Shahzad Bhatti Welcome to my ramblings and rants!

May 21, 2023

Heuristics from “Code That Fits in Your Head”

Filed under: Methodologies,Technology,Uncategorized — admin @ 5:00 pm

The code maintenance and readability are important aspects of writing software systems and the “Code That Fits in Your Head” comes with a lot of practical advice for writing maintainable code. Following are a few important heuristics from the book:

1. Art or Science

In the first chapter, the author compares software development with other fields such as Civil engineering that deals with design, construction, and maintenance of components. Though, software development has these phases among others but the design and construction phases in it are intimately connected and requires continuous iteration. Another metaphor discussed in the book is thinking software development as a living organism like garden, which makes more sense as like pruning weeds in garden, you have to refactor the code base and manage technical debt. Another metaphor described in the book is software craftsmanship and software developer may progress from apprentice, journeyman to master. Though, these perspectives help but software doesn’t quite fit the art metaphor and author suggests heuristics and guidelines for programming. The author introduces software engineering that allows a structured framework for development activities.

2. Checklists

A lot of professions such as airplane pilots and doctors follow a checklist for accomplishing a complex task. You may use similar checklist for setting up a new code-base such as using Git, automating the build, enabling all compiler error messages, using linters, static analysis, etc. Though, software engineering is more than following a checklist but these measures help make small improvements.

3. Tackling Complexity

This chapter defines sustainability and quality as the purpose for the book as the software may exists for decades and it needs to sustain its organization. The software exists to provide a value, though in some cases the value may not be immediate. This means at times, worse technology succeeds because it provides faster path to the value and companies which are too focus on perfection can run out of business. Richard Gabriel coined the aphorism that worse is better. The sustainability chooses middle ground by moving in right direction with checklists and balanced software development practices. The author compares computer with human brain and though this comparison is not fair and working memory of humans is much smaller that can hold from four to seven pieces of information. This number is important when writing a code as you spend more time reading the code and a code with large number of variables or conditional logic can make it harder to understand. The author refers to the work of Daniel Kahneman who suggested model of thoughts comprising two systems: System 1 and System 2. When a programmer is in the zone or in a flow, the system 1 always active and try to understand the code. This means that writing modular code with a fewer dependencies, variables and decisions is easier to understand and maintain. The human brain can deal with limited memory and if the code handles more than seven things at once then it will lead to the complexity.

4. Vertical Slice and Walking Skeleton

This chapter recommends starting and deploying a vertical slice of the application to get to the working software. A vertical slice may consists of multiple layers but it gives an early feedback and is a working software. A number of software development methodologies such as Test-driven development, Behavioral-driven development, Domain-driven design, Type-driven development and Property-driven development help building fine-grained implementations with tests. For example, if you don’t have tests then you can use characterization test to describe the behavior of existing software. The tests generally follow Arranage-Act-Assert phases where the arrange phase prepares the test, the act phase invokes the operation under test and the assert phase verifies the actual outcome. The documentation can further explain why decisions in the code were made. The walking skeleton helps vertical slice by using acceptance-test-driven development or outside-in-test-driven development. For example, you can pick a simplest feature to implement that aims for the happy path to demonstrate that the system has a specific capability. The unit-tests will test this feature by using Fake Object, data-transfer-object (DTO) and interfaces (e.g. RepositoryInterface). The dependencies are injected into tests with this mock behavior. The real objects that are difficult tests can use a Humble Object pattern and drain the object of branching logic. Making small improvements that are continuously delivered also keep stakeholders updated so that they know when you will be done.

5. Encapsulation

The encapsulation hides details by defining a contract that describes the valid interactions between objects and callers. The parameterized tests can capture the desired behavior and assert the invariants. The incremental changes can be added using test-driven development that uses red-green-refactor where you first write a failing test, then make the test pass and then refactor to improve the code. When using a contract to capture the interactions, you can use Postel’s law to build resilient systems, i.e.,

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

The encapsulation guarantees that an object is always valid, e.g. you can use a constructor to validate all invariants including pre-conditions and post-conditions.

