The tyranny of poor tools (1)

I recently had the experience of checking in some changes to a source code file. I had changed just a few lines, but my editor (Emacs) had, as I had instructed it to do, automatically removed the trailing whitespace from each line whenever I executed the “save-buffer” command. Trailing spaces are worse than worthless, so removing them is a Good Thing, right?

Because the “diff” tool in common use where I worked was not configured to ignore differences consisting only of whitespace, each trailing space that Emacs had deleted was highlighted as a source code change demanding attention from the code reviewers. Instead of a few lines appearing as changed, there were dozens.

I found these spurious differences annoying, but thought the right thing for code reviewers to do was to ignore them, since these were not real changes.

Imagine my surprise when I was asked to put the deleted whitespace back!

The reason given was that, in addition to the burden on the code reviewer of having to ignore all these changes-that-are-not-really-changes, the source control software might have trouble handling those “differences”.

Now, the person who made the request is a smart fellow, no bozo. Yet he felt obliged to urge me to spend precious development time in order to better adapt to that broken source control software.

Of course, many organizations developing software have a filter that removes trailing whitespace as part of the check-in. But the relentless pressure to get things done, coupled with the fact that humans are more intelligent and more adaptable than either organizations or software, means that we humans do the adapting, even when the entire point of the organizational procedures or computer software is to help us do our jobs.

Copyright © 2009 Possum Technologies, All Rights Reserved.

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