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Cargo Cult in Software Development

Updated: May 23

Software development is full of best practices, patterns, and methodologies that aim to make our work more efficient and our code more reliable. We often look to successful projects and experienced developers for guidance, trying to replicate their techniques to achieve similar success. However, sometimes we focus too much on copying these practices without fully understanding the principles behind them. This can lead to what is known as "Cargo Cult" programming.


The term "Cargo Cult" comes from events that happened in the South Pacific during and after World War II. During the war, soldiers from advanced countries came to these islands and brought lots of supplies, like food and clothes. The local people had never seen these things before and thought they were magical or divine.


When the war ended, the soldiers left and stopped bringing supplies. Some islanders started copying what they saw the soldiers do, like building fake runways, air planes and control towers, and even pretending to use radios. They believed that if they acted like the soldiers, the supplies would come back. These actions were called "Cargo Cults." The islanders were focusing on imitating the looks and actions without understanding what really made the supplies come.


Pitfalls

The same things can happen in any software development project. There can be a lot of indicators for "Cargo Cult" programming, it doesn't mean that they all have to happen but there is a chance of occurrence.

  • Operational Blindness: Working on the same project for a long time can improve your skills and knowledge about the code and its dependencies. But there is also a risk. You can get blind to your own code or decisions. Also working with the same coworkers can lead to a shared mindset or opinion. Introducing new coworkers or giving temporary insights to the project to other people in the company have a high chance of revealing these blind spots. Additionally conducting regular retrospectives (as practiced in Scrum) can expose areas that need improvement.

  • Time Pressure:Tight deadlines and pressure to deliver can lead developers to adopt practices that seem to work, bypassing the time-consuming process of learning and understanding the details. It might look like that it works for the first steps but as soon as the first bugs arise this initial concept will start to crumble. Since only limited time was spent building a knowledge base, the concept might be understood superficial. Tackling this issues will be more time consuming, since the developers are forced to learn things about their code base the hard way. Investing time to learn and understand how things really work is crucial for the developers team velocity. If people start neglecting these things, time will take vengeance some day.

  • Copy&Paste: Learning from tutorials, articles, or code snippets can be a great way to pick up new skills and techniques. However, this approach can lead to Cargo Cult programming if developers copy and paste code without understanding its purpose or how it fits into their specific project. This superficial adoption of code snippets can cause problems down the line, as the code might not be optimized for the project’s particular needs or might introduce hidden bugs. To avoid this pitfall, developers should strive to understand the underlying principles and context of the code they are using. They should experiment with the code in isolated environments to see how it behaves and read accompanying documentation or related materials to grasp the bigger picture. Pair programming and code reviews can also help, as they provide opportunities to discuss and understand the code more deeply. Encouraging a culture of learning and continuous improvement within the team can ensure that tutorials and articles are used as starting points rather than definitive solutions.

  • Mentorship: Without proper guidance and mentorship, junior developers might mimic the practices of more experienced colleagues without fully grasping the rationale behind them. This can lead to the propagation of practices that are not fully understood or suitable for the project, contributing to Cargo Cult programming. To address this issue, establishing a structured mentorship program within the team is crucial. Experienced developers should take the time to explain not just how to do things, but why certain practices are used. Regularly scheduled knowledge-sharing sessions, code reviews, and pair programming can provide valuable learning opportunities. Creating a safe environment where junior developers feel comfortable asking questions and discussing their thoughts can lead to a deeper understanding and better adoption of best practices.

  • Obstinacy: Sometimes developers follow practices because "it's always been done this way" or because a respected figure endorses it, without critically evaluating its applicability to their own situation. This blind adherence to tradition or authority can stifle innovation and lead to ineffective solutions. Encouraging a culture of critical thinking and continuous questioning can help mitigate this issue. Developers should be empowered to ask why a particular practice is being used and to consider whether it is the best approach for the current situation. Team discussions, retrospectives, and brainstorming sessions can be effective in evaluating existing practices and exploring new ones. Documenting the reasoning behind key decisions can also provide valuable context for future team members and help ensure that practices are continually reassessed and improved.

  • AI: Relying too heavily on AI tools like ChatGPT or Copilot without understanding the suggestions can lead to problems. While these tools can be incredibly helpful for generating code snippets and providing solutions, they are not infallible and can produce suboptimal or incorrect results if not used carefully. Developers should use AI tools as assistants rather than crutches. It’s important to review and understand the code generated by these tools, making necessary adjustments to fit the project’s specific needs. Cross-referencing AI-generated code with official documentation, established best practices, and team guidelines can ensure that it meets the required standards. Encouraging a mindset of critical evaluation and thorough testing can help developers leverage AI tools effectively while maintaining high-quality code and robust solutions.


Lecture recommendations

To further combat the pitfalls of Cargo Cult programming and enhance your development skills, I highly recommend the following books:


  • Clean Code by Robert C. Martin: This book is a must-read for any developer aiming to write better, more maintainable code. "Clean Code" offers practical advice on how to improve the readability and quality of your codebase. By emphasizing the importance of writing clean, well-structured code, it helps developers understand the principles behind good coding practices, reducing the likelihood of falling into the trap of imitating without understanding.

  • Effective Java by Joshua Bloch: For Java developers, "Effective Java" is an invaluable resource. This book provides a deep dive into best practices and patterns for Java programming. Joshua Bloch covers essential topics such as creating and destroying objects, methods common to all objects, and concurrency. By understanding these best practices, developers can make informed decisions and avoid superficial implementations, leading to more robust and efficient code.

  • Bad Programming by Mark C. Marotta: This book explores common programming mistakes and how to avoid them. "Bad Programming" serves as a cautionary guide, highlighting practices that can lead to poor code quality and inefficiencies. By learning from these examples, developers can become more aware of potential pitfalls and develop a critical eye towards their own coding habits, fostering a deeper understanding of what constitutes good and bad practices.


Reading these books will provide valuable insights and help you develop a more thoughtful, principled approach to software development. They encourage not just the adoption of best practices, but also a deeper understanding of why these practices work, which is crucial for avoiding Cargo Cult programming.


Summary

Understanding and avoiding "Cargo Cult" programming is essential for any software development team striving for excellence. By focusing on deep learning, fostering a culture of mentorship and critical thinking, and using tools thoughtfully, developers can enhance their skills and produce higher quality code. Continuous improvement and a commitment to understanding the principles behind best practices will lead to more effective and sustainable software projects.


Affiliate Disclosure

Some of the links on this blog are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through these links. This comes at no additional cost to you and helps support the content provided on this blog. Thank you for your support!


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