Chris Biscardi

moon indicating dark mode
sun indicating light mode

If you can't delete code then you're stuck with it

You’ve likely worked in a codebase (or heard about someone working in a codebase) that was described as Legacy Code. The stories told are that of extremely long build times, gnarly sections of code written by people that left the company years ago, and files that no one goes in.

In projects that last multiple years there are pieces of code you will never need to touch again until you need to delete it. The context and the people that you are working with are, at any given point in time, far more important than which specific subset of the technology and approach you use. Fundamentally when you’re building something and you have an existing codebase (or you’re building something new even), the context of the people that you’re working with and the people that you want to hire, and the people that you want to train are far more important any decision about, for example “Should we port the entire codebase to hooks or not?“. The thing that I will add to that is that you, when writing your codebase, need to optimize your codebase for the ability to delete isolated pieces of it entirely and rewrite them.

If you’re not optimizing for deletion then rewriting becomes much more of a “how do we rewrite this entire project” because now we’ve cross-contaminated everything. When codebases start out cross-contaminated they tend to evolve in layers that don’t stack neatly. If you do optimize for deletion, which things like hooks and component models allow you to do, then you can just delete the files off your computer and everyone else’s computer forever and rewrite it in the new style when you need to touch it. The code that you have from 1.5+ years ago that no one has really needed to touch because it doesn’t do anything different can stay there. You don’t actually need to touch it and you don’t need to upgrade it because it doesn’t do anything different. All of your new code can opt-in to this new pattern through incremental rewriting.

My operating context is startups and when I think of what startups are at their technological core I think of incremental rewrite machines. You can choose to take a path leading to needing to do a wholesale rewrite in the future—Which to be fair is a choice that when made purposefully can be the right choice. When making this choice you need your team all on the same page so some people aren’t trying to rewrite or properly architect when sometimes you just need to build something out, accumulate a bunch of tech debt and then 3 or 4 years from now when your company is still alive because you did that you can rewrite it. The better choice today is to write your code so that you can make suboptimal choices in sub-sections of your application so that you can delete those subsections instead of needing to delete those subsections and the spiderweb of dependencies in which they touch.

Gatsby themes are one of those deletion boundaries. If you are writing a bunch of code and logic and components and UI you can use themes as the “ok if we’re not happy with the way the site looks anymore let’s delete the entire child theme and re-build the entire child theme”, which is just react components and styling. So you can do an entire rewrite of your site from a visual perspective while keeping the data structures and sourcing of the data models behind it by using theme boundaries correctly. Which opts you into this “we should be writing our code such that it can be wholesale deleted and rewritten because we need to adopt new patterns or we have a new business case or want to do a redesign, etc.

Large scale rewrites contain risk on the scale that can kill everything from open source projects to companies, and more. Optimize for deletion when you write your code because if you don’t it’s easy to end up needing to grind out large rewrites, which contain massive risk.

This is an expansion of a segment on the OwnGoals podcast where my co-host asked to interview me for the Gatsby and Software Architecture episode and we got deep into this topic.