When Code Duplication is not Code Duplication

Duplicating code is a bad thing. Any engineer worth his salt knows that the more you repeat yourself, the more difficult it will be to maintain your code. We’ve enshrined this in a well-known principle called the DRY principle, where DRY is an acronym standing for Don’t Repeat Yourself. So code duplication should be avoided at all costs. Right?

At work I recently came across an interesting case of code duplication that merits more thought, and shows how there is some subtlety needed in application of every coding guideline, even the bedrock ones.

Consider the following CSS, which is a simplified version of a common scenario.

.title {
  color: #111111;
}
.text-color-gray-1 {
  color: #111111;
}

This looks like code duplication, right? If both classes are applying the same color, then they do the same thing. If the do the same thing, then they should BE the same thing, right?

But CSS and markup in general presents an interesting case. Are these rules really doing the same thing? Are they both responsible for making the text gray? No.

The function of these two rules is different, even though the effect is the same. The first rule styles titles on the website, while the second rule styles any arbitrary div. The first rule is a generalized style, while the second rule is a special case override. The two rules do fundamentally different things.

Imagine a case where we optimized those two classes by removing the title class and just using the latter class. Then the designer changes the title color to dark blue. To change the title color, the developer now has to replace each occurrence of .text-color-gray-1 where it styles a title. So, by optimizing two things with different purposes, the developer has actually made more work.

It’s important to recognize in this case that code duplication is not always code duplication. Just because these two CSS classes are applying the same color doesn’t mean that they are doing the same thing. In this case, the CSS classes are more like variables than methods. They hold the same value, but that is just a coincidence.

What looks like code duplication is not actually code duplication.

But… what is the correct thing?

There is no right answer here. It’s a complex problem. You could solve it in lots of different ways, and there are probably three or four different approaches that are equally valid, in the sense that they result in the same amount of maintenance.

The important thing is not to insist that there is one right way to solve this problem, but to recognize that blithely applying the DRY principle here may not be the path to less maintenance.

15. March 2017 by evan
Categories: Software Design | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment