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I am maintaining one application in construction industry space. That application was created 25 years ago by construction worker that never wrote single line of code before, but because he caused a lot of problems on construction site they give him Programming 101 book and let him build it.

15 years later the app was close to half milion lines long of huge bowl of spaghetti code. Only comments in whole codebase were timestamps. I don't know why he dated his code, but I find it fascinating: he never deleted basically anything so you can find different timeframes of when he discovered various concepts. There is use-exception-instead-of-if period, there is time when he discovered design patterns, there is time before he learnt SQL so all the database queries was done by iterating over whole tables and such. I am sure I will find commented Hello world somewhere in the code someday.

I am working on this codebase for 10 years. Code quality improved and major issues get fixed, but there is not enough budget to actually rewrote whole system, so after all it is more or less huge spaghetti monster and I get used to it.

I have to salute this construction worker for building a solution that is apparently so valuable for the business that they can’t simply replace or rewrite it. This probably means that it solves a real problem for them, and adding 30.000 lines of code per year without any formal training or much tooling is no small feat either. I understand the criticisms and laughs here from the “real” software developers, but damn it’s just impressive what people can create on their own given enough time and motivation.

It is impressive indeed. The coding started just in time when Windows 95 were released. There was no Stackoverflow and they don't even really have internet back then. The programmer (as far as I know) didn't even speak English so he has access to book or two in German language and code snipets in help section of Delphi. At the same time creating applications with UI just started, so there was very little experience available, espcially in rural Austria.

Company did tried to migrate to other software few times, but the software is just too specific for given industry and legislation of small country that the companies who tried to create similar software usually went bankrupt soon.

Rural Austria? Please provide a company name ... or at least first and last character :)

Somewhere out there, there's a software developer who was assigned the task of building the team's office using 30,000 bricks, making all kind of spaghetti patches to prevent it from falling over, and the construction workers are laughing about it on a construction worker forum.

And this is the wall where he discovered you can use cement to bind the bricks. And here he even mixes that cement with sand and water. This is a safer place to stand.


A spaghetti monster which solves a real business problem can be improved, chunked into pieces, gradually rewritten, whatever improves maintenance. If need be, there will be funds and time for doing so.

By contract, an impeccably architectured, layered, no-design-patterns-omitted, product which solves no business problem .. oh, the horror.

One of my first jobs in the industry was really similar. I ended up sitting down with a friend and rewriting it in C#. We didn’t have permission, but no one knew until our codebase was already in working shape (a month or so). We got away with it because the original codebase was so bad that it hadn’t shipped in 5 years. Months of 0 productivity were normal. My friend and I went on to rewrite the entire suite of products over the course of a year or two. We then started our own business. The rewrites were the most successful products that company had ever had in the modern era. Rewriting is not always a bad idea, and it can be less expensive in the medium run. Few seem to realize this, thanks to Joel Spolsky’s blog post on the matter being seen as dogma.

We had a bunch of code at work that everyone sort of begrudgingly used that I wrote almost 20 years ago, not knowing too much about what I was doing. I have recently rewritten it – about 100kLOC of messy C++ turned into 25kLOC of bliss. The test coverage we had ensured that we didn’t have to worry about anything breaking. I hate myself a bit less :)

I feel like you could make a huge chart on the wall showing the epochs and what the previous developer didn't know at that time. Like "why would it be done this way? Ah 1997, let's see on the chart... Ah right, Greg doesn't know SQL here"

Haha that would be amazing!

what kind of problems do you cause at a construction site that do not get you fired but reassigned to Programmer with programming 101 book?

Probably fall from roof few times or was not really handy with hammer or something.

The company is quite fascinating, they started around 1945 and during the years they've became small conglomerate. There are three or even four generations workign together and once they like you as a person they will find something for you to do.

Is the original programmer still at the company in any capacity?

No, he left before I was hired as a consultant. I had never get chance to talk to him in any form. I am the single person who ever touched the source code for past 10 years. I don't know why he left or where he went.

From my experience this means they had a strong union.

Perhaps he played too much Minecraft and tried building a Turing machine from the materials on the construction site?

C can't be that different from redstone right?

Like reading the journal you found in the abandoned house you just moved in and it belonged to the previous kid that used to live there. Sounds like a movie.

Oh yeah it might be commedy where two people argue about spaces vs tabs and there come our function of 20k lines in single block of code that never heard about using any of those... nor about moving repeated code to own function.

This sounds quite awesome, terrible, and he sounds like he was jumping into a very deep end. Quite sad that he seemingly didn't have someone to tutor/mentor him moving to this role. Given that it worked, and there was a learning curve as you described, over a decade, he seems to have had some big amount of determination to get things to work.

I recall a civil engineering suite of programs that had been converted from Basic into Fortran IV.

The basic was so old it only had two (yes two) character variables - the Fortran code made liberal uses of Arithmetic IF staements !!!!

An example of one is IF (S12 - 1.0) 13, 13, 12

>> there is not enough budget to actually rewrote whole system,

As pointed out elsewhere, this is definitely solving a real problem, the longevity of the app is the proof.

Instead of rewriting, can you replace it with newer idioms? A MVP/PoC for a newer way of solving a problem (AR may be here) that the software solves with some tangible gains, the latter is more important, can lead to approval of a mini budget for that MVP and who knows what that can lead to.

Well, maybe. Biggest problem is using database from 80s, which is used in a way that sometimes it acts like database, sometimes it is used by copying files (one file per table) around random directories with custom locking mechanism.

App consist of maybe 20 different codebases that generate around 30 executables, kind of randomly, fetching source files from different codebases as programmer find a fit + random "fixes" of system modules/component make it all very very hard to do much groundbreaking work.

That's fascinating and gave me a genuine laugh.

I think you won! I had similar experience with my first professional job, a cad cam that is solving building structures for antisysmic regulations. Every developed had his own lib, duplicated code with different bugs on each lib, no comments, every screen was build from copy paste code of other screen and no tests at all. Undercovered bugs was out there for many years without any way of knowing and special sleep functions producing intentionally slow code.

"lava flows" anti-pattern

What is he up to now?

I don't know. The company is based in rural Austria and so it took company quite some time to find another engineer that will took on this project (me). I have never met him or have any other contact with him.

Well, if you're working on a codebase for 10 years, then "no budget" is not really an excuse, sorry. As a responsible engineer, you should have either convinced management to spend some of your time on refactoring main parts, or cleaned it up yourself bit-by-bit every time you touch something. 10 man-years should be enough for a program that was created in 10 years by a single rookie dev.

Sure if this was my job, then I would do it but I am just contractor with set amount of hours devoted to the project. First few years was spend fighting fires as the company needed this very specific software to function, currently it is just about keeping eyes on having it run and occasional fix some report or update data pipelines.

I would say that rewrite would cost about 2 millions of euros. Which is really big price tag for company that use this system as a backoffice tool.

Some company have back offices that they've spent considerably more on. Airline companies for instance may have a tool that lets the person at the gate check who that person is, what their deal is, etc. And then GDPR happened and the bill to ensure that every rule is followed to the letter and suddenly 2M€ isn't that bad after all...

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