It’s An Ill Wind

I was pontificating recently about the horror of tightly-coupled worksheet calculations and macro code in Excel and the mess that results from carelessly mashed-together programming paradigms.

By a horrible coincidence, a few smug weeks later I suddenly found myself deep in the horror again. This time, I had to contend with two versions, needing to set up and run several tens of thousands of real-world cases through “before” and “after” scenarios.

I soon started to turn up nuggets of wonderment. Here are a couple of gems from the worksheets:


“Why”, I asked myself, “don’t these monkeys think?” (When someone asked me which monkeys I was referring to, I realised that my inner monologue was malfunctioning, but that’s not important right now.)

Obviously they were thinking, apart from anything else the whole thing does seem to work, inasmuch as a set of inputs produce a set of plausible-looking outputs. I’d assert, however, that an experienced, competent developer has a continuous, higher-order review process running, asking questions like “does that look right?”, “could that be written better?”, “is that clear?”, “could someone else understand that?” It would appear that the individuals concerned in this case had no such process running.

I have a little tool that I bring out when faced with an unknown Excel VBA application. It scans the code and delives a report that gives me an idea of the degree of caution I should exercise, calculating for each routine an “X” number, being some arcane function of code lines, mesting level, numbers of ifs, loops, one-character variables (seldom straightforward to rename, even if they’re called “q” or “z”). A score of 10 or above indicates a possible problem area. Over 50 and we’re definitely in bandit country. Here’s the report for the top-scoring routine in the horror workbook (names changed to conceal the guilty):

422 is by a factor of about 3 the highest-scoring routine I’ve ever encountered. (By contrast, and perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, the top score in xlunit is 24.) That 1044 lines of code doesn’t include comments, blank lines, variable declarations or similar. Even better, it’s declared Static, something so appallingly dangerous (to me, at least – I get nauseous when I see even a Static variable) that I had to change the analyser because it had never seen it before. “Option Explicit” is honoured more in the breach than the observance and there are a mere (ha!) 156 global variables.

I was flicking through my cherished (and slightly stained) copy of The Pragmatic Programmer last night and I’ll take as my text the section “What Make a Pragmatic Programmer?” on pages xiii and xix of the Preface. Summarising the characteristics and comparing them with the authors of the unholy mess described, I get:

Early adopter/fast adapter: given that the abomination I’m working with is the culmination of more than two years’ work and is the fourth or fifth (and probably “best”) version, FAIL.

Inquisitive: I see no sign of any curiosity, not even “why do we suck?” FAIL

Realistic: I’m (generously) prepared to specify that this one may not really apply here. (Big of me.)

Jack of all trades: and masters of none? These guys didn’t make it to Jack of one trade. FAIL.

Critical Thinker: referring to the inner monologue again, there’s no evidence to suggest that anything like the questions listed above were ever applied here. And plenty of evidence to the contrary. BIG RED FAIL.

The tragedy here is that the monkeys described are unlikely to realise exactly how snivellingly far from acceptable (let’s not waste “best” here) practice they are, as the Dunning-Kruger effect tells us is likely, so they’re not going to change in any useful way. Failing to see that the twin demons of high coupling and low (non-existent, if we’re honest) cohesion are rampaging through their code leaves me wondering where we’d start.

Depressingly, these guys aren’t unusual, they’re not even the worst. The type is perhaps a little more common in, say, the Excel world, where the tools to develop staggering incompetence are so widely available, but they’re everywhere else – the invisible 90% of the iceberg.

On the plus side, even moderately competent technicians who are prepared to don the elbow-length protective gloves and dive in to such messes will be able to look forward with some confidence to a lifetime in which there will be a paycheck for as long as they can stand to pick it up.


2 Responses to It’s An Ill Wind

  1. Ross says:

    Max nesting 7!!!! my tribe can go up to 3, then the world stops turning and we all die!!!

  2. Pingback: Going Metric « Grumpy Old Programmer

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