6. Triangulation

As the working memory for humans is very small, you have to decompose and compartmentalize the code structure into smaller chunks that can be easily understood. The author describes a devil’s advocate technique for validating behavior in the unit tests where you try to pass the tests with incomplete implementation, which tells you that you need more test cases. This process can be treated as kind of triangulation:

As the tests get more specific, the code gets more generic

7. Decomposition

The code rot occurs because no one pays attention to the overall quality when making small changes. You can use metrics to track gradual decay such as cyclomatic complexity should be below seven. In order to improve the code readability, the author suggests using 80/24 rule where you limit a method size to be no more than 24 lines and width of each line to be no more than 80 characters. The author also suggests hex flower rule:

No more than seven things should be going on in a single piece of code.

The author defines abstraction to capture essence of an object, i.e.,

Abstraction is the elimination of the irrelevant and the amplification of the essential.

Another factor that influences decomposition is cohesion so that code that works on the same data structure or all of its attributes is defined in the same module or class. The author cautions against the feature envy to decrease the complexity and you may need to refactor the code to another method or class. The author refers to a technique “parse, don’t validate” when validating an object so that the validate method takes less-structured input and produces more-structured output. Next, author describes fractal architecture where a large system is decomposed into smaller chunks and each chunk hides details but can be zoomed in to see the structure. The fractal architecture helps organize the code so that lower-level details are captured in a single abstract chunk and can easily fit in your brain.

8. API Design

This chapter describes principles of API design such as affordance, which uses encapsulation to preserve the invariants of objects involved in the API. The affordance allows a caller to invoke an API only when preconditions are met. The author strengthen the affordance with a poka-yoke (mistake proof) analogy, which means a good interface design should be hard to misuse. Other techniques in the chapter includes: write code for the readers; favor well-named code over comments; and X out names. The X out names replaces API name with xxx and sees if a reader can guess what the API does. For example, you may identify APIs for command-query separation where a method structure like void xxx() can be considered as command with a side effect. In order to communicate the intent of an API, the author describes a hierarchy of communication such as using API’s distinct types, helpful names, good comments, automated tests, helpful commit messages and good documentation.

9. Teamwork

In this chapter, the author provides tips for teamwork and communication with other team mates such as writing good Git commit messages using 50/72 rule where you first write a summary no wider than 50 characters, followed by a blank line and then detailed text with no wider than 72 characters. Other techniques include Continuous Integration that generally use trunk or main branch for all commits and developers make small changes optionally with feature-flags that are frequently merged. The developers are encouraged to make small commits and the code ownership is collective to decrease the bus factor. The author refers to pair programming and mob programming for collaboration within the team. In order to facilitate the collaboration, the author suggests reducing code review latency and rejecting any large change set. The reviewers should be asking whether they can maintain the code, is the code intent clear and could it be further simplified, etc. You can also pull down the code and test it locally to further gain the insight.

10. Augmenting Code

This chapter focuses on refactoring existing code for adding new functionality, enhancing existing behavior and bug fixes. The author suggests using feature-flags when deploying incomplete code. The author describes the strangler pattern for refactoring with incremental changes and suggests:

For any significant change, don’t make it in-place; make it side-by-side.

The strangler pattern can be applied at method-level where you may add a new method instead of making in-place change to an existing method and then remove the original method. Similarly, you can use class-level strangler to introduce new data structure and then remove old references. The author suggests using semantic versioning so that you can support backward compatible or breaking changes.

11. Editing Unit Tests

Though, with an automated test suite, you can refactor production code safely but there is no safety net when making changes to the test code. You can add additional tests, supplement new assertions to existing tests or change unit tests to parametersized tests without affecting existing behavior. Though, some programmers follow a single assertion per test and consider multiple assertions an Assertion Roulette but author suggests strengthening the postconditions in unit tests with additional assertions, which is somewhat similar to the Liskov Substitution Principle that says that subtypes may weaken precondition and strengthen postconditions. The author suggests separating refactoring of test and production code and use IDE’s supported refactoring tools such as rename, extract or move method when possible.

