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Hi, I’m Thomas Letan (lthms) (he/him).

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The Chaotic Debut of My Software Projects

I am no stranger to the exciting feeling of starting new projects. By dint of repeating this “exercise” over the years, I have come to build an intuitive process which works for me. In this write-up, I want to give a try at describing it, both for future references and in the hope that this might start interesting conversations. I am curious to know whether or not my personal “process” is shared with some of my fellow developers, though I would be surprised if it weren’t the case, since there is nothing particularly clever or revolutionary with what I am about to write.

A Story in Two Acts

In a nutshell, I can often divide the early days of my software projects into two phases: the exploration phase and the rationalization phase.

The starting point of the exploration phase is a need, and a direction I want to take to address this need. For instance, the starting point of the Compact module of data-encoding  was the need to encode in bytes arbitrary values, and the direction was to do that with data-encoding. For Spatial Shell , I wanted badly to enjoy Material Shell ’s user experience without having to switch to Gnome 3 and the direction was set when I discovered sway’s RPC protocol .

The goal of the exploration phase is for me to turn the direction into a destination, so to speak. When I start, my knowledge of both the problem I want to solve and the solution I am trying to build is vague, and needs refinement. There are intuitions I need to challenge, APIs I need to learn, boilerplate I need to understand. More often than not, this phase is messy. Commits are not nice, standalone units of changes: it is way too early for that. I use Git merely as a way to throw away a dead-end, and resume exploring down another path from a reasonable save point. I put most if not all my code into one file, I don’t write comments, encapsulation and abstraction become foreign words I forget about for a while. My goal is to come up with a prototype which captures the key features I am looking for, and to learn as much as possible in the process. This exploration phase shouldn’t last too long, because it is very context sensitive. If I am interrupted long enough, I am likely to lose the mental map of my messy code, and to forget the key insights I was learning while navigating it.

I want to emphasis that the exploration phase should definitely touch to the mundane, boring things like the CLI, the decoding of configuration files, the encoding of persistent states, etc. These things tend to have a pervasive impact on the rest of a software development if they are not taken into account early. Because I am confronting myself to these forbidding parts, I am forced to understand the pain points they will bring, and to plan for them.

At some point, most of my questions have found their answers, and I am starting to tackle features which go beyond the scope of the minimal set of features I was initially after. When this time comes, friction is starting to appear because of the bad quality of the codebase. All the shortcuts are coming back to bite me and slow me down, while wild bugs enjoy the lack of invariant enforcement and multiply.

This is actually a good sign: the exploration is over, and before going any further, it is time for me to take a step back and rationalize.

The rationalization phase is the unique opportunity to “learn what I have learned,” by revisiting every line of the code you have written, challenge it, and hopefully come up with a solution for its most outstanding issues. I do that by splitting up the monolithic that came out of the exploration phase into a sane, navigable hierarchy of modules with clear, manageable APIs. This allows me to fine-tune the design, to tweak the parts of the API exposed to the users (the “boring parts” I mention for the exploration phase), and to remove any dead code I thought might be useful or needed, but actually didn't cut it to the prototype.

This second phase often feels like a sprint. The second I am throwing myself at it, the project stops working, and most of the time, it won’t even fully compile before I’m actually done. This sometimes feels a bit overwhelming, though the use of strongly typed programming language like OCaml or Rust has proven to be of tremendous help, at least as long as I stick to moving code around, and only amending it at the margin. Clearly, types and compile-time type checking are my allies during what I often experience as a long snorkeling session.

When I’m done, I get my prototype working again, except it does not feel like a prototype anymore. The feature set is the same, as is the user experience. But the developer experience is totally different. I can now enjoy a codebase where separation of concerns, encapsulation and abstraction play their rightful roles, and allow me to reason about my software project more easily. This is also the moment where I can slow down a bit, since it is no longer required for me to keep the whole project architecture in my head. To a large extent, the module hierarchy does that for me.

Random Thoughts

To me, this process feels a bit like a craft. I think I have become better at going through it after every project I successfully bring at the end of the rationalization phase. And I often feel a bit at lost when I am involved in a project which does not follow this general approach.

That being said, I have to admit it does not scale very well. If the whole process does not fit in something like a week, then I will likely run out of motivation before reaching stable grounds. For instance, the rationalization phase often one to two days, during which I am basically stuck to my computer for long hours.

Finally, this process does not leave a lot of room for collaborating with other developers. This is true both for the exploration phase (the “codebase” is still a monolithic file that is partially rewritten over and over) and for the rationalization phase (sometimes it feels like I am “discovering” the correct way to organize the codebase while I organize it). However, collaboration becomes possible (and even very rewarding) after the fact, when the codebase “makes sense.”

I guess it depends on the tradeoffs one is willing to make when starting a project, the size and scale of the project, and the software developers and entities involved.