Intelligibility is a Bottleneck

I have a baby. He likes to push a button on the coffee grinder. At first, he could not differentiate “button” from “not button”, and he mashed his little finger all around the button, and only occasionally got lucky and found the actual button.

That is called learning.

Now in the case of this coffee grinder, the button has clear demarcations. At some point, you can, through trial and error, learn to recognize those things.,

What if the button was simply a place you touch that looks exactly like the rest of the coffee maker? If you had never seen it before, you might spend a long time looking at it, before you ever find that button.

And during that time, you are not grinding coffee.

What does this trivial example tell us about other activities?

In order to use something, you must distinguish it from other things. You cannot make use of what you do not apprehend, except by accident (and it’s unclear you can call that “making use of” rather than “getting lucky”).

If that’s true, then things that are hard to understand are also hard to work with.

That is of course generally obvious to everyone everywhere.

But for some reason, when it comes to software, we all pretend we don’t know this.

Whenever you say “Refactoring”, someone inevitably tries to prioritize it as a project, and figure out when you will be able to do it.

If you were manufacturing physical things, and kept dropping your tools on the floor, and then getting all the materials and parts mixed up, nobody would hesitate to let you clean up so that you could stop wasting so much time and energy and slowing things down.

But code is more or less invisible to anyone not working on it.

If you don’t understand what you’re looking at, no amount of tests (even tests that will pass when you make the desired change) can tell you which change you ought to make. They can only tell you if you made that change.

And so, like the person trying to find the button on the space-age coffee grinder, you will spend inordinate amounts of time trying to do something that ought to be extremely simple and obvious.

You can only move at the pace of understanding.

So do yourself a favor, and refactor as you go, so that your understanding can increase, and the code can reflect your understanding.

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