A Reading List about Code Health

In this post I would like to give an overview about the books related to code health that had the most influence on me as a software engineer. They are also listed in my post A Reading List for Software Engineers (which is still in an unfinished state), but are covered here in more detail.

The books are not presented in any particular order, except for the first entry (which is actually a series of books), which had a profound effect on me, in the sense that it made the whole field of code health and sustainable software development accessible to me.

But before we dive into the books, let me say a few words about why I believe that code health is such an important topic and why it is essential for sustainable development at a high pace and also a determining factor for the long-term success of projects.

Why Code Health?

Code health is very difficult to define and even more difficult to measure. We have some indicators that can show the presence of potential issues, but to my knowledge there is no indicator that proves that a codebase is healthy. In other words, it is easier to spot issues than to spot quality. In my opinion, this is due to the fact that code health is to a large extent defined by higher-level structures of the system and abstractions and not so much by local low-level properties. This leaves us in a complicated situation and it makes it quite difficult to approach it from a scientific point of view.

Nevertheless, we have gathered plenty of anecdotal evidence over the last decades. And I have collected my own experiences during my professional career. In a high-quality codebase I am able to deliver plenty of value per time, while maintaining the high quality. In contrast, in a big ball of mud, I feel I am not even worth the money I am getting paid. And the difference in productivity I am talking about here is not a factor of 2 or 3, it is orders of magnitude. And yes, the plural orders is not a typo. We are talking about factors above 100 here.

So why do we so often work in low-quality codebases? In particular, this is puzzling, since fresh projects have by default a high quality. I have written about this in another post (Code Health is not a Trade-off) and do not want to go too much into detail here, but I think it is a combination of multiple factors, such as poor understanding of the requirements and the problems, inexperienced developers, time pressure and companies setting the wrong incentives.

My personal solution to all that is to apply the knowledge I extracted from the books listed below (and many other books which are not directly related to code health, but still had a great impact) and to shape those parts of the codebases which I have to work with, in such a way, to create an environment that allows me (and other developers) to perform at the highest level of productivity. The problem here is that this is not always easy and too often there are external factors involved which further complicate this. But starting with the books listed in this post is a first step in making this happen.

The Clean Code Series

This series consists of four books. These are (in chronological order) Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship, The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers, Clean Architecture: A Craftsman’s Guide to Software Structure and Design and Clean Agile: Back to Basics. The first and the third book of this series are all about code health, while the second is more about software craftsmanship and being a professional software engineer and the fourth gives us a sort of historical perspective on the Agile movement. I list them all here for completeness, the second book is also relevant with respect to code health, the fourth one maybe less so. But overall, I think they are all worth a read.

In any case, right after I made the transition from academia into the world of professional software development, I started reading Clean Code, Clean Coder and Clean Architecture (if I recall correctly, in that particular order). And those books had a tremendous impact on me and my view about writing software. Reading those books made me realize that the software I wrote during my time in research was pretty low quality. I was always very confident about the code I produced, but as a scientist I did not know how much better I could have done. Looking back, it makes me a bit afraid. I am still sure that my results were correct and there is a lot of empirical evidence that backs this up, but how could I be so unprofessional? Well, my main focus was on the scientific results, but writing software was one of the tools I used to obtain those results. And I used that tool quite badly.

Coming back to the books. Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship focuses on what I would call now low-level readability. This is about smaller chunks of code being expressive and readable. In some sense, this is the foundation on which we can build larger components and whole systems, all adhering to high standards of quality. And this is exactly the topic of Clean Architecture: A Craftsman’s Guide to Software Structure and Design. Here the focus is on higher-level structures and abstractions. The principles that are explained in this book also apply to the design and architecture of whole systems or services, but the focus is more on components and relations between components. Exactly those structures, which to a large extent determine the overall code health. This should not diminish the value of low-level readability, but while I personally value low-level readability, I value clean structures and abstractions even more.

The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers complements the other two books by providing guidelines for professional behavior as a software engineer. Definitely not with the same strong focus on code health as the other two books, but laying out why a professional conduct is important for doing our job efficiently (and also for being able to push for code health and other things we as developers know are important). For Clean Agile: Back to Basics the focus is even less on code health. Actually, for those who understand the Agile movement as a strong force for promoting code health and clean software development practices, there is quite some connection to code health. In any case, I would recommend this book for the historical perspective that it provides on the Agile movement and the more recent developments.

