10Apr

Software development needs copy editors

Posted by Elf Sternberg as programming

Magazine, newspaper, and book publishing, in both fiction and non-fiction, all have two specialized roles that the work goes through before it reaches it’s final form:

The Project Editor and the Copy Editor.

Software teams have a project editor, although usually he’s called the project manager. In literature, the project editor doesn’t usually edit; his responsibility, like that of the project manager, is to see the work go from manuscript to bound volume, and is responsible for schedule, budget and the interaction of other departments such sales and marketing, in order to assure the success of the work.

There is no job in software anything like the copy editor. And that’s a problem.

Linters and style checkers can make sure that you have the right number of indentations, ensure that your line length fits into the house editor, check you have comments where comments are required. What they can’t do is ensure that your variable names have meaning, that your classes are SOLID, that each function does one thing and does it well, and that a future maintainer can look at any given piece of code and not say “WTF?”

Every creative profession that works on a commercial production line, that is treated as a craft, has an editorial pass. If you’ve ever worked in advertising, there’s one guy whose job is to make sure the studio musician is creating background music that matches the taste of the ad; there’s also someone who makes sure that every background image in an animation matches the overall feel of the production. These aren’t “I know it when I see it” jobs, either; these are people who are expert studio musicians and illustrators who have earned the trust of their peers and graduated to the role of guiding others to excellence.

Every creative profession except software. Software developers are a weird bunch: the good ones are absolutely ready to take criticism from their peers, as they want to get better. The bad ones believe that “it passes all the tests, so you shouldn’t care about its style” and you can’t tell them anything at all. Given just how much money is sloshing around this industry, any change to impose more discipline is opposed with ferocity. We all have someplace else to go.

Software copy editing would be a line job; it wouldn’t be management, and yet it would have the final, human-eye check on whether or not something goes into the repository. It wouldn’t be about if the code is testable; it would be about if the code is maintainable. Can a future code monkey at a glance see what you meant and how you acheived it? As a line job, it would be dependent upon the productivity of others to succeed, yet in agile the editor would have no velocity himself.

There are tons of anti-patterns that are opposed to this idea:

  • “I don’t want to pay some guy just to sit around and read code.”
  • “Testing will find all the bugs.”
  • “The next revision will be a complete re-write, so code readability isn’t an issue.”

I’m sure you could name more.

But if you really give a damn about code quality, and your company has more than twenty developers, consider hiring a software copy editor, a hands-on, polyglot programmer with an opinion about how software should be written, who has the chops necessary to gatekeep your code quality and mentor your junior developers. ¬†You’ll save more than you spend: a good copy editor will reduce your need for testing cycles; the whole point of the job is to ensure no code escapes your office that isn’t clear, sane, readable, testable, and maintainable, and to teach those fresh-out-of-college faces how code in the real world looks.

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