The Boy Scout Rule for Better Code

· 4 min read
The Boy Scout Rule for Better Code

You know that feeling when you’re out camping, and you take extra care to leave your little site nicer than how you found it? Picking up that candy wrapper fluttering near the fire pit, making sure you don’t forget any trash bags, and even leaving some extra wood you collected for the campers that come after you go a long way.

It’s not hard to do, but you put in that tiny bit of effort because it’s the responsible thing — the next folks to pitch their tent there deserve to enjoy the site as much as you did. The same idea applies perfectly when we’re heads-down writing code. In a rush to finish some tricky logic or fix those pesky bugs, it’s tempting to tell ourselves we’ll clean things up later.

But taking just a couple minutes to take out the trash, so to speak, makes a world of difference for whoever visits that section of code next — maybe your teammate or your future self six months down the line.

Note to Self: Clean As You Go

You sit down, putting a fresh cup of coffee on the table. You open your laptop, ready to make more progress on the feature you’d been heads-down on late Friday afternoon. You pull up the code, take a sip of coffee, and immediately do a spit-take as your eyes scan the screen.

None of this makes any sense! Variable names seemed clever late Friday night after your third cup from the pot, but now they feel sloppy. As you try decoding the tangled logic, you come across a couple obvious bugs marked TODO. You shake your head, thinking — why didn’t I just take the five minutes to fix those before moving on?

You scroll further and realize zero comments explain the utility functions you created. And the new function that felt so brilliant on Friday night now seems needlessly complex without any docs.

You look at who’s online in Slack, hoping no colleagues happen to see this monster on the screen. How could you let things get so messy? You vow that next time, you’ll put that Post-It your mentor Jake made you with “Rule #6 — Leave it better than you found it!” on your laptop to remind you.

With a sigh, you crack your knuckles and start tidying things up before you lose all context from Friday. Your future self deserves better than this. Next time you feel tunnel vision coming on, you’ll remember this lesson and take just a bit of time to leave things cleaner than you found them.

What is the Boy Scouting Rule?

It’s always like that. You’ve got a million things on your plate and a deadline breathing down your neck. As you hammer away at your current ticket, it’s tempting to tell yourself you’ll come back to tidy up your code later. That’s how you end up with monster legacy systems that make future devs cry.

Instead, adopt a simple mantra — “Leave it cleaner than you found it.” Print those words in your favorite font or meme pic and stick them on the wall to remind you daily. It’s a riff on the Boy Scouts’ rule to leave your campsite better than you found it, popularized by Rob C. Martin (Uncle Bob).

It doesn’t mean you must halt all progress to perfectly reformat thousands of lines. Just sprinkle in those tiny 3-minute improvements as you go. Renamed that messy variable? That definitely counts. Added some comments so others can learn? That’s another one. Fixing sloppy formatting counts as well. Over time, those tiny improvements snowball into meaningful impacts. Your future self will thank you.

Making Code Better Step-by-Step

When working on the code, take a second to tweak things to leave it a little nicer. If you’re already updating part of the code anyway, glance around to see if variable names or formatting looks messy nearby. Rename or reformat things to make it read better for the next person. Those tiny cleanups will help down the road when someone revisits this section.

Whenever you come across docs or comments, check if they make sense and sound current. Update anything confusing or outdated. Good docs mean less headache when working in this area later.

While you’re in there, check for consistency in style and naming. Standardize things if variables or functions seem fragmented. Consistent and clear naming makes code way more scanable.

Catch any tiny bugs like typos while you can, even if they’re unrelated. Little stuff like that could bite someone later.

Before checking in your changes, add some tests to lock things down. Think through edge cases to smoke out issues. Tests let you refine safely in the future.

Tell your team about the tweaks you made to tidy things up. Explain what you improved so they learn what to keep an eye on. Share the love to get them to do the same.

You shape quality over time by deliberately making little fixes whenever you touch code. Small changes compound into way better maintainability, safety, and agility. Be a scout — leave your code campsite cleaner than you found it.

Finding the Right Balance When Improving Code

As you work to leave code a little cleaner than you found it, it’s easy to get carried away wanting to fix everything. However, drastic changes can disrupt your progress.

Start small and don’t overhaul things completely. Resist the temptation for you to restructure code right off the bat. Instead, look for minor touch-ups like renaming variables or extracting chunks into well-named functions. Small, focused tweaks do add up over time.

When tackling a new feature, you should separate any refactoring work into a separate task instead of mixing the changes. This keeps your main work more focused and easier to walk through later.

Not all potential improvements are equally important for you to make right now. Some style fixes just aren’t worth disrupting your team’s progress. Use your best judgment on what needs your attention today and what can wait.

If you work in a team, you should coordinate bigger refactoring plans with teammates first. This assures changes don’t catch them off guard or block your parallel progress. A little communication goes a long way.

The goal is for you to gradually achieve better code health without compromising delivery. With some balance, you can absolutely accomplish both.

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