Andrew Gibiansky   ::   Math → [Code]

Creating a Culture of Good Engineering

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

I’ve recently started working at Karius, working on the software platform behind a new way to test for infectious disease. We’ve started growing quickly recently, and so we’ve been thinking a lot about how you can set up a culture of high quality engineering. What can you do to ensure that as you grow, you stay focused on high-quality code, architecture, and product? This blog post describes some of the conclusions we’ve come to in our discussions. Some of these ideas may be applicable to any software business; some of them should be obvious to anyone who’s worked in a culture of high-quality engineering; others are specific to what we care about at Karius and may not make sense everywhere. These are simply our thoughts on good engineering practices, and take from this what you will. This post is written as a set of suggestions, with some of the language assuming you’re not already doing these things – if you are, that’s great, but if you’re not, this post provides ways to gradually ramp up and ease in to high-quality engineering practices.

As an aside: if you’re interested in working on a team of crazy biologists, engineers, data scientists, and clinicians trying to forever change the way infectious diseases are diagnosed and treated, we’re hiring anyone who wants to use software to push the limits of diagnostic and genomic technologies, with a focus on software engineering, infrastructure, devops, frontend and backend development, computational biology, and machine learning. Take a look at our AngelList job postings or send me an email! (My email is in the sidebar.)

Why “Culture”?

Good engineering isn’t just something done by one person. As with any collaborative enterprise, it requires team buy-in, discipline, and vigilance to create an amazing engineering initiative. It’s not just about doing the right thing yourself – it’s also about making it easy to do things the right way and hard to do things the wrong way. It’s human nature to try to take shortcuts, make excuses for “just this time”, and so on, and to avoid letting ourselves make your lives more difficult in the future, you can set up a culture that encourages good engineering from the start.

Code Reviews

Code reviews are an incredibly powerful tool for creating a high-quality codebase.


  • Knowledge Redundancy: Having at least one other set of eyes go over all code committed to your codebases ensures that at least two people in the company know how all code works. This avoids the situation where only one person knows how a codebase works, and they go on vacation or leave the company, and suddenly we’re left with a codebase no one can really work with, or you have to call up someone on their vacation with an emergency maintenance request.
  • Maintainability: Code is written not only for computers to understand, but also for future readers and maintainers to understand. By forcing at least one other person to go over it and understand it, you ensure that the code that’s written can be read and understood later. If the code is hard to understand for any reason, the code reviewer must identify that and make sure it is rewritten to be understandable (reorganized, commented, made more modular, etc).
  • Detecting Bugs: Just like spelling errors can be incredibly hard to catch when you’re reading your own writing, bugs can be incredibly difficult to catch when you’re reading your own code. You know what the code is intended to do, so you can miss places where it actually does something different, especially in edge cases you may not have envisioned. An external reviewer who doesn’t quite understand the intention of the code will scrutinize it much more thoroughly, catching small but important bugs you may not have thought of or tested for (“What happens if this list is empty? How do you know it’s not? Can these two threads deadlock? What if this server never responds?”).
  • Quality: Programmers love criticizing other people’s code and picking little nits about why code is written one way or another. Although sometimes this can be annoying, it does yield code that has been looked through and criticized for any of its defects, with the important defects being fixed.
  • Style: Having programmers review each others’ code ensures that all people in the company are using roughly the same style. In some languages this is not important, such as Go or Python, that have automatically enforced style checkers. However, in all cases, code reviews can make sure that style guidelines are actually being followed, once again leading to better maintainability.

Actionable Advice:

From now on, categorize all of your repositories as permanent or temporary. A temporary repository is one which you expect to be gone in the next month or at most two, and thus don’t want to invest the effort in making sure it is high quality and free of bugs. A permanent repository is one you plan on developing and maintaining for at least several months into the future, and thus you want to make sure it is high quality, well-documented, and easy to ramp new programmers up in. You must never change a temporary repository to a permanent repository, as that will result in low-quality unreviewed code becoming permanent.

For all permanent repositories, all code that gets merged to the master branch must go through a code review. In order to do a code review, push your changes to a new branch on the repository. Then, make a pull request (PR) from your branch to master, and tag at least one reviewer on the PR who will review this PR. The PR can only be merged once at least one of the reviewer has responded with a positive and complete review (often abbreviated “looks good to me” or LGTM).

