Beware the Hack!

Hacks are dangerous little creatures. They live in the darkest, dustiest corners of your application, forgotten about, waiting… Waiting for the chance to rear their ugly little heads, open their disease infested mouths, and sink their jagged teeth into customer confidence and developer productivity.

We’ve all been there. We have a product that works great. It solves a certain problem incredibly well. Then, a well meaning customer comes along and says, “This is fantastic. It almost solves my problem perfectly. Is there any way you can modify it slightly to do X instead of Y.”

Sometimes this is no problem at all. Sometimes the design of the product is flexible in ways that make it a breeze to add this functionality. But, sometimes the request comes out of left field, and takes your product in a direction you never anticipated. While we strive to build software that is extensible and adaptable (it is software after all, isn’t it?), none of us can see the future, nor anticipate every possible customer request.

About this time you start to hear a little voice inside your head. “Well, I suppose I can hard code this, or add an if statement here, or write a one-off script to do X”. After all, you don’t want to tell your customer “No, sorry, we can’t do that”. And, they certainly don’t want to hear “Sure, we can make that modification, but it will require a significant amount of refactoring in order to ‘do it right’”.

Acting on these thoughts births a tiny baby Hack. The Hack is little when it’s born, but it certainly doesn’t stay that way. Once the Hack is born, it is much easier to add to the Hack, or feed it. With everybody modification to the Hack, it gets bigger, and bigger. Pretty soon you have a large, ugly Hack with a nasty attitude on your hands. And, despite you being it’s “mommy”, it doesn’t like you, at all. Not one bit.

Hacks are dangerous for several reasons.

First, they almost always live outside the main execution path of the code. This means they’re not executed nearly as often as the other code. Even if you have a series of tests for the Hack, nothing exercises code like constant execution by your customers. Also, because they’re not really “part of the application”, Hacks are often forgotten about when updating or fixing code.

Second, they’re usually created to quickly get around some issue. And by “quickly”, I mean “didn’t totally think this though, but I’m fairly certain that if I tweak X, alter Y, and drive it with a custom script, it should work just fine”. And, usually it does work just fine…at least in the beginning. But, this is when the Hack is still young, and under your control. Adult Hacks are not nearly as cooperative.

Third, they’re usually only known about (at least in detail) by the members of the team that created them. A Hack is like a big, puss filled pimple on your ass. You don’t go around showing those to your friends and co-workers, do you? Hacks, by definition, are quick and dirty solutions to problems. They’re not elegant, or sexy. So, developers tend to keep their Hacks to themselves. At most, a developer will mention that they hacked around a problem, but rarely do they go into details. The other team members are largely left in the dark. Not knowing where a Hack lives or how it behaves is a sure fire way to get bitten by it down the road.

Always remember, that little baby Hack…it will grow up. It will get nasty. It will bite. It’s just a matter of when and where. Those who have been programming for long enough know this to be fact. And, being nasty little creatures, Hacks usually wait until the worst possible time to bite.

So, beware the Hack! They are big, ugly, mean, have teeth, and will most certainly bite.

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