Code Simplicity

The Primary Law of Software Design

Ideally, any science should have, as its base, a series of unbreakable laws from which others are derived. What is a law? Well, in the field of science, it’s something that:

  • Is universally true, without exception.
  • Predicts phenomena that, when looked for, will be found to exist in the real world.

Some of the best laws are axiomatic, a big word meaning “obviously true.” For example, “Yesterday happened before today” is an axiomatic statement–the definition of the word “yesterday” makes that obviously true.

For the science of software design, we are lucky to have an axiomatic basic law which is senior to all others:

There is more future time than there is present time.

This is obviously true. “Now” is an infinitely small moment that quickly becomes another “now.” The future is infinite.

So, since the future is infinitely large and the present is infinitely small, we can derive another obvious statement:

The future is more important than the present.

Now, when we’re talking about an infinitely small present and an infinite future, what I’ve said there is pretty obvious. In the real world, though, we have to ask the question: how much future are we talking about? What’s more important, the next five minutes or the next ten years?

Well, in order to answer that question, we have to make one assumption: that you want your program to continue to exist and be used in the future. If you only want it to exist for the next five minutes, then those are the most important. If you want it to continue to be around for 10 years, then those 10 years are the most important.

So all together, this tells us how good our software design needs to be–it needs to be exactly as good as there is future time in which our software must exist.

If you’re writing a program that’s only going to be used once, you don’t have to worry about its design. If you’re writing a program that’s going to be used and modified by astronauts on a 100-year voyage to Alpha Centauri, you have to be really good.

So, this science of software design is a thing where you have choices–if you follow and understand all of its laws, you will have a program that survives very well into the future. If you follow none of them, your program won’t continue to exist very long, or at the very least, it will become more and more difficult to ensure its continued existence.

Now, keep in mind that sometimes in life, there are situations where what you do for the next five minutes determines whether or not you live or die. Similarly, in the real world of software, there can be situations where what your organization does right now determines whether you go bankrupt or not. These are totally valid decisions according to this law, because if your software falls entirely out of existence right now, then the next ten years don’t matter. There is no future existence for something that no longer exists. (Another axiomatic statement!)

However, such situations are generally the exception, not the rule. If you found yourself constantly in a situation where the next five minutes determined your life or death, wouldn’t you want to get out of that? Similarly, if you find yourself in an organization that always insists that the next five minutes are more important than the next ten years, perhaps you should consider leaving.

Now, don’t pass any of this off as unimportant just because it’s “obvious.” What matters isn’t the statement itself, but the importance placed upon the statement. This is the senior law of software design, from which all other aspects of good design flow without exception. If you know of any exceptions, I’d be happy to hear them so that I could refine the science using a higher primary law. But I’m not aware of any exceptions.

When thinking about this law, I usually apply it from the viewpoint of a programmer, not as a user. Sure, a program that is written now and can still be used in 20 years would be fantastically designed from a user’s perspective. But what I’m concerned about mostly is whether or not a software developer will be able to fix or modify this program 20 years from now. That’s an entirely realistic concern–there are programs that have been around for 20 years or more.

There are also other important things to think about in relation to this law–what you can and can’t know about the future. But that’s a subject for another blog.

-Max

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