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Code reuse highly overrated?

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Carl Lewis recently found an old but still interesting piece by Dennis Forbes about the tradeoffs of code reuse. Lewis elaborated a bit on one of the more controversial concepts from Forbes' blog entry: that contrary to conventional wisdom of code as an asset, code has very little value outside the immediate context of the organization that created the code in question. Forbes goes on to assert that if the code asset has not been explicitly engineered for generality, code reuse even within the same organization is also problematic when reuse is attempted across projects.

Forbes attacks the tendency of many in-house dev teams to spend a lot of time building in-house frameworks and libraries intended for reuse across projects:

The greater the bulk of code you accumulate, the more intrinsically you tie yourself to your current developers (and the more they occupy their brain with information that is only applicable in one organization or team), and the more difficult it will be to bring new developers online. Such frameworks and libraries often come with enormous learning curves for new hires - especially as documentation is virtually always ignored - and they can seldom be reused for anything else without significant refactoring (because they likely weren't truly designed for reuse, or they were in only the most arbitrary and superficial of ways…

… The question every organization needs to ask itself, then, is what value they could sell their "reusable code" for - what, realistically, would competitors and new entrants in the field offer for it? The answer, in almost every case, is $0, and they wouldn't want it even at that price. There is extraordinarily little code theft in this industry (even though we're in the era of burnable DVDs and USB keys) because most code - above and beyond the industry-wide frameworks and libraries - has no value at all outside of a specific project with a specific group of developers. Trying to use it for other projects is often worse than starting with nothing at all.

Forbes concludes that because properly abstracted and generalized frameworks are more expensive to design and develop than one-off solutions, and since the time and cost for a developer to absorb the complexity of a new framework is rarely taken into account when doing a code reuse cost benefit analysis, it makes sense to reuse code a lot less often than one would think. It is notable that Forbes is not against reusing code and frameworks altogether; he is much more positive about reusing code in industry standard libraries for instance. In fact, Forbes advocates the adoption of broad industry-standard frameworks (such as open source) that by necessity have the proper abstraction and encapsulation boundaries built in as an alternative to complex internally developed frameworks.

In Carl Lewis' post on the subject he highlights Forbes' $0 value assessment of most codebases. Lewis shares just one example of when he has encountered an organization that has an inflated sense of the value of their code, calling them “jealously protective” of that code. Predicatively, when Lewis flew thousands of miles to be onsite so that the code wouldn't have to leave the premises, Lewis found that the actual codebase being jealously protected was pretty bad.  Due to examples like this Lewis believes that  "in many cases, the risk of [code theft] happening is much less than is generally thought," and so companies shouldn't be afraid to  share their code in cases where it may make sense. 

And so Lewis and Forbes present an interesting reality check for us with regard to the value of our code assets, because as Lewis says:

It seems very counterintuitive that something that is so difficult and expensive to create can have so little value. I guess that's why so many organizations like to pretend that their code is much more valuable than it really is.

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