A tale of scrap metal code – Part II

In the first part of this tale about an examined software project, I described the initial situation and high-level observations about the project. This part will dive into the actual source code and hopefully reveal some insights. The third and last part will summarize everything and give some hints on how to avoid creating scrap metal code.

About the project

If you want to know more about the project, read the first part of this tale. In short, the project looked like a normal Java software, but unfolded into a nightmare, lacking basic requirements like tests, dependency management or continuity.

About the developer

The developer has a job title as a “senior developer”. He developed the whole project alone and wrote every line of code. From the code, you can tell his initial uncertainty, his learning progress, some adventurous experiments and throughout every file, a general uneasiness with the whole situation. The developer actively abandoned the project after three years of steady development. From what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t call him a “senior” developer at all.

About the code

The code didn’t look very repellent at first sight. But everywhere you looked, there was something to add on the “TODO list”. Let me show you our most prominent findings:

Unassigned constructors

The whole code was littered with constructor calls that don’t store the returned new object. What’s the point in constructing another instance of you throw it away in the next moment, without ever using it? After examining these constructors, it became apparent that they only exist to perform side effects each. The new object is registered with the global data model while it’s still under construction. It was the most dreadful application of the Monostate design pattern I’ve ever seen.

Global data model

Did I just mention the global data model? At the end of the investigation, we found that the whole application state lives in numerous public static arrays, collections or maps. These data fields are accessible from everywhere in the application and altered without any protection against concurrent modifications. These global variables were placed anywhere, without necessarily being semantically associated with their enclosing class. A data model in the sense of some objects being tied together to form an instance net with higher-level structures could not be found. Instead, different lookup structures like index-based arrays and key-based maps are associated by shared keys or obscure indices. The whole arrangement of the different data pieces is implicit, you have to parse the code for every usage. Mind you, these fields are globally accessible.

Manual loop unrolling

Some methods had several hundred lines of the exact same method call over and over again. This is what your compiler does when it unrolls your foreach loops. In this code, the compiler didn’t need to optimize. To add some myth, the n-th call usually had a slight deviation from the pattern without any explanation. Whenever something could easily be repeated, the developer pasted it all over the place. Just by winding up the direct repititions again, the code migth shrink by one quarter in length.

Least possible granularity

Just by skimming over the code, you’d discover plenty of opportunities to extract methods, raising the level of abstraction in the code. The developer chose to stick with the least possible granularity, making each non-trivial code a pain to read. The GUI-related classes, using Swing, were so bloated by trivialities that even a simple dialog with two text fields and one button was represented by a massive amount of code. Sadly, the code was clearly written by hand because of all the mistakes and pattern deviations. If the code had to deal with complex data types like dates, the developer always converted them to primitive data types like int, double or long and performed the necessary logic using basic math operators.

“This code is single-threaded, right?”

Despite being a Java Swing application, the code lacked any strategy to deal with multithreading other than ignoring the fact that at least two threads would access the code. We didn’t follow this investigation path down to its probably bitter end, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the GUI would freeze up occasionally.

“Exceptions don’t happen here”

If you would run a poll on the most popular exception handling strategy for this code, it would be the classic “local catch’n’ignore”. The developer dismissed the fact that exceptions might happen and just carried on. If he was forced to catch an exception, the catch block followed immediately and was empty in most cases. Of course, the only caught exception type was the Exception class itself.

“This might be null

One recurring pattern of the developer was a constructor call, stored in a local variable and immediate null check. Look at this code sample:

try {
    SomeObject object = new SomeObject();
    if (object != null) {
        object.callMethod();
    }
    [...]
} catch (Exception e) {
}

There is no possibility (that I know of) of object being null directly after the constructor call. If an exception is thrown in the constructor, the next lines won’t be executed. This code pattern was so prevalent in the code that it couldn’t be an accidental leftover of previous code. The accompanying effect were random null checks for used variables and return values.

Destabilized dependencies

If there is one thing that’s capable of derailing every code reader, analysis tool and justified guess, it’s wildcard use of Java’s reflection capabilities. The code for this project incorporates several dozens calls to Class.forName(), basically opening up the application for any code you want to dynamically include. The class names result from obscure string manipulation magic or straight from configuration. It’s like the evil brother of dependency injection.

Himalaya indentation

Looking at the indentation depths of the code, this wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. But that doesn’t mean it was pleasant. Like in Uncle Bob’s infamous “A crap odyssey”, you could navigate some classes by whitespace landscape. “Scroll down to the fifth crest, the vast valley afterwards contains the detail you want to know”.

Magic numbers

The code was impregnated with obscure numbers (like 9, 17, 23) and even more bizzare textual constants (like “V_TI_LB_GUE_AB”) that just appeared out of nowhere several times. This got so bad that the original author included lengthy comment sections on top of the biggest methods to list the most prominent numbers alongside their meanings. Converting the numbers to named constants would probably dispel the unicorns, as we all know that unicorns solely live on magic numbers(*). Any other explanation escapes my mind.

(*) On a side note, I call overly complex methods with magic numbers “unicorn traps”, as the unicorns will be attracted by the numbers and then inevitably tangled up in the complexity as they try to make their way out of the mess.

Summary

This was the list of the most dreaded findings in the source code. Given enough time, you can fix all of them. But it will be a long and painful process for the developer and an expensive investment for the stakeholder.

To give you an overall impression of the code quality, here is a picture of the project’s CrapMap. The red rectangles represent code areas (methods) that need improvements (the bigger and brighter, the more work it will take). The green areas are the “okay” areas of the project. Do you see the dark red cluster just right the middle? These are nearly a hundred complex methods with subtle differences waiting to be refactored.

Prospectus

In part three, I’ll try to extract some hints from this project on how to avoid similar code bases. Stay tuned.

8 thoughts on “A tale of scrap metal code – Part II

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  3. Pingback: A tale of scrap metal code – Part III « Schneide Blog

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