12. Troubleshooting

When troubleshooting, you first have to understand what’s going on. This chapter suggests using scientific method to make a hypothesis, performing the experiment and comparing the outcome to prediction. The author also suggests simplifying and removing the code to check if a problem goes away. Other ways to simplify the code include composing an object graph in code instead of using complex dependency injection; using pure functions instead of using mock objects; merging often instead of using complex diff tools; learning SQL instead of using convoluted object-relational mapping, etc. Another powerful technique for troubleshooting is rubber ducking where you try to explain the problem and gain a new insight in the process. In order to build quality, you should aim to reduce defects to zero. The tests also help with troubleshooting by writing an automated test to reproduce defects before fixing so that they serve as a regression test. The author cautions against slow tests and non-deterministic defects due race conditions. Finally, the author suggests using bisection that uses a binary search for finding the root cause where you reproduce the defect in half of the code and continue until you find the problem. You can also use bisection feature of Git to find the commit that introduced the defect.

13. Separation of Concerns

The author describes Kent Beck’s aphorism:

Things that change at the same rate belong together. Things that change at different rates belong apart.

The principle of separation of concerns can be used for decomposing working software into smaller parts, which can be decomposed further with nested composition. The author suggests using command query separation principle to keep side effects separated from the query operations. Object-oriented composition tends to focus on composing side effects together such as Composite design pattern, which lead to complex code. The author describes Sequential Composition that chains methods together and Referential Transparency to define a deterministic method without side effects. Next, the author describes cross cutting concerns such as logging, performance monitoring, auditing, metering, instrumentation, caching, fault tolerance, and security. The author finally describes Decorator pattern to enhance functionality, e.g., you can add logging to existing code without changing it and log actions from impure functions.

14. Rhythm

This chapter describes daily and recurring practices that software development teams follow such as daily stand-ups. The personal rhythm includes time-boxing or using Pomodoro technique; taking a break; using time deliberately; and touch type. The team rhythm includes updating dependencies regularly, scheduling other things such as checking certificates. The author describes Conway’s law:

Any organization that design a system […] will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

You can use this law to organize the work that impacts the code base.

15. The Usual Suspects

This chapter covers usual suspects of software engineering: architecture, algorithms, performance, security and other approaches. For example, performance is often a critical aspect but premature optimization can be wasteful. Instead correctness, an effort to reduce complexity and defects should be priority. In order to implement security, the author suggests STRIDE threat modelling, which includes Spoofing, Tempering, Repudiation, Information disclosure, Denial of service and Elevation of privilege. Other techniques include property-based testing and Behavioral code analysis can be used to extract information from Git to identify patterns and problems.

16. Tour

In this last chapter, the author shows tips on understanding an unfamiliar code by navigating to the main method and finding the way around. You can check if the application uses broader patterns such as Fractal architecture, Model-View-Controller and understands authentication, authorization, routing, etc. The author provides a few suggestions about code structure and file organization such as putting files in one directory though it’s a contestable advice. The author refers to the Hex flower and fractal architecture where you can zoom in to see more details. When using a monolithic architecture, the entire production code compiles to a single executable file that makes it harder to reuse parts of the code in new ways. Another drawback of monolithic architecture is that dependencies can be hard to manage and abstraction can be coupled with implementation, which violates the Dependency Inversion Principle. Further in order to prevent cyclic dependencies, you will need to detect and prevent Acyclic Dependency Principle. Finally, you can use test suite to learn about the system.


The book is full of practical advice on writing maintainable code such as:

  • 50/72 Rule for Git commit messages
  • 80/24 Rule for writing small blocks of code
  • Tests based on Arrange-Act-Assert and Red-Green Refactor
  • Bisection for troubleshooting
  • Checklists for a new codebase
  • Command Query Separation
  • Cyclomatic Complexity and Counting the Variables
  • Decorators for cross-cutting concerns
  • Devil’s advocate for improving assertions
  • Feature flags
  • Functional core and imperative shell
  • Hierarchy of communication
  • Parse, don’t validate
  • Postel’s law to maintain invariants
  • Regularly update dependencies
  • Reproduce defects as Tests
  • Review code
  • Semantic Versioning
  • Separate refactoring of test and production code
  • Strangler pattern
  • Threat modeling using STRIDE
  • Transformation priority premise to make small changes and keeping the code in working condition
  • X-driven development by using unit-tests, static code analysis, etc.
  • X out of Names

These heuristics help make the software development sustainable so that the team can make incremental changes to the code while maintaining high quality.

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