How Do You Define “Good Code”?

I was on a phone interview the other day where I was asked for my definition of “Good Code”.

The first thought that came to mind was maintainability – if it can’t be understood, maintained and extended by other developers than its definitely not good.
Then, other things came to mind: efficiency, elegance (simple, proper use of language constructs and environment capabilities), modularity, proper object-oriented design, …
Of course, and we tend to take that for granted, it also has to work… without errors, security holes, etc.

In his book, Code Complete, Steve McConnel supports my definition of good code as maintainable code:

Another theme that runs throughout this book is an emphasis on code readability. Communication with other people is the motivation behind the quest for the Holy Grail of self-documenting code.

The computer doesn’t care whether your code is readable. It’s better at reading binary machine instructions than it is at reading high-level-language statements. You write readable code because it helps other people to read your code. Readability has a positive effect on all these aspects of a program:

  • Comprehensibility
  • Reviewability
  • Error rate
  • Debugging
  • Modifiability
  • Development time—a consequence of all of the above
  • External quality—a consequence of all of the above

Readable code doesn’t take any longer to write than confusing code does, at least not in the long run. It’s easier to be sure your code works if you can easily read what you wrote. That should be a sufficient reason to write readable code. But code is also read during reviews. It’s read when you or someone else fixes an error. It’s read when the code is modified. It’s read when someone tries to use part of your code in a similar program.

Making code readable is not an optional part of the development process, and favoring write-time convenience over read-time convenience is a false economy. You should go to the effort of writing good code, which you can do once, rather than the effort of reading bad code, which you’d have to do again and again.

On the other hand, Paul DiLascia, from MSDN’s {END BRACKET} column, provides a list of traits that good code should have:

Whether you code in C/C++, C#, Java, Basic, Perl, COBOL, or ASM, all good programming exhibits the same time-honored qualities: simplicity, readability, modularity, layering, design, efficiency, elegance, and clarity.

Simplicity means you don’t do in ten lines what you can do in five. It means you make extra effort to be concise, but not to the point of obfuscation. It means you abhor open coding and functions that span pages. Simplicity—of organization, implementation, design—makes your code more reliable and bug free. There’s less to go wrong.

Readability means what it says: that others can read your code. Readability means you bother to write comments, to follow conventions, and pause to name your variables wisely. Like choosing “taxrate” instead of “tr”.

Modularity means your program is built like the universe. The world is made of molecules, which are made of atoms, electrons, nucleons, quarks, and (if you believe in them) strings. Likewise, good programs erect large systems from smaller ones, which are built from even smaller building blocks. You can write a text editor with three primitives: move, insert, and delete. And just as atoms combine in novel ways, software components should be reusable.

Layering means that internally, your program resembles a layer cake. The app sits on the framework sits on the OS sits on the hardware. Even within your app, you need layers, like file-document-view-frame. Higher layers call ones below, which raise events back up. (Calls go down; events go up.) Lower layers should never know what higher ones are up to. The essence of an event/callback is to provide blind upward notification. If your doc calls the frame directly, something stinks. Modules and layers are defined by APIs, which delineate their boundaries. Thus, design is critical.

Design means you take time to plan your program before you build it. Thoughts are cheaper than debugging. A good rule of thumb is to spend half your time on design. You need a functional spec (what the programs does) and an internal blueprint. APIs should be codified in writing.

Efficiency means your program is fast and economical. It doesn’t hog files, data connections, or anything else. It does what it should, but no more. It loads and departs without fuss. At the function level, you can always optimize later, during testing. But at high levels, you must plan for performance. If the design requires a million trips to the server, expect a dog.

Elegance is like beauty: hard to describe but easy to recognize. Elegance combines simplicity, efficiency, and brilliance, and produces a feeling of pride. Elegance is when you replace a procedure with a table, or realize that you can use recursion—which is almost always elegant:

int factorial(int n) {   return n==0 ? 1 : n * factorial(n-1); }

Clarity is the granddaddy of good programming, the platinum quality all the others serve. Computers make it possible to create systems that are vastly more complex than physical machines.
The fundamental challenge of programming is managing complexity. Simplicity, readability, modularity, layering, design, efficiency, and elegance are all time-honored ways to achieve clarity, which is the antidote to complexity.

Clarity of code. Clarity of design. Clarity of purpose. You must understand—really understand—what you’re doing at every level. Otherwise you’re lost. Bad programs are less often a failure of coding skill than of having a clear goal. That’s why design is key. It keeps you honest. If you can’t write it down, if you can’t explain it to others, you don’t really know what you’re doing.

So what are the most important trait for “Good Code” ?
Later on, it struck me – like anything when it comes to engineering, its about balance.
When we write code we strive to find balance between complexity and simplicity by constantly evaluating the different tradeoffs we have to choose in order to get there.
Therefore, good code is code that strikes the right balance balance between all of the qualities mentioned above.

Think about it the next time you’re writing or reading someone else’s code…

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Comments (2) imported from

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 1:01:39 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)

“On the other hand, I was using Google software – a lot of it – in the last year, and slick as it is, there’s just too much of it that is regularly broken. It seems like every week 10% of all the features are broken in one or the other browser. And it’s a different 10% every week – the old bugs are getting fixed, the new ones introduced. This across Blogger, Gmail, Google Docs, Maps, and more. “

As much I really like the simple but powerful UI of services like Gmail etc: Sometimes its really annoying to see bugs coming and going! The software seems never to get stable. And Google seems to be aware of this, at least they mark nearly all their apps with a BETA-tag 🙂
It would be interesting to hear something about the software development process. Do they practice things like unit-tests, continuous integration, code reviews, etc.?

Florian Potschka

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 1:25:41 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)

Hey Florian,
According to this and this its seems like a one big community where each project is managed like an open-source project.
From experience, having developers dividing their time between several projects (that can be unrelated as the post says) doesn’t work well…
Not much public information on their internal practices though… not sure if its a good sign :S


Eran Kampf

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3 Responses

  1. Gaby says:

    Nice article. I’m studying computer science at uni and I really wish they would put more emphasis on good code. I occasionally get to see samples of my peers’ code and it took some of them until the second year to indent their code neatly.

    I never considered good code practices may come up in interviews, silly me 😀

  2. ekampf says:

    Hi Gaby,
    Thanks for the comment.
    The thing you have to understand about university CS degrees (and I should write a whole post about it) is that the degree is meant to teach you computer science – the skills you’ll need to continue your academics endeavors in the field (masters degree etc.) – rather than the practical engineering skills required to be a successful software engineer.

    To really learn the practice of software engineering my recommendations are:
    1. Just do it 🙂
    2. read read read… (there are many books and blogs on the topic, this blog is one of them so I hope you’ll keep coming back 🙂 )


    Also, students (including myself) write horrible code on university assignments simply because you just want to get these annoyances done as quickly as possible, submit them and never look their way again…
    Unlike real code that has to be understood and maintained by lots of people for long periods of time…

  1. December 31, 2008

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