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The Art of Readable Code: Simple and Practical Techniques for Writing Better Code

Dustin Boswell, Trevor Foucher · 7 HN points · 6 HN comments
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As programmers, we’ve all seen source code that’s so ugly and buggy it makes our brain ache. Over the past five years, authors Dustin Boswell and Trevor Foucher have analyzed hundreds of examples of "bad code" (much of it their own) to determine why they’re bad and how they could be improved. Their conclusion? You need to write code that minimizes the time it would take someone else to understand it—even if that someone else is you. This book focuses on basic principles and practical techniques you can apply every time you write code. Using easy-to-digest code examples from different languages, each chapter dives into a different aspect of coding, and demonstrates how you can make your code easy to understand. Simplify naming, commenting, and formatting with tips that apply to every line of code Refine your program’s loops, logic, and variables to reduce complexity and confusion Attack problems at the function level, such as reorganizing blocks of code to do one task at a time Write effective test code that is thorough and concise—as well as readable "Being aware of how the code you create affects those who look at it later is an important part of developing software. The authors did a great job in taking you through the different aspects of this challenge, explaining the details with instructive examples." —Michael Hunger, passionate Software Developer
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Thanks everyone, the comments are much appreciated. Here's a list of books and other media resources recommended so far in the thread:

Robert C. Martin, Clean code:

Vaughn Vernon, various:

Steve McConnell, Code Complete: 2

Clean coder: videos

Hunt and Thomas, The Pragmatic Programmer:

Hitchhiker's Guide to Python:

Dustin Boswell The Art of Readable Code:

John Ousterhout, A Philosophy of Software Design: This one looks particularly interesting, thanks AlexCoventry!

Kent Beck, Test Driven Development:

Dan Bader, Python Tricks: The Book:

Ian Sommerville, Software Engineering:

Svilen Dobrev, various:

Skip anything by Robert Martin (clean coder series) and read at first Ousterhout and then McConnell instead.

Martin is well intentioned, but very dogmatic about some things like TDD, functions size, personal responsibility, etc. You need to already have some decent engineering experience to be able to detect and ignore the harmful stuff from his books.

I'd like to re-emphasise sanderjd's point not to focus too much on reading books. I myself went from doing a PhD and a lectureship in mathematics (with some coding here and there) to a decent software engineering job in a smallish company. I've learnt everything on the fly by reading code, searching stack overflow, trying stuff out and coding alongside others. The great thing coming out of a PhD is not just that you have to be pretty smart to have done it: you now know you can grasp almost any aspect of human knowledge with sufficient brain racking. This is a vastly underrated piece of self-awareness which enables one to stay humble and tenacious.
Yeah, I think of a PhD as a kind of intellectual adolescence. It led me to far greater intellectual independence.
There are a lot of good recommendations here, and I certainly relate to the instinct to go to books when you're looking to level up a skill set, but I really think what you need is not a bunch of books to read, but a few people to watch do the work. The only real way to do that is to get a job alongside them. You can read the books at the same time; you can ask your new coworkers which recommendations they agree with and read those ones first.
Yeah, software engineering is a craft, and generally the only way to learn those fast is to learn from others.
It's not a craft, in its purest form it's an engineering discipline with specific rules, procedures and standards.

The crucial point is that most of us a doing programming, and not software engineering. Learning from others is hit or miss. One can certainly learn to program from others, but that's not enough to be able to do software engineering.

Convince me that its "purest form" is an engineering discipline rather than a craft. What distinguishes it from things that you would agree are crafts? Or are all crafts actually engineering disciplines in their purest form?

I think this is a pretty interesting question. Personally, when I was young, I would have said what you said: it's engineering, specifications go in and properly engineered finished product come out. I was proud that my CS program was contained in an engineering school and that all my friends were in other engineering disciplines. The longer I do this though, the more I think it's a craft: fuzzy idea is put to a skilled practitioner and through discussion and creativity, one or more artifacts are created to satisfy that idea. You could argue this is true of more traditional engineering disciplines as well, and I would probably agree. I'm not totally sure what the distinction between the two things is. So tell me what the distinction is and convince me what we do is more the one than the other.

For what it's worth though, apprenticeship is also a very important part of engineering education. At some point, you have to see people do the thing, regardless of whether it's engineering or a craft.

