Someone might hear the term spaghetti code and think, “Well, spaghetti is delicious, so it must be a good thing… right?”
Spaghetti code is exactly what you don’t want to happen with your software. It’s a term used disparagingly in the information technology sector to describe tangled and disjointed programming structures.
Maintaining this kind of software over time is stressful for developers, and stressed-out developers aren’t likely to stay around for long. If you want to keep your developers happy and limit turnover, consistent and stable code is the name of the game. Spaghetti code is also costly for companies because it takes so much time to unravel.
Spaghetti code is usually the result of a lack of preparation or experience or simply that the software team is being rushed to get things out fast.
Sometimes, it is the result of numerous developers collaborating on a task over a lengthy period. Sometimes, it happens when the initial developers are forced to take shortcuts that sacrifice best practices in order to ship fast.
And these are just a couple of examples. There’s a laundry list of scenarios that can lead to spaghetti code.
Regardless of how it happens, let’s go over some key tips to avoid it. I want to make sure that your dealings with spaghetti stick to the cozy Italian restaurant variety.
1. Maintain a consistent style
Consistency is one of the hallmarks of good code. This applies to every single aspect of the system: style, patterns, libraries, naming conventions, and more.
When you can maintain consistency, you’ll drastically boost predictability. And by boosting predictability, you’re ensuring that you’ll accomplish what you set out to do.
Plus, in the event that other developers or teams need to step in, there will be a drastically shorter learning curve for them. They can easily pick up where you left off and understand how to make adjustments and fix issues.
Maintaining a consistent style often comes down to seemingly small details. For example, consider spacing and indenting: are you using spaces or tabs? If spaces, how many? Or casing: are you using camelCase, PascalCase, or snake_case?
Ways to fix this is to use a code analysis tool, a linter, or pair programming or tech lead code reviews… anything that forces code to be shared and discussed, and vetted.
2. Avoid shortcuts (or at least record these as tech debt to fix)
Shortcuts are called shortcuts for a reason. When you take them, you know you’re shortchanging something important. Shortcuts are tempting because they can save you time and money, but this happens at a cost.
If you absolutely need to take a shortcut for some reason, not every instance is tech debt that you’ll be fixing later. Sometimes, tech debt is necessary—you just have to prioritize paying that debt.
Here are some common coding shortcuts that you should avoid:
- Duplicating code. This should be avoided because one bug means multiple bugs you need to fix.
- Not running tests. You should test the heck out of your code, from unit tests to regression tests to functional tests.
- Failing to manage or measure code complexity. Overly-complex code causes a ton of problems, from planning to building to usability to security.
- Not creating a style guide. We covered this in the first point, but it’s worth mentioning again.
- Overlooking code design. It’s critical to recognize how different modules, packages, methods, and classes link to one another.
3. Write comments
Commenting can be tedious, I know. But it’s one of the best ways to ensure greater accessibility and easier maintenance for other developers (and even for yourself later in the game… you’d be surprised how often this comes up).
The most important type of comment explains why a piece of code exists or the function it serves.
Regardless of the purpose, the objective of any comment is to be as clear and concise as possible. If you can’t write a clear comment, the code may have an issue to begin with.
Here’s the caveat: there’s also such a thing as too many comments or over-complicated comments. This can have the opposite of the intended impact by further confusing the reader and muddling the end goal.
4. Use a linter or code quality framework/code reviews from the start
There are plenty of frameworks and tools you can implement before you even start coding that can help make sure you never encounter unnecessary issues.
Linters are a top tool in the development world. They’re code analysis tools that can help flag issues like bugs, syntax errors, security issues, adherence to code standards, and stylistic issues. Top linters include ESlint, TSlint, StandardJS, and JSHint.
You can also use a code quality framework to accomplish the same goal of reducing errors, maximizing usability, and improving longevity.
Similarly, code reviews are assessments of code to—you guessed it—minimize errors and maximize overall code quality. These reviews are done by developers who didn’t author a specific piece of code, acting as another set of eyes to help identify potential issues. Top code review tools include GitHub, GitLab, and Bitbucket.
5. Use best practices
There will always be opportunities to use methods, tools, and strategies that have been generally approved and endorsed by the development community. When you follow these best practices, you’re setting your product up for greater success.
We’ve already touched on some of the best practices for custom software development. Others include:
- Create a software requirements specification document (SRSD) to act as a rubric for the development process
- Write unit tests before you write code, which can help reduce bugs and other issues
- Use an issue tracker or bug tracker to catch all the little red flags that can build up
- Do code reviews to ensure everything is set up correctly
And this is just scratching the surface.
Save the spaghetti for dinnertime
While it may be tempting to cut corners to save some cash or time, it can lead to massive complications down the road. In fact, many companies find themselves spending much more money and time fixing spaghetti code than they would have spent if they just did it right the first time.
As you take your software development journey, prioritize strategies that will ensure that your software is clean, functional, and able to be smoothly managed by different players over time.
One of the core characteristics of solid code is that it can be passed to other devs and teams with minimal confusion and complications. Nail this, and you’ll be setting yourself up for long-term success.