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How Understanding the Chesterton Fence Can Make You a Better Programmer!

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    Nico Prananta

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

As programmers, we often find ourselves eager to refactor, rewrite, or remove code that seems outdated or unnecessary. However, before we leap into action, it's essential to consider the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton's famous principle: the Chesterton Fence. This principle, though originating from a completely different context, holds invaluable lessons for developers, especially in the complex world of software engineering.

Imagine stumbling across a fence in the middle of a software project, much like Chesterton's analogy. This fence could be an obscure piece of code, a puzzling function, or even a deprecated library. Your first instinct, driven by a desire for efficiency and modernization, might be to remove it. But here lies the crux of Chesterton's lesson: "Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place."

In the realm of programming, this fence represents the decisions of those who came before us. It's a cautionary tale against the arrogance of believing we know better than our predecessors without fully understanding their context. Often, these fences were erected for reasons that aren't immediately obvious – to solve a specific bug, comply with a forgotten regulation, or handle a rare edge case.

Taking this lesson to heart, let's explore a scenario where you encounters an old, seemingly redundant piece of code. Instead of swiftly deleting it, you should pause and investigate. You then talk to senior developers, dive into the project's history, and explore the documentation. Through this process, you discover that the code was a crucial workaround for a rare but critical issue that occurred under specific conditions.

By respecting the Chesterton Fence, you not only avoid reintroducing an old bug but also gains a deeper understanding of the system's intricacies. This approach fosters a culture of thoughtful development, where changes are made with consideration and respect for the project's history.

The Chesterton Fence principle urges us, as developers, to approach our craft with humility and curiosity. It reminds us that our codebases are rich with history and context, often containing lessons from past challenges and solutions. By embracing this principle, we can evolve our software responsibly, ensuring that progress doesn't come at the cost of stability and reliability.

So, the next time you're about to refactor that old piece of code, remember the Chesterton Fence. It might just save you from reintroducing a long-forgotten bug or, even better, provide an enlightening glimpse into the wisdom embedded in your codebase.

By the way, I'm making a book about Pull Requests Best Practices. Check it out!