30 June 2009

Painting the Bike Shed

Painting the Bike Shed - ACM Queue
What you witnessed was, unfortunately, a typical reaction to simple changes in a codebase. Have you ever noticed that when someone checks in some complex and, oftentimes, horrific piece of code, the check-in is greeted with an almost deafening silence? That is often because the people who should be reviewing such code just don’t have the time. Unfortunately, lots of people do have the time to review a 10- or 50-line change, and since they feel guilty for not having checked the bigger pieces of code, they nitpick the small pieces.

The explanation for why this occurs was first given by C. Northcote Parkinson, who wrote a book about management (Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration, Ballantine Books, 1969). He stated that if you were building something complex, then few people would argue with you because few people could understand what you were doing. If you were building something simple—say, a bike shed—which most anyone could build, then everyone would have an opinion. Unfortunately, as you learned, it’s not enough just to have an opinion, but most people feel they should express that opinion.

The engineer who wrote the original code clearly figured out that he was trapped in a pointless loop and decided to break out of it by telling people to paint the shed any color they liked. He or she was probably pretty sure that no one would actually change the color of the shed, but by not engaging in the pointless loop was able to let people get back to ignoring more important parts of the code, which is what they had been doing previously.