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Managed Chaos
Naresh Jain's Random Thoughts on Software Development and Adventure Sports
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When Should We Encourage Developers to Write Comments?

Many people will argue that there is more badly written code than good code. And its important to write comments to avoid these situations. Therefore we should encourage (force) people to write comments.

IMHO they are absolutely right that today many project suffer from poorly written code without any (good) comments. However every team I know, that suffers from this problem, has always been told (forced) to write comments. In spite of the emphasis on writing comments it has not really helped them.

I usually ask:

By asking developers to write comments are we really addressing the root of the problem?

.i.e. developers don’t invest quality time to write self-documenting code; code that clearly communicates its intent and does not require the deodorant of comments.

May be its time to try something different?

I have seen this myself many times, when we emphasize & educate the team on how to write clean code and ask them to stop wasting time writing comments, the code starts to communicate lot better. Its lot more maintainable. Also we have found that writing automated tests is a great way to document your intent as well.

This is how I would explain the concept Comments Smell to a team:

Writing comments that explain “how” or “what” the code does, what it does, is evil IMHO. Comments (esp. about what and how) is a clear failure to express the intent in code. Comment is a deodorant to hide that failure (smell).

  • If developers don’t invest time to write clear code, what is the guarantee that they will write clear comments?
  • Is doing a mediocre job at both (comments and code) better than doing a great job at just Code?
  • Will it actually be more productive to do both or just one?

Remember the biggest problem with comments it that they fall out-of-sync with code very soon. So its not just about the extra investment to write good comments, but also the investment to maintain them.

One has to think hard to write code that expresses intent rather than write some sloppy code with poor abstractions and get away (washing their hands off) by writing comments. Developers have to take responsibility for writing code that others can easily understand.

Having said that, there are times when “the why” (why we are doing something in the code, a particular way) is not apparent by just looking at the code. So if we don’t find a suitable way to communicate “the why” through code, comment is the fall back option.

Note that comments are a fall back option in “the why” case rather than a default option.

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