Code Is Never "Perfect", Code Is Only Ever "Good Enough"

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I am a perfectionist. I know this, I accept it, and it still bites me in the ass. I want my code to be The Perfect Code, unbreakable, like a flawless diamond in a sea of cubic zirconium. I spend entirely too much time trying to cut that diamond from the rock it's buried in. But is The Perfect Code even attainable, or should we just settle for "good enough?" That's the question I've been wrestling with this week.

The Return of Dick and Bob

I've mentioned before that I often imagine having two awful sports announcers in my mind whose only goal in life is to subtly trash whatever I think or do or say. They're pretty much my impostor syndrome given a voice, and lately they've decided to make an unwelcome resurgence into my daily life.

Dick: Well now, what do we have here, Bob? Looks like Matthew's writing that same function all over again! He must be trying for the Perfect Code!

Bob: Sure does, Dick. This is his most recent attempt at it; the wily veteran giving one last go at the big win he's desired for so long.

Dick: We've seen this kind of thing before from him, especially during that last match against the file uploader. You can tell he's trying to make The Perfect Code by the never ending stream of invective he lets fly. Let's listen in:

Matthew: Piece of [bleep]! I know you [bleeping] work! WHY WON'T YOU [BLEEPING] WORK, MOTHER[BLEEPER]?!

Bob: Wow. He really wants this one, doesn't he?

Dick: He certainly does, Bob. He's reaching for perfection, and here, on his third attempt, he seems to be no closer than he was during the first two! Why is that?

Bob: Well, Dick, seems to me that he just can't write perfect code. It's a good effort, to be sure, but it looks like he just doesn't have it in him today.

Dick: After the break, we'll find out if this angry little programmer can achieve the greatest feat in software development: the Perfect Code! Hey, you never know. Stay tuned!

I want The Perfect CodeTM. There, I said it. The Perfect Code doesn't break, needs little maintenance, and is so easy to read you might mistake it for a novel. I am constantly in search of this mythical creature, and evermore disappointed when I can't summon it despite my best efforts. Sometimes I get so close I can almost make it out through the fog of controllers and repositories, only for it to slink further back into the overgrown jungle of code that I'm currently attempting to tame.

The trophy yet eludes me, and I fear it shall do so forever. I've been working this hard to make The Perfect Code, and yet I always fall short of my goal. Am I doomed to write imperfect, buggy code every working day for the rest of my career?

Short answer? Yep.

Myths and Legends

The Perfect Code is a myth; a unattainable legend which we devs nevertheless strive to achieve. The Perfect Code exists only in one's mind, a product of their own tendencies and biases, incompatible with any other developer's vision of it. You cannot hope to obtain it, you can only hope to approach it, and even that's a mighty difficult feat.

Code cannot be "perfect." What is perfect to you is a steaming pile of crap to your neighbor. Once you have more than one person looking at any given piece of code, it can never again be considered "perfect" (and woe be unto the person who only ever has one person reviewing his code). There is no "Perfect Code" because no two programmers can agree on what that means. But they very often can agree on what might be "good enough."

There is no such thing as "perfect," there is only "good enough." But that leads to a more difficult question: when is our code good enough?

Aiming For "Good Enough"

If perfection is unattainable, at what point do we think our work is "good enough?" Is it when our code is readable, when our fellow developers can easily understand what it is doing? Is it when the code does what it is expected to do? Is it when it passes the tests we've defined? Is it when it fulfills what the customer wanted? There's no clear definition for "good enough."

Funny thing about code being "good enough" is that, if you're like me, you often can't see it for yourself. You're too busy being absorbed into its world that you can't see the forest for the trees and miss the point at which the code becomes "good enough." To truly understand when your app has reached that point, you need an outside opinion. You need a coworker.

IMO striving for perfection is failing before you even start. I'm not omniscient, I'm not superhuman, I cannot possibly plan for all possibilities. Hell, I can't even plan my breakfast; I just take things out of the pantry until some combination of them sounds good enough to eat. I might end up with bacon, apples, and peanut butter sometimes, but its food and I can eat it, so it's "good enough."

And that's the goal, isn't it? Just make it good enough, whatever that means to you.

Every day, I will write buggy, imperfect code. Every day, I will make mistakes. Every day, I will be less than perfect. And every day, I attempt to be OK with that, even if Dick and Bob are not.

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

I'm a parent, a husband, a geek, a web developer, and a speaker, in roughly that order.

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Code Is Never "Perfect", Code Is Only Ever "Good Enough"
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