Does your project have magic code?

I love magic code. It’s both a sign of a rapidly evolving software where priorities are fluid and sometimes moving on is the only option, and a rapidly evolving organization where code ownership tends to switch and new owners tend to write around things, leaving magic code at the margins of the codebase.

Magic code is sometimes a testament to poor or non-existing code review and documentation practice. Someone wrote it, then they left. Then this other person came in and tried to untangle it, and all we got was a broken build and we haven’t touched it since — no time and no energy to understand it, if leaving it intact gets the job done.

Magic code is scary, especially when it resides at the bottom or at the heart of your software stack. This magic code is always guarded by select few who know of it’s central nature in the world, but can’t explain how it makes the system work, which gives rise to a kind of religious following. We know it’s important, we know it rules over us, but we can’t tell you how it functions or why it works they way it works, and… we are afraid to challenge it.

Absence of magic code can be scary too! That’s the opposite problem. When everything is neat and proper, when everything makes sense, when there is no unexplained, preternatural totem to worship and obey. This is usually a sign that too much time is spent preening the code base, fixing the technical debt, and doing so obsessively, refactoring and generally making things perfect for the sake of perfection.

Neither extreme is good, and both are equally unrealistic. As is often the case with matters with two extremities, it’s all about the balance.

Does your code base have magic code?

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