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Systematic Source Formatting (Mark Waite)

On November 12, 2009, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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When my team switched to Extreme Programming in March 2003 (XP by 3/03), we decided to try all the practices and all the recommendations. There were plenty of bumps and bruises as we learned what worked for us and what didn’t work for us. We learned that the original XP descriptions were too light on testing for our business needs, and we learned that integration tests worked better for us than pure unit tests with mock objects. Those can be topics for another time.

One of the surprisingly effective results of that adoption of all the practices and all the recommendations was using automated source code formatting to assure all our code looked the same. We had a diverse team of people developing the code, some in the U.S., some in Germany. That diverse team of people had different opinions and attitudes about the “one true way” to format source code. Those different attitudes and opinions lead to annoying little changes from one file version to another as the files changed hands from one person to another.

Since XP espouses “no code ownership” and allows anyone to be anywhere in the code, those formatting differences tended to worsen as people moved through the source tree.

We took a “top down edict” approach to implementing “no code ownership”. I decided (as the manager) that we would use a program to format all our Java source code as part of each compile. The concept was that developers would no longer need to think about formatting their code, a program would do it for them. We inserted the open source version of the “jalopy” source code formatter into our standard build process and then added an additional step to systematically format the code once a day with the same process, in case someone forgot to format before they committed changes to the master.

The initial adoption of the change caused some angst, since the chosen format (Sun Java code formatting guidelines) disagreed with the “one true way” which some of the team expected. We pushed our way through that initial hurdle and found over the course of years that automated source formatting freed us from a number of problems.

Positive results of our switch to automated source code formatting:

  • Code looks the same no matter who wrote it
  • Changes in the source master are “real changes”, not white space shuffling
  • Developers don’t need to think about source code format, they can insert code however they want and the formatter will fix it to meet the standard

Negative results of our switch to automated source code formatting:

  • A “diff wall” was created at the point where we first ran the automated source code formatting tool. The automated formatting created a single massive change to the source master to convert from the old ad-hoc format to the new consistent format. I worried at the time that the “diff wall” was going to be a real problem, but it never appeared as a problem in our work
  • Command and control style management is frequently a bad pattern and should be reserved for rare occasions (our major process change from waterfall to Extreme Programming was done as a manager dictate from above, and this was “hidden” in that process change)

There are newer tools to support automatic source code formatting (astyle seems to be popular) and I hope to persuade my new organization to adopt automated source code formatting. I’m not in a position to be the dictator in the new organization, so changes like that are more difficult to create.

 

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