Don’t over-engineer

Most if not all programmers nowadays are familiar with the concept of clean code. In short, the clean code principle means a development style that focuses on code that is easy to write, understand and maintain. Yet, it seems that often these same principles are not applied to the overall design.

Any fool can write code that a computer can understand. Good programmers write code that humans can understand.
– Martin Fowler

Even if a code base has clear naming practices, meaningful comments and the code in function-level is understandable and clean, it is still possible that the overall design is hard to comprehend and the project is hard to maintain. This is often because the same clean coding methodology that is applied to code in small is not applied to the overall design. The design is over-engineered.

Sometimes the code base looks as if the author read “the Gang of Four” design pattern book and tried to apply every single one of them in a single code base. There are just facades, decorators, adapters, observers and other design patterns on top of one another and the overall design is nearly impossible to grasp. Other times it seems that the author had an impulse to reinvent every wheel there is. Own containers. Own locking primitives. Own algorithms. Everything written from scratch.

Overly complex, over-engineered code can be as hard to understand and maintain as badly written spaghetti code. Of course, sometimes projects really are complex and require abstractions and architecture that is challenging to understand. There also certainly are situations where implementing your own algorithms or containers is the right thing to do. The important thing is that there should be a clear reason why that additional complexity is necessary. The design should never be complex just for the sake of complexity. In fact, contrived complexity, forced use of overcomplicated design when simple would suffice, is one of the common code smells described by Martin Fowler.

In reality, projects end up overly complex for a number of reasons. The design might be clean and simple in the beginning, but become muddy and complex when new features and other changes that not quite fit the architecture are glued into it without refactoring. Other projects might be too complex from the get-go when the design tries to accommodate all imaginable changes that might happen in the future.

Thing is, designing a good solid architecture is not easy. In real-world projects, requirements change along the way and new features are introduced that were not known in the beginning. Also when the project matures, other fixes, tweaks and updates are applied along the way. On top of that, project schedule often adds pressure to get things done quickly. The design should be flexible enough to allow all these changes with reasonable effort while still being as simple as reasonably possible. And even without all these external changes it is hard the get the design right on the first try. It usually takes some iterations and refinements to converge to the final design.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet that always gives an optimal architecture. But applying the same clean coding principles that work on function and class level to architecture is a good way to avoid muddy and over-engineered design. Probably the most important advice is to keep things simple. Add configurations and use design patterns only when really needed. Create abstractions only when they contribute positively to the design by removing duplication or decoupling modules for instance. Don’t try to predict future. Design the system using requirements that are actually known today.

When the future does come and the design needs to adapt, it is important that the system is easy to change. Often new features require refactoring the existing design or otherwise they are just glued in which decays the architecture. Soon even simple changes can break the system unexpectedly from multiple places and subtle bugs are introduced. Changes start to take longer and longer to implement because the design is too fragile.

The key to make the design easy to change is to make it easy to test. When the functionality can be verified easily and automatically, developers can make refactorings without being scared of breaking things. When the system is easy to test, it is easier to refactor continuously and thus keep both code in small as well as the larger design clean. Small imperfections and problems tend to grow so deal with them immediately.

One broken window, left unrepaired for any substantial length of time, instills in the inhabitants of the building a sense of abandonment—a sense that the powers that be don’t care about the building. So another window gets broken. People start littering. Graffiti appears. Serious structural damage begins. In a relatively short space of time, the building becomes damaged beyond the owner’s desire to fix it, and the sense of abandonment becomes reality.
Andy Hunt, The Pragmatic Programmer

Don’t live with broken windows. Make sure both the code and the larger architecture stays simple and clean. Refactor continuously to accommodate changes, and add abstraction and complexity only when it is justifiable and contributes positively to the design. Don’t over-engineer.

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