Coding and the Dangers of Familiarity: Keep Your Senses Sharp

When I started at my current company, we essentially had one major project that everyone in the team worked on. It was a client that we had been working with for a long time.  It was a fun project to work on, and I learned a lot about ASP.NET MVC and Sitecore. Even when the project closed, I had no regrets about working on it for nearly two years, with very little other projects coming up during that time.

It wasn’t until the project closed that I realized how it programmed me into doing a certain set of coding practices. They weren’t particularly bad practices, but you could say they weren’t the accepted, best way of doing things. Soon, I was being assigned to projects where the best practices and/or frameworks were in use and I was expected to use those. I’ll give you two key examples, which were both shocking once I realized what I had not done:

  • Glass Mapper. I started a new project where Glass was being used extensively. I had some small training/research on Glass in the past, but this was first project where I had to use it. I did end up using it somewhat effectively, but what shocked me was how suddenly, my defensive coding instincts did not kick in. For example, for 1.5-2.0 years, I was used to doing this:
if (item != null && item.Fields["Heading"] != null && !string.IsNullOrEmpty(item.Fields["Heading"].Value))
{
   ...
}

The second I would use .Fields[] call in Sitecore development, I would know to do extensive null checks; it’s the way I was trained – but now, I was not using that call anymore. The code was completely different, and so I did not even think of checking for null for some reason. I don’t know why I wouldn’t check for null – maybe I thought Glass would take care of it and never return null? Silly me.

  • Logging. I learned Sitecore development in an environment where I never had to add logging in case an error occurs. My former co-workers that wrote the site added a global try/catch around everything, so that whenever some code in a controller errors out, the details of the error would be entered into a record in an Exception (SQL) table. Essentially, I very rarely or never had to use Log.Error to write an error to the Sitecore log, since the Exception table would always catch that. Well, this convenience turned me into a poor developer; I realized this as soon as some code I wrote went live for a new project. It unexpectedly errored out, but I had no way of finding out what the error was because the site had a custom error page.

This is just my personal experience, and I don’t mean to rag on the project that taught me how to do Sitecore development, but the point I’m trying to make is: if you do the same thing over and over, and suddenly have to do something new, make sure you do some common sense checks before committing the code; namely:

  • Null check all the things.
  • Log information, warnings and errors for each functional part of the code that will be running.
  • Also, will your change negatively affect something that you did not intend? Carefully observe the differences between your new code and the old code.

Additionally, If you’ve been working on one project for a long time, and the development practices generally used in that project are not optimal, keep you coding senses sharp by learning about the best practices in your spare time. Read articles, watch videos, create a Sandbox project which includes those better practices in use. If you have any similar experiences, I would love to read them – thanks!

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