What’s the use of code reuse?

All great developers write reusable code, don’t they? Well, maybe, but as with all statements regarding what “great” developers do or don’t do, it’s probably an over-simplification.

A novice programmer, in particular, will encounter in the literature a general assumption of the importance of code reusability. They spend time worrying about DRY (don’t repeat yourself), moving logic into specific “helper” modules that they can then reuse, agonizing about the minutiae of the class structure, inheritance and interface design that will promote easy reuse. Unfortunately, writing code specifically for reuse often leads to complicated object hierarchies and inheritance models that are anything but reusable. If, instead, one strives to write simple code units that are highly maintainable and perform a single function, in a concise, isolated fashion then the potential for reuse simply “drops out” as a natural by-product.

Programmers, of course, care about these principles, about encapsulation and clean interfaces that don’t expose inner workings and allow easy pluggability. This is great when it helps with the maintenance and development of code but how often, in practice, do we actually reuse our code?

Most DBAs and database developers are familiar with the practical reasons for the limited opportunities to reuse database code and its potential downsides. However, surely elsewhere in our code base, reuse happens often. After all, we can all name examples, such as date/time handling modules, which if we write with enough care we can plug in to many places.

I spoke to a developer just yesterday who looked me in the eye and told me that in 30+ years as a developer (a successful one, I’d add), he’d never once reused his own code. As I sat blinking in disbelief, he explained that, of course, he always thought he would reuse it. He’d often agonized over its design, certain that he was creating code of great significance that he and other generations would reuse, with grateful tears misting their eyes. In fact, it never happened.

He had in his head, most of the algorithms he needed and would simply write the code from scratch each time, refining the algorithms and tailoring the code to meet the specific requirements. It was, he said, simply quicker to do that than dig out the old code, check it, correct the mistakes, and adapt it.

Is this a common experience, or just a strange anomaly? Viewed in a certain light, building code with a focus on reusability seems to hark to a past age where people built cars and music systems with the idea that someone else could and would replace and reuse the parts. Technology advances so rapidly that the next time you need the “same” code, it’s likely a new technique, or a whole new language, has emerged in the meantime, better equipped to tackle the task. Maybe we should be less fearful of the idea that we could write code well suited to the system requirements, but with little regard for reuse potential, and then rewrite a better version from scratch the next time.