Frugal code

I feel the most like a good dev when I delete stuff. But attachment to code is the most painful challenge to overcome when I try to help my colleagues adopting an ingineering culture. I.e. an experimentation culture. For reasons I don’t understand, devs crave their code, each line of it, since the first minute of its existence (at least for reasons I don’t understand *anymore*, as I probably had the same attachment to code in a life I don’t remember). And the more devs write code, the more they are attached to it.


Organizations need to adapt to needs. Societies evolve. People grow up, their needs change. Our comprehension of these needs, and of our work environment, gets more relevant. We can not freeze the world during the months or years product development requires.

Our job is to modify code. We thus need a code that is plastic enough to adapt to these changes. In a problem resolution activity like dev, this is what I call quality: the capacity to keep a satisfying pace over a desired period. To be agile, this capacity is not negociable. As devs, it is our duty to always enforce this capacity, without asking anyone.


We find code plasticity in patterns, modularity, high cohesion and low coupling, and so on. But you need to be aware that, each time you choose a pattern, you pick a compromise, you make on axis harder to loosen another one.

Take the DRY principle, for example (Don’t Repeat Yourself). It is universally accepted as a base principle. I hardly hear it discussed. Still, it participates in creating dependencies, source of evil. This is a compromise to understand. In addition, two pieces of code looking alike are not the same code. Think semantics before factoring code. Martin Fowler popularized the rule of three, suggesting you should write code at least three times before extracting some common stuff. Neal Ford teaches us that “The more reusable something is, the less usable it is”. I recently discovered the acronym WET, Write Everything Twice. Let’s not remain stuck on DRY, and think about compromising.

Design patterns are also compromises to understand. They favor plasticity along one dimension while sacrificing another. For example (provocation on purpose), heritage allows multiplying embodiments of a given class of behavior. But it makes modification of this class of behavior harder.

Even if you don’t see which axis you’re making less platic, you need to be aware that a pattern is an indirection. Indirections get in the way of seeing detail, while making high level understanding easier. With indirections, you better scan principles, less details. This is a compromise, it has good and bad sides. You need to be aware of it.


To make code more adaptable, my first track is to not write it. The easier code to modify is no code. I always try to add as little code as I need. To add indirections only if they bring value. To delete code when it brings less value than complexity.

Note that we have tools to help us limit the quantity and complexity of code:

  • With TDD, you only write the code that allows to pass one test, no more.
  • With DDD, you split the problem in bounded contexts. Each of these contexts is thus smaller. As you don’t put code in common between bounded contexts, you limit the number of dependencies, and the overall complexity.
  • With BDD, you better assess the problem boundaries. You avoid useless hypotheses.

What a delight to refactor no code. We call it greenfield, and it makes the eyes of every nerd shine. This is an extreme. It gives an idea of what you get when tending towards that ideal: serenity, hapiness, smiles.

If you want to approach that ideal, limit the quantity of code to modify:

  • Don’t write code “just in case”.
  • Don’t add patterns before code complexity requires it.
  • Don’t anticipate too much code flexibility. Wait to know which axis needs freedom of movement.
  • To support all this, learn refactoring and emergent design.

And now let’s jump to process


  1. Pingback: Enough is enough | AAAgile
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  3. Pingback: Frugal process | AAAgile
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