Code Style

Although code style is a very surface-level characteristic of code, it is nonetheless an important thing to think about, and it takes very little effort to standardize style across the company and stick to a standard style.


  • Cognitive Load: When reading code, the majority of your effort should be on understanding what the code does; the data structures, the organization and architecture, the algorithms, the assumptions, etc. When multiple styles are in use, one gets distracted by minor things in the code, such as spacing, variable names, argument order, etc. Although these things are minor, they can cause a mental context switch, making it harder overall to parse and understand code.
  • Editing Code: Coding style tends to be very subjective and by default changes from programmer to programmer. However, in your environment, people will regularly have to edit each other’s code. Without a company-wide enforced coding style, you will either end up with each project being a hodge-podge of different coding styles, or one will have to constantly adjust their coding style to match the project they are working on, depending on who initiated the project. This is another source of effort and mental load that is easily avoidable.

Actionable Advice:

For each language in use, have an official and accepted coding style. Document this style in a separate repository, and make sure that all new hires browse these documents. During code reviews, remind people of coding style guidelines, linking to specific clauses in the style guidelines as necessary. This will gradually train people to conform to the standard coding styles, and although it is an initial investment, it should gradually die down in required effort as everyone gets used to the accepted styles.

Generally, coding guidelines should be adopted from existing language guidelines, such as Python’s PEP8 or Google’s coding guidelines for Java. Most languages have some documented style you can borrow and expand upon.

Finally, when at all possible, make sure that coding style is checked and verified automatically. For all repositories, include a pre-commit hook that checks files that were modified against the coding guidelines and flags any commits that break coding style guidelines. Depending on how thorough you want to be, you can have continuous integration tests run linters and style checkers on the entire code base, thus making it very clear whether a PR meets your style guidelines.

Separation Between Development and Production

In order to avoid unexpected breakages, you should never edit running production code.


  • Roadblocks for Others: Your users (customers, other teams, yourselves) depend on the tools that you build for their own work. If you accidentally break the tools that they’re using, you can prevent them from being able to get things done. Unexpected breakages in production slow down not only you (because you have to drop everything and fix it), but also potentially the rest of the company, which can total to quite a few lost man-hours of effort.
  • Long-Term Codebase Quality: Every time something breaks in production, you will rush to fix it as soon as possible, to avoid slowing down the rest of the company. In many cases, the fixes you apply will be stop-gap and badly thought-through. If you have an hour to fix something, you do not have time to stop and consider all the future implications of the fix, and potential alternative ways to do it. As a result, changing production regularly results in a less maintainable codebase in the long term, because you enter high-pressure hack-everything-into-a-working-state mode much more often than needed.

Actionable Advice:

Any code that goes into production should be tested and verified on a separate codebase first, and only then should it potentially go out to your users, whoever they may be. The same applies to production databases and file storage areas.

The way you implement this may vary throughout your codebases. In some cases, you might have development machines that are automatically created clones of production machines; in other cases, you can have continuous integration and regression tests to verify you aren’t pushing untested code to production. You will need to devise a separate strategy for each codebase you work with.

In addition, you want to make it very easy to do testing off of production, and very hard to edit production thoughtlessly. This should be as effortless as possible; scripts should exist for duplicating production databases and servers and testing development branches on them, all PRs and commits should be automatically tested against a clone of production, etc.


All code should be rigorously tested before being committed to master. We should aim for 100% code coverage, with all tests running automatically and notifying the appropriate authors of any failures immediately.


  • Code Quality: Code written without the intention of testing it is often hard to test retroactively, because testing code requires that the code be modular: you must be able to replace certain parts of your code with fake ones, easily observe the behaviour of the code, etc. Thus, enforcing rigorous testing of your codebases forces us to architect your code better, taking into account modularity, observability, debuggability, and so on.
  • Catching Mistakes Early: The main point of testing, of course, is to find mistakes early, before they become bugs in the codebase. Fixing a bug is often much more expensive than doing it right in the first place, as other parts of your code may now rely on the buggy behaviour or on the architecture that resulted in it. The earlier you catch mistakes, the easier it will be to fix them, and the less they will impact the company.
  • Development Speed: A codebase that is well-tested can be iterated on much, much faster. If you are confident that tests will catch your mistakes, you can spend less mental cycles double-checking all of your work, and instead put effort into making sure that your code is well-architected, testable, etc. Although testing may seem expensive time-wise initially, the time-investment will pay off in the long run ten times over in frustration and developer time.
  • Flexibility: Related to the previous point, a codebase that is well-tested is much more flexible. Tests can specify the behaviour of the code in a way that allows the implementation to change freely. Thus, if you have exhaustive tests for your code, you can easily refactor your codebase, knowing full well that mistakes will be caught by your tests. The end result is that your codebases are more adaptable to changing company conditions, and end up with a better architecture instead of layers and layers of hacks on top of an aging design.
  • New Hire Ramp-Up: Once more related to the previous points, ramping up a new hire on a tested codebase can be much easier. New developers to a codebase are more likely to make mistakes when working on it, since they do not know all the ins and outs of the codebase and the edge cases that it must take into account. Tests can ensure that new developers cannot do too much damage when editing parts of the codebase they do not know, and also reduce the load on senior developers, as otherwise they would have to very thoroughly review any changes made by the newcomers.

