Working on an anti-pattern

The project I’m working on right now is a collection of anti-patterns and just plain terrible code. The upshot of this is that its really hard to make it worse, and often times I can walk away feeling good about making a huge difference in making even small changes. My first project appeared well designed, and since I was new then, I felt very constrained in how much I could change. Not anymore, its like the wild-west in this code base, and any design is better than no design. Its definately been a good way to bust out of my years-long productivity slump.

The project was was started several years ago by an offshore contracting company (it seems like they got paid by the line) and then picked up by an in-house but still offshore team to continue to maintain and build. I don’t want to paint all offshore software-industry workers with the same brush, but in this case the code all appears to be written by people who just know how to program in Java. Barely. They just don’t think like computer scientists. For some reason no one seems to think a single class having five methods to do the same thing is bad. Or methods that are hundreds of lines long. Or building strings by concatenation, multiple times in loops that run thousands of times. Or checking for duplicates when copying the keys of a Map into a list. Converting Longs to Integers via a string object.

I’ve speculated that the current team must have come from a background of sustaining enginering (where the idea is to fix bugs in the least intrusive way possible) and that’s why they blithely copy the bad code around them. Either that or for some reason they don’t feel empowered to make changes.

The last few days have been especially great. I’ve been working on performance problems, and the code is so badly written that there are huge chunks of fat to chop out. Two methods I’ve found are O(n^2) so the profiler practically slaps you in the face, but they’ve somehow sat there for years. Replacing them with real implementations has reduced the time to run this code by 90%. Hours to minutes for large sets. That’s fun to talk about in meetings.

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