Comments can be a great way to learn about new code and document unintuitive behaviour. Good comments succinctly explain why code was done a certain way and are kept up to date.
This week I have found myself adding more comments to code than ever before. I think this is partially due to the code I am in and part of trying to understand it. Improving the comments is also part of the culture on the Exterminator team. As the team works and they try to leave the documentation better than they found it. Adding to the comments what you have learned is part of every code review.
The team tries to add comments to any code they touch to document the unusual behaviour they are seeing. For every weird bug we solve, we can save the next person who reads the code time understanding why it works the way it does. Together, we have been able to slowly grow the documentation and tests along with the changes we are making, leaving the updated code better than we found it.
In the past I have tried to rely solely on unit tests or naming to describe my code. This works great for new code where it is easy to understand how different classes are connected. In legacy code where there are no tests and the behaviour is unclear, relying only on naming and relationships is not enough. Good comments and meaningful names can make previously unintelligible code usable again.
With such emphasis on comments and documentation it has got me thinking:
What makes a good comment?
The Unobvious/Why Behind The Code
Without recreating the thinking from the original developer, it can be impossible to know why code has been written a specific way. This is why it is important for comments to explain concepts and connections that are not obvious.
Take this wild code found in the Quake III source code for example:
It computes the inverse square root using a Newton-Raphson approximation. Crazy bit magic is used to perform the computation as an integer instead of floating point for pure speed. The resulting code was ~4 times faster using the hardware of the day (i.e. before dedicated SSE instructions). This speed boost would be critical for the high performance needed by the game engines it was used in. This code has interesting history tracing the potential authors, how it was implemented and has been widely talked about.
Despite the minor comments, this code is not intuitive for mere mortals. Gary Tarolli, one of the developers involved and 3D graphics pioneer, also had trouble understanding how and why it worked.
it took a long time to figure out how and why this works, and I can’t remember the details anymore.
Consider this updated copy of the code with more comments outlining why it works.
If I needed to understand code like this on a daily basis I would hope it has comments to go with it. These added comments help by describing why it works and how it was derived. Better comments can help the next developer understand your code more easily.
As Needed And Straight To The Point
Too many comments will dilute your code. I prefer fewer comments and like to the let the code speak for itself. Comments should not be a novel, keep them as short and concise as possible. Too many comments is a code smell and might be a sign you need to be less clever in your code. Updating the code to be clearer would be a better use of your time than explaining unnecessarily complex dependencies.
Recently we found code that looked like this:
The code had the concept of drafts and posts, but not draft posts. After looking at the surrounding code for a while, we learned this property indicated when a draft was being posted. We then added a comment for the next person.
Instead of this fancy comment we could have updated the code to use a better name and been done with it. We could say more with less.
Kept Up To Date
As comments become out of date they become more dangerous than no comments
at all. Out of date comments are misleading and can result in other
developers (or you in 6 months) doing bad things. For example, leaving a
null based on the old comments, that will now throw an exception.
Documentation/comments that are no longer up to date makes the code they explain less trust worthy. When the comments are misleading it is reasonable to assume the code has deeper issues. The more arcane the code, the more crippling outdated comments can be and the larger the impact caused by the resulting bad assumptions.
The best way to keep comments up to date is keeping them with the code. Put comments right on your methods or around complex logic. Jeff Atwood takes this even further and believes “The value of a comment is directly proportional to the distance between the comment and the code.”.
I definitely agree with this and try to keep any related documentation with the code. In addition to normal comments, our team has been committing user/release documentation alongside our code and shipping them with the application. This has helped simplify and consolidate our documentation.
Good comments are a great way to explain code that is hard to follow. When dealing with legacy code, be kind to other developers and leave comments based on what you learn. Keep comments up-to-date, keep comments simple and keep comments explaining the why/unobvious behind the code.