Editor’s note: This article is part of our Code Optimization series, where we take a look at how to optimize coding for better efficiency in a bid to be better coders.
While we write code, we continuously make decisions and choose between solutions that may seem equivalent at first. Later it usually turns out that some choices result in a more efficient program than others, so a quest for best coding practices and optimization techniques naturally arises, and we begin to see the whole development process as an optimization problem to solve.
Code optimization can happen on different levels, depending on how close the optimization we carry out is to machine code. In web development we can only perform higher level optimizations, as Assembly- or runtime-level optimizations are not an option for us, but we still have many opportunities.
We can optimize our code at the architectural level with smart design patterns, at the source code level by utilizing best coding practices and using appropriate tools, and we can also improve the performance of our team by introducing coding style guides into our workflow.
Whatever technique we choose to go along with, there’s a rule of thumb that every code optimization endeavour needs to follow: we always have to carry out the optimization in a way that doesn’t change the meaning of the code.
The benefits of code optimization grow in line with the growth of our project, and as even initially small projects can become large with time, acquiring solid code optimization skills almost always have measurable positive results.
1. Cleaner Code Base
As a project matures, and more and more developers start to work on it, duplications and overlaps usually sooner or later appear, and suddenly we realize we hardly comprehend what’s going on.
It’s not a coincidence that keeping the DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) principle in mind is one of the cornerstones of effective software development. A well-strutured, carefully optimized code base in which we are able to reuse the same elements multiple times is always sleeker and tidier, and therefore is much easier to understand and work with.
2. Higher Consistency
Consistency is like housework, when it’s properly taken care of no one notices it, but when it’s neglected the whole place looks messy, and we find ourselves in chaos.
Accomplishing complete consistency is hard, as ensuring backward compatibility can eventually get in the way of improvement, but paying attention to using coherent code guidelines, compatible APIs, and consistent standards can surely lessen the pain.
Keeping code consistency in mind is especially important when we need to deal with legacy code, or in cases of larger projects that involve many developers.
3. Faster Sites
Optimizing code is similar to buying a faster car. As a result, our code executes more rapidly, and our site or application consumes less memory than before. Although the optimization process may require additional time and money, the result is a better experience, not just for developers but also for end users.
Faster code entails shorter page load times as well, which is a big deal in both of the worlds of search engine optimization and conversion marketing. Research says that “nearly half of web users expect a site to load in 2 seconds or less, and they tend to abandon a site that isn’t loaded within 3 seconds”, so speed is clearly not an area that we can safely ignore.
Readability is an important aspect of code maintainability. Untidy code with ad hoc formatting is hard to read, therefore hard to understand, especially for developers who are new to a project.
We can protect ourselves from the pain of dealing with indecipherable code if we apply certain code optimization techniques, such as:
using coherent naming conventions with meaningful names, such as BEM
consistent formatting with logical utilization of indentation, whitespace and vertical spacing
avoiding unnecessary noise, such as self-explanatory, obvious comments
This is the reason why big projects, such as WordPress, jQuery, and Mootools, have clear coding style guides every developer involved needs to follow.
5. More Efficient Refactoring
It frequently occurs in web development that we inherit code from someone else, and quickly understand that it is far from being optimal, whether in terms of structure, performance, or maintainability. The same thing can happen with our own previous projects that we wrote when we had much less experience in programming.
In other cases the goals of an otherwise great project change over time, and we need to prioritize other things in the application than before.
We speak about refactoring when we change (clean up) existing code in order to optimize it without changing any of its functionalities. Refactoring needs to be performed with great care, as if it’s done in the wrong way, we can easily end up with a code base that’s even less optimal than the original was.
Luckily we have many well-tested techniques on our hands that can make refactoring a smooth-running process.
6. More Straightforward Debugging
Debugging takes up a significant portion of the web development workflow, and it’s usually a tedious or even daunting task. It’s hard enough if we have to debug our own code, but it’s much worse when we need to find the bugs in someone else’s, especially if it’s something like neverending spaghetti code that uses nothing but functions.
Smart design and architectural patterns, such as using objects and different modules, and clear coding guidelines can facilitate the debugging process, even if most likely it still won’t be our most beloved task.
7. Improved Workflow
Many web development projects are run by distributed teams, such as open source communities or remote teams. One of the hardest things in managing such a workflow is to find a way that makes communication effective enough to enable team members to easily understand each other, and not to have to constantly discuss defaults.
Code optimization is also workflow optimization, as if team members speak a common language and share the same declared goals, they will also be able to work together without much less hassle.
8. Easier Code Maintenance
Although building something from the ground up tend to be more fun than maintaining pre-existing code, sometimes we still need to perform ongoing code maintenance. Working with already existing systems can also give us new views on code optimization, as it’s a different experience than early optimizations in a new project.
In software maintenance, we are already at a stage where we can catch real performance and efficiency problems, and work with real users instead of hypothetical use cases.
Code maintenance usually gets little respect in developer circles, but it still can be a rewarding task if we follow best practices, such as using reliable version control, dependency management, staging and testing platforms, and properly take care of documentation.
Constant innovation is the core of staying relevant in our field, as in if we haven’t show anything new to our users in a while we can quickly be left behind. Extending a project, and adding new features to it is usually much faster if we work with a well-optimized, clean code base.
Apart from the already discussed code optimization methods, feature development can also gain momentum if we keep up with modern project management methods, for example if we use iterative lifecycle models instead of the traditional waterfall model.
10. Smaller Technical Debt
The term "technical debt" was coined by Ward Cunningham, the programmer who also developed the first wiki. It compares the consequences of our bad programming decisions that accummulate over time to financial debt in which people pay interest in the future in order to quickly get money in the present.
These less-than-optimal decisions usually manifest themselves in the form of quick fixes, copy and paste programming, hard coding, cargo-cult programming, and other coding antipatterns and sloppy work habits.
It’s basically impossible to completely avoid technical debt, as even good decisions can be less desired consequences in the future, but if we diligently optimize our code, we will surely be burdened with a much smaller technical debt.