My worst mistakes in programming

I’m in the middle of refactoring a big infrastructure piece in our product PopScan. It’s very early code, rarely touched since its inception in 2004, so I’m dealing mainly with my sins of the past.

This time like no time before, I’m feeling the two biggest mistake I have ever made in designing a program, so I though I’d make this post here in order to help others not fall into the same trap.

Remember this: Once you are no longer alone working on your project, the code you have written sets an example. Mistakes you have made are copied – either verbatim or in spirit. The design you have chosen lives on in the code that others write (rightfully so – you should strive to keep code consistent).

This makes it even more important not to screw up.

Back in 2004 I have failed badly at two places.

  • I chose a completely wrong abstraction in class design, mixing two things that should be separate.
  • I chose – in a foolhearted whish to save on CPU time to create a ton of internal state instead of fetching the data when it’s needed (I could still cache then, but I missed that).

So here’s the story.

One is the architectural issue.

Let me tell you, dear reader, should you ever be in the position of having to do anything even remotely related to an ecommerce solution dealing with products and orders, so repeat with me:

Product lists are not the same thing as orders. Orders are not the same thing as baskets.

and even more importantly:

A product and a line item are two completely different things.

A line item describes how a specific product is placed in a list, so at best, a product is contained in a line item. A product doesn’t have a quantity. A product doesn’t have a total price.

A line item does.

And when we are at it: «quantity» is not a number. It is the entitiy that describes the amount of times the product is contained within the line item. As such a quantity usually consists of an amount and a unit. If you change the unit, you change the quantity. If you change the amount, you change the quantity.

Anyways – sitting down and thinking of the entities in the feature that you are implementing is an essential part of the work that you do. Even it it seems “kinda right” at the time, even if it works “right” for years – once you make a mistake at a bad place, you are stuck with it.

PopScan is about products and ordering them. Me missing the distinction between a product and a line item back in 2004 worked fine until now, but as this is a core component of PopScan, it has grown the most over the years, more and more intertwining product and line item functionality to the point of where it’s too late to fix this now or at least it would require countless hours of work.

Work that will have to be done sooner rather than later. Work that deeply affects a core component of the product. Work that will change the API greatly and as such can only be tested for correctness in integration tests. Unit tests become useless as the units that are
being tested won’t exist any more in the future.

Painful work.

If only I had more time and experience those 8 years ago.

The other issue is about state

Let’s say you have a class FooBar with a property Foo that is exposed as part of the public API via a getFoo method.

That Foo relies of some external data – let’s call it foodata.

Now you have two options of dealing with that foodata:

  1. You could read foodata into an internal foo field at construction time. Then, whenever your getFoo() is called, you return the value you stored in foo.
  2. Or you could read nothing until getFoo() is called and then read foodata and return that (optionally caching it for the next call to getFoo())

Choosing the first design for most of the models back in 2004 was the second biggest coding mistake I have ever made in my life.

Aside of the fact that constructing one of these FooBar objects becomes more and more expensive the more stuff you preload (likely never to be used for the lifetime of the object), you have also contributed to a huge amount of internal state of the object.

The temptation to write a getBar() method that has a side effect of also altering the internal foo field is just too big. And now you end up with a getBar() that suddenly also depends on the internal state of foo which suddenly is disconnected from the initial foodata.

Worse, suddenly calling code will see different results depending on whether it calls getBar() before it’s calling getFoo(). Which will of course lead to code depending on that fact, so fixing it becomes very hard (but at least caught by unit tests).

Having the internal fields also leads to FooBar’s implementation preferring these fields over the public methods, which is totally fine, as long as FooBar stands alone.

But the moment there’s a FooFooBar which inherits from FooBar, you lose all the advantages of polymorphism. FooBar’s implementation will always only use its own private fields. It’s impossible for FooFooBar to affect FooBar’s implementation, causing the need to override many more methods than what would have been needed if FooBar used its own public API.


These two mistakes cost us hours and hours of working around our inability to do what we want. It cost us hours of debugging and it causes new features to come out much more clunky than they need to be.

I have done so many bad things in my professional life. A shutdown -h instead of -r on a remote server. A mem=512 boot parameter (yes. That number is/was interpreted as bytes. And yes. Linux needs more than 512 bytes of RAM to boot), an update without where clause – I’ve screwed up so badly in my life.

But all of this is nothing compared to these two mistakes.

These are not just inconveniencing myself. These are inconveniencing my coworkers and our customers (because we need more time to implement features).

Shutting down a server by accident means 30 minutes of downtime at worst (none since we heavily use VMWare). Screwing up a class design twice is the gift that keeps on giving.

I’m so sorry for you guys having to put up with OrderSet of doom.

Sorry guys.