The 2nd Biggest Lie in the Software Industry: "Good Code is Self-Documenting"


The 2nd Biggest Lie in the Software Industry: "Good Code is Self-Documenting"

The software industry is rife with myths, half-truths, and outright lies that can mislead both novices and seasoned professionals. One of the most pervasive and damaging myths is that "good code is self-documenting." This statement suggests that if a programmer writes clean, well-structured code, there is no need for additional documentation because the code itself will convey everything that needs to be understood.

While the notion is seductive, especially to those who dread writing documentation, it is fundamentally flawed. This article delves into why the idea that "good code is self-documenting" is a lie, explores its impact on the software development lifecycle, and provides actionable advice on how to properly document code.

The Allure of Self-Documenting Code

The appeal of self-documenting code is understandable. Developers are often under significant pressure to deliver functional code quickly. Documentation can feel like an afterthought, a non-essential task that takes time away from coding. The promise that code can be inherently understandable without additional explanation is thus highly attractive.

Proponents of this idea argue that if code is written with clarity and simplicity, any competent programmer should be able to understand it. They emphasize practices like meaningful naming conventions, modular design, and adherence to coding standards. While these practices are indeed crucial for writing good code, they are not a substitute for comprehensive documentation.

Why Good Code Is Not Enough

Complexity and Abstraction

Modern software systems are incredibly complex. They often involve multiple layers of abstraction, integrations with other systems, and intricate business logic. Even the most well-written code can be challenging to understand in isolation. For instance, understanding the interaction between different modules or the rationale behind certain design decisions often requires context that is not evident from the code alone.

Evolving Codebases

Codebases are not static; they evolve over time. As new features are added and bugs are fixed, the code becomes more complicated. The original clarity can quickly become obscured by layers of changes. Without proper documentation, understanding the history and evolution of the code becomes a Herculean task.

Onboarding New Developers

One of the most significant challenges in software development is onboarding new developers. Expecting them to understand a large, complex codebase through self-documenting code alone is unrealistic. Good documentation accelerates the onboarding process, allowing new team members to become productive more quickly.

The Role of Documentation

Providing Context

Documentation provides the context that code cannot. It explains the "why" behind the code – why certain decisions were made, why certain patterns were used, and why certain trade-offs were accepted. This context is crucial for understanding the bigger picture and making informed decisions about future modifications.

Facilitating Maintenance

Maintenance is an inevitable part of the software lifecycle. Well-documented code is easier to maintain because it provides a roadmap for understanding how the system works. This reduces the risk of introducing new bugs when making changes, as maintainers have a clearer understanding of the system's design and functionality.

Enhancing Collaboration

In a collaborative environment, documentation serves as a communication tool. It helps ensure that everyone on the team has a shared understanding of the system. This is especially important in large teams where individual members may have specialized knowledge but need to work together seamlessly.

Best Practices for Documentation

Inline Comments

Inline comments are the most immediate form of documentation. They should be used to explain non-obvious parts of the code. However, they should not state the obvious or repeat what the code already clearly expresses. Instead, they should provide insights into the intent behind the code.

Function and Class Descriptions

Every function and class should have a brief description of its purpose, inputs, outputs, and any side effects. This helps other developers understand how to use these components correctly without having to delve into the implementation details.

High-Level Architecture

High-level architectural documentation provides an overview of the system's structure. It should include diagrams and descriptions of the main components and their interactions. This helps new developers and stakeholders understand the system at a glance.

Code Examples

Examples are an excellent way to demonstrate how to use specific parts of the codebase. They can be included in the documentation or as separate files in the repository. Examples should cover common use cases and potential pitfalls.

Keeping Documentation Up-to-Date

Outdated documentation can be worse than no documentation at all, as it can mislead developers. It is crucial to keep documentation up-to-date with the codebase. This requires a cultural shift where documentation is seen as an integral part of the development process rather than an afterthought.

Overcoming the Documentation Challenge

Integrating Documentation into the Workflow

One effective strategy is to integrate documentation into the development workflow. This can be achieved through documentation-driven development (DDD), where writing the documentation is part of the definition of done for any task. This ensures that documentation is created and updated continuously.

Using Documentation Tools

Many tools can help with documentation, such as Javadoc for Java, Doxygen for C++, and Sphinx for Python. These tools can automatically generate documentation from comments in the code, ensuring consistency and reducing the manual effort required.

Encouraging a Documentation Culture

Creating a culture that values documentation is essential. This can be encouraged through code reviews where documentation is evaluated alongside the code, and by recognizing and rewarding good documentation practices.

Case Studies: The Consequences of Poor Documentation

The Ariane 5 Disaster

One of the most infamous examples of the consequences of poor documentation is the Ariane 5 rocket failure in 1996. The rocket exploded 40 seconds after launch due to a software error. The software was reused from the Ariane 4, but the documentation failed to highlight critical differences in the flight characteristics between the two rockets. This lack of documentation led to a catastrophic failure. Launch

Another notable example is the troubled launch of in 2013. The website was plagued with issues, partly due to poor documentation and communication between the various teams involved. The lack of clear documentation made it difficult to diagnose and fix the problems quickly, leading to a highly publicized failure.


The idea that "good code is self-documenting" is a dangerous myth in the software industry. While writing clean, understandable code is essential, it is not a substitute for thorough documentation. Documentation provides the context, clarity, and communication necessary to maintain and evolve complex software systems.

By recognizing the importance of documentation and integrating it into the development process, teams can improve their efficiency, reduce errors, and create more maintainable codebases. In the end, good documentation is not just a nice-to-have; it is a critical component of successful software development.

Post a Comment

Post a Comment (0)