Why you should document your code.

Brief History

A year ago I built an e-commerce API with Flask and consumed it with React on the frontend. It was the first time I built a web app like that where the frontend and backend were very separate because before I would use templating engines like Jinja for Flask and Handlebars for Express. Those were the times when I just started programming, I was so full of energy and very ignorant sometimes. I remember seeing a meme or statement like this:

comments.png

Back then I used to follow this statement to the core. If someone had asked me later then what a specific line of code did then I would totally utter out the logic in an instance, as the code was still fresh and flowing through my brain cell networks.

Aftermath

Later about 8 months I started to gain interest in building APIs with express so the first thing I did was well try to build a similar e-commerce API with express and not Flask. I opened two editors side by side. One with Flask the other an empty express API. The idea behind this was to sharpen my express API skills, if I can translate a Flask API to express then I am golden.

An hour through the Flask API code, I was like what kind of sorcery is this:

WTF is this

So I took a break, and then I thought I probably wrote something about these endpoints on Postman. This was definitely the expression I had on my face:

Shocked

I used to save a Postman collection with just plain endpoints nothing to say what they do or need. I did not know which endpoints needed authentication and going through the Flask API was a mess, from variable names to class names. There was a variable I named c What was I doing? I quickly closed the Flask API editor and Postman.

Ummh will come back later

I never opened the API again and the reason was due to lack of documentation.

How can you document your code?

It's actually simple, you can document your code in various ways:

  • Write comments: I definitely changed my mantra from Real Programmers do not comment their code to A quick description won't hurt. Commenting your code will not only make your development faster and easier but will also keep the logic of the code fresh in your mind.

    // @route: Gets all profiles
    route.get("/profiles", (req, res, next) => {
    // ...
    }
    
  • Descriptive variable, function and class names: If you ever name anything in your code make it descriptive, even if you lack a comment the name might still give you an idea of what is going on

    let c; // ❌This is wrong as we don't know what is c. Is it the cart, checkout
    
    let cart; // ✅Now this is more descriptive
    
    const fetchData = () => {} // ❌ This function name does not say anything at all
    
    const fetchProfileData = () => {} // ✅ This function here tells as that this method fetches profile data
    
  • Document your API: If you have an API and maybe you are using a tool like Postman or Insomnia to test our your endpoints, giving it descriptive documentation might not hurt you in any way.

    How to document your code with Postman
    • Always create a collection to house all your API endpoints

      Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 11.52.40 AM.png

      Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 11.54.09 AM.png

      Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 11.54.24 AM.png

      • Always document each request you add to your collection

        Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 11.57.16 AM.png

      Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 12.01.42 PM.png

Advantages of Documenting your code

  • Faster Development: Documenting your code and API endpoint will save you a ton of time to work on updates, populate and fix bugs easily and also allow you to meet your girlfriend or boyfriend or chill with the family😁.
  • Easier collaboration: Let's say you open source your project and you want the developer community to help you in building and shipping your project, you do not want to scare them off with unreadable code.
  • Get feedback fast: If you use a tool like Postman you can share your documentation online so that people can test it out and give you feedback instantly.

    How to share Postman documentation
    • You have to first sign up/sign in to postman on your computer
    • Visit their official website, sign in
    • Click on your workspace

      Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 12.21.04 PM.png

    • Click on the collections tabs Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 12.21.29 PM.png
    • Click on your collection, and if you might notice there is a collection description which explains what it contains. Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 12.23.06 PM.png
    • You will be redirected to a page with all your endpoints where you can test out your functionality. Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 12.24.49 PM.png
    • From there you can choose to publish your documentation or invite users to your workspace. If you click Publish, you will be provided with a public link in which you can share with your friends to test it out. If you choose Share you will give access to all your collections even those that you might want to remain private.

      Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 12.29.38 PM.png Screenshot 2019-06-23 at 12.29.48 PM.png Here is the link to the collection we just created.

Postman is not the only tool that you can use to document your API, there is:

Summary

In this article, we were able to:

  • See why documentation is important
  • List tips on how you can document your code
  • List tips on how you can document your API endpoints with tools like Postman.

Next

On the next article, I will focus on Github documentation from PR to commits.

wachira_dev

I am definitely passionate about software development. I have been a web developer💻 for the last two years. Apart from programming, I love playing FPS and retro games 🎮.

Write your comment…

6 comments

Write comments: I definitely changed my mantra from Real Programmers do not comment their code to A quick description won't hurt.

I think that's overcompensating a bit. Having redundant descriptions is useless, and having wrong/outdated descriptions is worse than useless, so technically it can hurt.

You mention someone asking you what the code does. That's a clue that it is not clear enough without comments.

But this is clear enough without the comment, in my opinion:

// @route: Gets all profiles
route.get("/profiles", (req, res, next) => {
    // ...
}

That said, I like the post and it has good lessons! Use good names, document apis, don't skip comments alltogether.

But just use your judgement on when comments are needed. Don't be extreme in either direction. Try simple code and good names first, and then if it's still unclear, add comments.

(As a hint, anything that starts with "real programmers ..." can de safely disregarded as advice).

(As a hint, anything that starts with "real programmers ..." can de safely disregarded as advice).

real programmers would never say such a thing ;D I am more curious what unreal programmers would do or perhaps surreal ones. :D

Reply to this…

From my experience, if your code is well written, you don't have to write what it does. But always, no matter what, you shall write why it does it and why not the other way.

Consider the following example snippet. This comment is useless:

// Adding fullname property to customers
customers.forEach(_ => _.fullname = `${_.name} ${_.surname}`);

Because you can obviously read that from the code. However:

// Enriching customers data by caching full name as a property.
// This is later used in both display and some processing to
// reduce boilerplate code
customers.forEach(_ => _.fullname = `${_.name} ${_.surname}`);

From this comment, not only you know why it does it, but also you get a general idea where you would see changes if you decide to remove or modify this code. This is a priceless information if you are working in a large development team.

I found Laravel to be an excellent example of this. For instance, check out this method from SQL Query\Builder:

/**
 * Add a join clause to the query.
 *
 * @param  string  $table
 * @param  \Closure|string  $first
 * @param  string|null  $operator
 * @param  string|null  $second
 * @param  string  $type
 * @param  bool    $where
 * @return $this
 */
public function join($table, $first, $operator = null, $second = null, $type = 'inner', $where = false)
{
    $join = $this->newJoinClause($this, $type, $table);
    // If the first "column" of the join is really a Closure instance the developer
    // is trying to build a join with a complex "on" clause containing more than
    // one condition, so we'll add the join and call a Closure with the query.
    if ($first instanceof Closure) {
        call_user_func($first, $join);
        $this->joins[] = $join;
        $this->addBinding($join->getBindings(), 'join');
    }
    // If the column is simply a string, we can assume the join simply has a basic
    // "on" clause with a single condition. So we will just build the join with
    // this simple join clauses attached to it. There is not a join callback.
    else {
        $method = $where ? 'where' : 'on';
        $this->joins[] = $join->$method($first, $operator, $second);
        $this->addBinding($join->getBindings(), 'join');
    }
    return $this;
}

You don't even have to know the bigger picture to understand what and why the method and conditions work the way they do. In my opinion, this is what a truly good comments should look like.

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Thanks for your articule! And for the mentioned tools!

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Thank you very much for this. I gained alot from completing the read.

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