Kevin's Awful Website by Kevin Rohrbaugh

Weaponized Platitudes

YAGNI. DRY. KISS. Idiomatic. Readable.

These terms are intended to succinctly communicate a concept, yet easily become conflict-laden clich├ęs. Avoid them to improve discussions about code.

For instance, YAGNI, DRY, and KISS are frequently employed as arguments to simplify needlessly complex code. Unfortunately, they can also be used to wave away essential complexity, without the need for understanding the underlying value.

Similarly, idiomatic, and readable are ofttimes used to guide toward common approaches which are easily identifiable by practioners in a particular community. However, they can also be used to dictate personal aesthetics without the hassle of justification.

All of the terms refer to a quality that's difficult to take an opposing position on. After all, who wants to build unnecessary stuff, or write overly-complex, unreadable code? Due to this, the discussion often devolves into one of two scenarios: acquiescence or semantic discord. Acquiescence means that nobody is improving, since there's no need to educate or discuss trade-offs. Semantic discord is exhausting, as it means the debate ceases to be about the code, and becomes about definitions, and arguing first principles. While it's possible for an individual to feel like they've won either type of debate, the team as a whole has lost.

What works better?

Rather than lobbing truisms at one another, focus discussions around the trade-offs being made. A simple way to do so is to employ the Socratic method: ask questions, in order to draw out intent, and underlying presumptions.

When faced with needlessly complex code, ask why the complexity is necessary, and what value it brings. The discussion may show the complexity to be warranted.

When providing feedback on code which eschews a common solution, offer the alternative, along with justification, and ask why it won't work in this instance. The discussion may highlight how this problem does not fit the pattern.

When we abandon trite declarations, we make room to evolve our understanding of the problem, along with the solution. Arm yourself with curiosity, not platitudes.