When we say software development is a craft, we're saying that it's like shoemaking, pottery or woodworking.

Can the immense complexity of today and tomorrow's software be tamed by applying the same principles of building a cupboard? No, it requires an engineering mindset.

We're now limping along as an industry and it's not obvious because SW is bringing in massive amounts of money and we can basically get away with a lack of quality.

"When we say software development is a craft, we're saying that it's like shoemaking, pottery or woodworking."

The point being, there are intricate details that are very hard to deliver in the traditional class-room oriented school environment with well defined requirements.

Those do not state anything about scalability. Crafts can scale - like for example how the old giant cathedrals and castles were built in middle-age europe.

They don't say anything about mindsets either. You need an engineers mindset to buid a cathedral or a castle.

The specific problem with crafts is that adapting to new requirements is a complete hit and miss process. The reason for this problem is the lack or proper theoretical framework in which to pose ones work and into which embed the requirements themselves.

The program verification people are working towards solving this problem, see for example Leslie Lamport's work in TLA+.

But until we have a general, mathematical proof backed compiler for requirements, as well as for the program implementation, we are pretty much stuck with craftsmen.

(Well, we have proof compilers but those are at the moment completely unusable for general programming since they are so complex to use.)

"It's not a craft, in its purest form it's an engineering discipline with specific rules, procedures and standards."

Sorry, but I have to strongly disagree. In it's purest form the core of software engineering - i.e. programming is a craft. The other parts are mostly about creating processes so that craftsmen can create something together without stumbling into eachother.

The difference between a craft and engineering are numerous.

- engineers generally need a license

- engineering is about repeatability and creating dependable cost estimates

- engineers are required to study for years for a very good reason. You can be a rockstar programmer out of highschool.

Just having a bunch of cargo cult gibberish bound into a book does not make a craft into an engineering discipline.

It's harmfull to call programming engineering. Engineers have curriculums that can teach them pretty well what is expected of them once employed.

Not for programmers - or, well, software engineers. If there was even one curriculum that could churn out good programmers dependably, don't you think this model wouldn't be copied instantly elsewhere? If such a curruculum existed, do you think think software interviews would be filled with whiteboarding just to check out that the candidates understand even the basics?

I think this incapability to create a curriculum for actually creating good programmers is the best evidence that programming is a craft. It's such a complex topic that you can't create a mass curriculum that would serve all equally. Not with our current understanding, anyway. Maybe if we could teach everyone assembly, and Haskell , and have them implement compilers and languages as a standard things would be different.

The second best way to learn programming without being born a programmer savant is to learn from others while doing. Apprenticeship is the traditional way to train craftsmen.

Programming is so much more like a craft than engineering that it's best to call it a craft.

Craft is not a deragatory term. It just means we don't understand it theoretically well enough to teach it properly.

I tend to come down on your side of the craft vs. engineering debate, but then I disagree with basically your entire argument for it :)

You list three distinguishing features of an engineering discipline. The first and third swap cause and effect; a field doesn't become engineering because once it requires licensure and years of study. Surely you wouldn't agree that a successful campaign to require those things for software developers would bestow the status of engineering upon the work.

Your second point seems closer to the truth, but I'm not so sure it's true. If someone comes to a civil engineering firm and says, "design us a road between this city and that city", that is often a unique challenge because the terrain between those two cities is likely unique, maybe it requires a big bridge or a tunnel, which will be akin to but not identical to other bridges and tunnels you've built before.

"The first and third swap cause and effect;"

Sorry, I wrote that in a hurry. I wasn't claiming either was a cause or effect. It was more of finding characteristics that we can use to identify one from another. I.e. following the argumentation "If it quacks like a duck and walks likes a duck it's likely a duck, and if it doesn't, we don't really have much evidence of the duckish quality of the observed thing".

So, I was not aiming to claim that licensure would turn software engineering into actual engineering. Rather, that the requirements of the field are so poorly understood in the general context that there would be very little to agree on the specific requirements. Poorly understood -> not engineering, really.

I totally agree with what you wrote above.

