Constructive snark?

After yesterday’s request for ‘constructive code vandalism’ confessions, Steve wrote in:

I used to take the opportunity to leave snarky comments in the code when fixing something that was obviously broken but had gone unnoticed for weeks, months or even years.

It was my way of letting off steam, and I became renowned for it in my dev team.

On the plus side, I’d usually explain exactly why the previous approach was incorrect and why I changed it :D

I did moderate myself when I felt it was appropriate, and I didn’t deliberately single anyone out. My earlier code was often as bad or worse than what I was fixing, so I took the opportunity to point out why earlier me was an idiot too.

As you read this, it’s not immediately clear whether Steve was ‘renowned’ in a good way or a bad way for his snark. But it becomes clear that his feedback was constructive rather than personal.

I’ve been know to do stuff like this too. I didn’t want to be seen to be making a personal attack, so I went for impersonal comments like ‘LOL, 2005 JavaScript!’ rather than ‘Which awful developer wrote this steaming pile?’

Of course it’s really useful to have longer explanations of why things have been changed, though I now prefer long commit messages over long inline comments.

Even commit messages along the lines of “Look, it’s been a long day, and I couldn’t get this to work any other way.” or, more often “FUUUUUUU I HAte browsers.” can be useful.

When you come across these as part of a git history or git blame investigation they can help to show some of the context of what was going on when the work was done. As a result you may feel better that changing it won’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

These situations also present an opportunity for discussion before the work is done. By all means leave an extended comment that explains the rationale behind the change. But even better, write the comment before doing the work and have a conversation with colleagues, particularly if they were responsible for the original work.

All the best,

– Jim

Receive emails like this in your inbox

I write about front-end engineering leadership every weekday.

Sign up now and get my Front-End Engineering Responsibilities Laundry List PDF for free.

You'll get regular emails about front-end development. Unsubscribe at any time.