correctness. The audience and intended use of an artifact will also affect its usefulness as documentation. Automated tests may be useful in conveying some types of information to technically savvy audiences, but may be less useful to others. As with code, you should determine whether the artifact can convey the information you want understood.

A beneficial side-effect of creating lightweight design documentation is that it assists in the collaboration process. Describing the design helps get it out of your head (as well as those of your collaborators) and into a format more conducive to inspection and evaluation. Sometimes the mere organization of your thoughts in order to communicate them allows you to see potential problems.


5 thoughts on “Your Code is not Enough

  1. Pingback: Software Development, Coding, Forests and Trees | Form Follows Function

  2. Pingback: Technical Debt – Why not just do the work better? | Form Follows Function

  3. Pingback: Designing Communication, Communicating Design | Form Follows Function

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