On the third point: I'm not claiming 100% truthiness to my argument, but it's pretty close. Software engineering projects are still among the riskiest ventures where you can think of investing capital in. If you want to build a road:

1. The language of the requirements are pretty well understood, from point A to B, this many lanes 2. Unless some unforeseen calamity arises, and you have the capital to pump to the project, eventually you will get the road

I think we can agree that these define any engineering project. Of course, engineeering is not cut and dried either - that's why you need to have actually trained professionals who can react to the events that come along as the project progresses.

I don't think 1. or 2. can hold for a software project in the general sense. Furthermore, you can end up accidentally, without anyones fault, wasting an arbitrary amount of capital on a feature that could, in the worst case, be replaced by a few lines of Python.

This poor quality of our general understanding of software development and lack of common language to describe anything means that most of the time software develoment is closer to R&D than engineering.

Generally, you can get better estimates when you are implementing a similar project the nth time. Like some general website, or a server backend. And in these instances you have the language to describe features and requirements. But in the general sense, software development isn't anything like this.

Software development as practiced now by a huge number of individuals and companies is closer to a craft, but it can be and must be more than that if we want to be able to tackle the growing complexity of software and improve its overall barely adequate quality.

Crafts don't scale and are a poor fit for highly complex domains.

The curse of software development is its huge financial success, anemic legislative specification and the observed reality that customers will still buy poor quality software.

These are preventing the craft-like programming from turning into software engineering, but the craft is already failing to reach expectations: countless security disasters, unethical programmers enabling spying on millions, software literally killing users. This stuff will only get worse.

And finally, we do understand software engineering well enough to teach it properly. It's just not done, because it's not considered necessary when one can get by with a computer science degree, no degree or a bootcamp certificate.

"And finally, we do understand software engineering well enough to teach it properly."

This is news to me. I would very much like a citation, please. Or do you mean applying formal proof verification to everything?

Engineering doesn't mean using formal methods or specific fancy proofs, it's a systematic, disciplined quantifiable approach to software. It's described in an ISO standard and the more approachable IEEE SWEBOK.

The above is neither widely known (I only found out about it after many years of doing professional programming), nor is it necessary in order to be successful in the profession and/or make a lot of money.

Commercial software development is mostly a wild west and we're calling that craftsmanship.

I'll supplement this good advice by recommending pair programming. You will pick up a ton of stuff just sitting down at one keyboard with another programmer.
This (arguably nice) post covers a small number of the points made in the book The Art of Readable Code: Simple and Practical Techniques for Writing Better Code[1]

I can recommend this to every programmer, even experienced ones, because even if they might know most of the things mentioned, it is presented in a very approachable, structured way and I think it always helpful, never boring and a diverting, easy read.

It also tackles these issues of "Gurus say" and "Everybody knows..." and tries hard to refrain from subjective matters, clearing up a few misunderstandings and old habits.


IMO, all the points comes from 2 basic rules: 1 KISS (keep it simple and stupid) 2 DRY (don't repeat yourself)

KISS being higher priority than DRY.

DRY isn't something you should blanket apply. There are cases where you do want to repeat yourself, e.g. to improve readability (avoiding metaprogramming, which is hard to reason about and will break your IDE) or because two things aren't actually semantically related (trying to force an abstraction means you need to undo it later anyways when the implementations diverge).
Yes, that is my point in giving higher priority to KISS.
May 13, 2016 · gbhn on A Guide to Naming Variables
Another book you'll enjoy if you liked this post: "The Art of Readable Code" (
Jun 09, 2012 · zkan on Must-read programming books?
I would recommend "The Art of Readable Code" by Boswell. It is very well-written and enjoyable.

No, there are new, concise book, though I agree they're rare:

The Art of Readable Code (by Googlers)

The Art of Readable Code is excellent.

I respectfully fully disagree with recommending The Art of Readable Code. Particularly, I take issue with the advice on comments, as well as the strange point that sometimes 'goto' is acceptable.

While there are some good sections on things like naming variables and "code aesthics" that kind of advice is not going to dramatically improve your code quality and I think most developers achieve better results with something like Clean Code or Code Complete.

Dec 18, 2011 · 7 points, 4 comments · submitted by Maro
This book is available online under OFPS here
I can't really pinpoint why, but I'd have preferred to not see an affiliate link.
I submitted the link.

I don't think the link contains any affiliate codes.

Either way, I'm not an Amazon affiliate, just a regular shopper.

Clean Code seems quite a bit more relevant and in-depth than this.

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