Code Reading

I enjoy reading code. In many ways it’s like reading a mystery novel. Or one of those ‘now turn to page 67’ roleplaying books. Actually very like reading one of those roleplaying books. For those who have no idea what I’m on about, there is a genre of book, usually of the sci-fi or fantasy ilk that puts the reader in the role of the main character and allows you to make choices about what happens next. Like an Infogrames text adventure in paper form. So you’d read a page that describes a situation then be presented with a sentence like, ‘You stand at the door to the brooding castle. A path leads around to the rear of the castle. To open the door and enter the castle, turn to page 34. To see where the path leads, turn to page 68.’ And so it goes. But I digress.

Reading code is an adventure of a similar sort. Every polymorphic call or conditional branch is a choice that must be made by the reader. Do I step into the ‘if’ block, or find out where ‘else’ goes? Which of the 4 implementations of ‘isValid’ do I want to look at first? Slowly, after much backtracking and re-reading, a mental map of the system begins to form. I also like to take offline backups to index cards while I’m reading, due to a somewhat limited personal heap size.

Code reading is a learned skill, just as reading in general is. You get better with practice. As with literature, there is much more bad writing than good writing. As with literature, the ability to tell good writing from bad improves the more you read, as indeed does writing skill.

We should all read more code.