Jun 182011

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I realize that the original article of the same title was longer than what most would like to read. So here is an abridged version.

By now everybody and their screensaver have heard the Optimization Mantra: Don’t Do It! This is commonly wrapped in a three-rule package. The first two of which are copies of the mantra, and the third adds the wise word “Yet” to the one-and-only true rule and addresses it to the “expert.”

Premature optimization; Most of us have been there. And that’s what makes those words very familiar. Words of wisdom, if you will. We’ve all decided to do a smart trick or two before fleshing out the algorithm and even checking if it compiles, let alone checking the result, only to be dumbfounded by the output. I can figure it out! we declare… and after half a day, we’d be damned if we rewrote that stupid function from scratch. No chance, bub.

The rules are sound. No doubt. Another rule of optimization, when the time comes, is to use profilers and never, ever, make costly assumptions. And any assumption is probably costly. That, too, is sound. These are words of wisdom, no doubt. But, taken at face-value they could cause some harm.

In all but the smallest projects one must use a profiler, consult with others and especially talk with module owners, veteran developers and the architects before making any changes. The change-set must be planned, designed and well managed. The larger the project, the more this stage becomes important. No funny tricks, please.

Efficient Code != Premature Optimization

The traditional wisdom tells us to avoid premature optimization and when absolutely necessary, we should first use a profiler. But both of these can also be interpreted as follows: it’s OK to write inefficient and bloated code, and when necessary, we’ll see what the profiler comes up with.

Performance as an afterthought is very costly. Extremely so. But the alternative isn’t premature optimization. There is a very thin line between well-thought and designed code that you’d expect a professional to output and the student toy-project style coding. The latter focuses on getting the problem-of-the-moment solved, without any regards to error handling or performance or indeed maintenance.

It’s not premature optimization to use dictionary/map instead of a list or array if reading is more common. It’s not premature optimization to use an O(n) algorithm instead of the O(n2) that isn’t much more complicated than what we’ll use (if not an O(log2 n) algorithm). Similarly, moving invariant data outside a loop isn’t premature optimization.

As much as I’d hate to have a pretentious show-off in my team, who’d go around “optimizing” code by making wild guesses and random changes, without running a profiler or talking with their colleagues, I’d hate it even more if the team spent their time cleaning up after one another. It’s easy to write code without thinking more than a single step ahead. It’s easy to type some code, run it, add random trace logs (instead of properly debugging,) augment the code, run again, and repeat until the correct output is observed. As dull and dead-boring as that is.

I’m not suggesting that this extreme worse-case that I’ve described is the norm (although you’d be surprised to learn just how common it is.) My point is that there is a golden mean between “premature optimization” and “garbage coding.”

The Cost of Change

It’s well documented that the cost of change increases exponentially the later a project is in it’s development cycle. (See for example Code Complete.) This cost is sometimes overlooked, thanks to the Rule of Optimization. The rule highly discourages thinking about performance when one should at least give it a good thinking when designing.

This doesn’t suggest optimization-oriented development. Rather, having a conscious grasp of the performance implications can avoid a lot of painful change down the road. As we’ve already iterated, designing and writing efficient code doesn’t necessarily mean premature optimization. It just means we’re responsible and we are balancing the cost by investing a little early and avoiding a high cost in the future. For a real-life example see Robert O’Callahan’s post.


Premature optimization is a major trap. The wisdom of the community tells us to avoid experimenting on our production code and postponing optimization as much as possible. Only when the code is mature, and only when necessary should we, by the aid of a profiler, decide the hot-spots and then, and only then, very carefully optimize the code.

This strategy encourages developers to come up with inefficient, thoughtless and -often- outright ugly code. All in the name of avoiding premature optimization. Furthermore, it incorrectly assumes that profiling is a magic solution to improving performance.

There are no excuses to writing inefficient code if the alternative is available at a small or no cost. There is no excuse to not thinking the algorithm ahead of typing. No excuse to leaving old experimental bits and pieces because we might need them later, or that we’ll cleanup later when we optimize. The cost of poor design, badly performing code is very high.

Let’s optimize later, but let’s write efficient code, not optimum, just efficient, from the get-go.

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  One Response to “The Second Law of Optimization (Abridged)”

  1. Thanks for your bright post.

    Because I admired very much, I’ve translated into Japanese just now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 (0)

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