All in all, Clean Code, Clean Architecture and Clean Coder are all a must-read and I would recommend to read them in exactly that order. Clean Agile is a nice addition, but it would not be wrong to put it into the personal book backlog for the moment. Here are a few links to the books. Please note that there is a special offer for the electronic versions of Clean Code and Clean Coder, bundled together.

Expanding Your Toolkit

The books in this section are Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Test Driven Development: By Example, Working Effectively with Legacy Code and Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code. Let me start by saying that they are all a must-read. They all enrich your personal toolkit as a professional software engineer by providing important insights and generic techniques. I am pretty sure I am using some of the knowledge I got from these books on a day by day basis.

Let’s start with Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software. During my time as a University student, a friend introduced me to this book and I read it front to back in only a few days. I did not fully understand all the aspects, but I found it fascinating to think in patterns while developing software. Unfortunately, I was not able to grasp the full value of this book at that time. This happened years later, though, after I made the transition from academia into software engineering and when I read the book for a second time. I don’t know what changed, but it was much easier to comprehend and suddenly all the patterns were easily accessible. Maybe the few experience I had with writing production software played a role here. In any case, this book contains a list of generic design patterns and presents them in a very structured way. These patterns make it easier to write, communicate and reason about software. They are mostly about lower-level design, just where software engineering gets interesting and where decisions have a lot of impact on code health.

The next one is Test Driven Development: By Example. This book is all about writing tests first in order to drive the implementation of production code. It had a profound effect on me. For a short period of around two months, I was practicing test driven development (TDD). It felt slow and awkward at the beginning, but I got used to it quite fast. The insights I gathered from that period of time are about what makes code and design testable and how this can be achieved without sacrificing any other code or design properties. Think about it for a moment, this is huge: making the code testable without being invasive. I stopped with strict TDD after those two months and currently I am practicing something that I would call pseudo-TDD (I guess I have to write about that in the future). By the way, this is also something quite typical that happens when I read books: I try to absorb the knowledge that is within the books and use it to improve / complement / adapt my personal practices and views as a software engineer, while I usually do not fully buy in to the more dogmatic parts. That does not mean that there is anything wrong with strict TDD, quite the contrary, I can only recommend everyone to read this book and to practice TDD (at least for a while). For me personally, I tried it for a bit and that was sufficient for me to extract the underlying principles and incorporate those into my personal practices. So, saying that my current style is influenced by TDD would be definitely an understatement.

The last two books in this section, Working Effectively with Legacy Code and Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code are sort of related to each other. Both books focus on non-functional changes, so-called refactorings, but within different contexts. The first one focuses on how we can regain control over legacy code. This book contains a large number of specific techniques that can be used to incrementally transform legacy code into a more healthy state. If you ever became desperate while trying to add tests to existing code, while breaking up a large method or while separating responsibilities of a single huge class, this is the right book for you. The second book approaches refactorings from a different angle. In this book the term code smell was coined. This term depicts an unusual structure in the code that could potentially cause issues in the long-term. Many such code smells are presented in the book, together with the techniques that can be used to remove them. In my opinion, those two books nicely complement each other and both should be part of any library of a professional software engineer.

Again, here some links for the books discussed in this section.

More Perspectives

In this section I would like to introduce a few books which I read after the books that I discussed earlier. Due to the knowledge I already had while reading those books, it is difficult for me to judge how much value they would provide by themselves in isolation. All I can say is that they were very good reads, refreshed my memory on many different aspects of code health, provided different perspectives on certain topics and offered new insights which made me adapt and improve my personal practices even more. For the latter it is not clear how much of the insights are actually completely new and how many I missed while reading other books. This is also why I tend to re-read books years later while having a more profound background knowledge and a completely different context. In any case, the following books were definitely worth my time: The Art of Readable Code: Simple and Practical Techniques for Writing Better Code, A Philosophy of Software Design and Understanding Software: Max Kanat-Alexander on simplicity, coding, and how to suck less as a programmer.

I would recommend all of these to anyone who wants to dig deeper into the topic of code health and who has already consumed most of the other books mentioned earlier. As usual, here the links to the books.

Epilogue

I hope this list provides some value for fellow software engineers, in particular to those who are at the very beginning of their careers. If this is the case, please feel free to share it with your peers. And please let me know in the comments what you think about this list and if there is anything missing here.

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