Good Design, Bad Code

I’ve been reading PHP 5 Objects, Patterns, and Practice, a great book exploring modern day design practices and the conventional wisdom of good software design. For serious PHP developers it’s a great update to the “gang of four” in a PHP context and really shows how PHP stands up as a serious development environment for the enterprise.

Unfortunately, all of this presents some serious misgivings about conventional software engineering methods that this book serendipitously stumbles upon. One of the code excerpts reads:

  class Army extends Unit {
    private $units = array();

    function addUnit( Unit $unit ) {
      foreach ( $this->units as $thisunit ) {
        if ( $unit === $thisunit ) {
          return;
        }
      }
      $this->units[] = $unit;
    }
   ...

I’m sure to the hot shit J2EE/EJB software architect this is perfectly good code in the context of a composite pattern. The above case represents a composite class that holds Unit objects, and the addUnit method simply adds Unit objects to the composite. The great part is this class will rarely, if ever, need to be updated since the business logic is separated into individual leaf classes and will be easier to maintain. Java programmers would be proud to see PHP like this.

On the other hand, every 15 year old hacker will now have something in common with old-school C programmers. They will recognize that this code is shit. It’s utter crap. It’s inefficient, sloppy, and scales poorly while being difficult to debug.

Have we as software engineers become so pig-headed that we no longer care about code efficiency and happily let a big-O(1) operation become a big-O(N) operation just because it uses the right pattern? When did software engineering mean you have to be stupid? Can’t I be a software engineer that follows good, disciplined, development methodologies while still favoring good code? We’re assuming that the intelligence of our design patterns will make up for the bad code.

For the J2EE crowd, PHP arrays are all associative, similar to a Vector class. In this case you’re adding individual leaf objects to a composite class; and every time you do you’re looping through an associative array to determine if the object already exists in the array. Each time you build this composite, which in a web environment is every page load, you’re doing a mountain of extra work. This is great for a small number of objects, but what if you have thousands, or even millions of objects at hand. This is what scalability is all about, right? When did our design patterns make us stupid?

The goal of software engineering is to produce good software, good software requires good code. Disciplined software engineering may have something to learn from the hackers who would recognize the bad code excerpts in this book.

Leaving Academia!

I resigned today. Quit my job. After several years I have decided to leave the University and head to the private sector. Before I leave, I want to remember the wisdom of Dr Ray Stantz:

“Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.”

While at the University I have had the pleasure of working with some of the finest minds around. I have collected real-time coastal data at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I have built distributed data grids for the Biomedical Informatics Research Network. I have worked on the Storage Resource Broker at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. I have architected data repositories and web applications for the Network for Earthquake Engineering and Simulation.

There is a culture within those ivory towers that I will miss. A spirit of intellectual pursuit that is a part of my very being. I am at heart an engineer as well as an academic. I am uncertain of what awaits me, but curiosity killed this cat.

I began a job search within the last couple of weeks. The initial response was tremendous! Since I completely missed the .COM era I was unprepared for the barrage of offers and interviews. In the past, I was lucky to get one interview. This time around I had a half dozen offers. I ended up creating a decision matrix with weighted discriminators to help me determine the best position.

In the end, I have accepted a fantastic opportunity with Qualcomm. I will be working with the MediaFLO group architecting the IT infrastructure, business intelligence, and data warehouse. Of course, as Ray Stantz reminds us: “they expect results”!