Actionable Advice:

As in the Code Reviews section, you designate repositories as temporary or permanent. Permanent repositories will stay with you for a while, and so are worth the investment to make them well-tested and designed.

There are many different types of tests, and you may want to use all of them in different scenarios:

  • Unit Tests: Unit tests are the most well-known type of testing. Unit tests are small snippets intended to test a very specific behaviors of a codebase. For example, a unit test may test that when a particular function is given certain inputs it returns certain outputs.
  • Regression Tests: Regression tests are designed to avoid regressions in existing codebases, and are usually designed based on previous output or behaviour of a codebase. For example, a pipeline regression test may ensure that the output of certain parts of the pipeline are identical or within a small tolerance.
  • Performance Tests: Performance tests are designed to make sure the performance of a codebase does not drop due to unintended consequences of changes you make. Performance tests can monitor time taken, CPU usage, number of cache hits, amount of memory used, number of minor and major garbage collections caused, etc. These should be used mostly when performance is actually important.
  • Property-Based Tests: Property-based tests test that parts of the codebase obey certain properties in all conditions. They usually involve generating random (and sometimes targeted) inputs to functions or programs, and then verifying that the outputs of those programs obey certain properties. For example, if you generate random genomes and random reads from those genomes, you can test your aligner to verify that all the reads are properly localized; this is a property of the code that is independent of the inputs.
  • Integration Tests: Integration tests test the behaviour and integrity of a system as a whole. These are meant to test the interaction between all the components in the system, verifying that all components communicated as expected, etc. Integration tests can involve building your projects and doing full run-throughs of your codebase, then verifying that the commands don’t throw any exceptions or exit with a non-zero exit code.
  • Fuzz Testing: Fuzzing is a technique that involves handing programs randomly generated data in an attempt to give it unexpected or invalid input and verify that it handles it gracefully. This type of testing can be quite difficult to do well, so there are software programs that can assist with the generation of clever edge cases for any program.

For permanent codebases, you should develop a set of tests that will give us assurances as to the quality of the codebase. Any new features must be submitted as a PR, and each PR must include additions to the test suites that test all of the new features as appropriate. Finally, you should sign up for TravisCI (or a similar service) in order to do continuous integration testing. This will allow you to easily verify that any PR or commit passes all the relevant tests without having to go do the testing manually.

Leveraging Version Control

You should leverage all the features of Git and Github (or whatever other version control systems you use) to encourage good engineering. As you may have guessed, we use Git with Github, but similar things apply to many other systems.


  • Git Hooks: git allows us to specify hooks for all of its actions, inserting your own pre- and postprocessors. This can let us enforce data invariants, quality controls, and so on on your codebases.
  • Issue Discussions: It’s great to be able to have a discussion related to the underlying issues associated with bugs or feature requests, issue progress updates, etc. In addition, the Github issue tracker allows us to upgrade your issue handling, allowing productive discussions (and remote discussions) on specific issues with your codebases, references to pull requests, and so on. Issue pages also provide a permanent repository of knowledge, both for current and closed issues; having this repository of permanent knowledge can be incredibly handy later on.
  • Code Reviews: Using Github pull requests allows you to easily do code reviews from the web-based diff viewer, and lets people comment on specific issues and lines.

Actionable Advice:

First, for your permanent repositories, you should create a set of git hooks to ensure all possible quality checks have been passed. This can include linting and style checking (with tooks such as pylint, pep8, pyflakes, etc), spell checking comments and commit messages, making sure temporary files aren’t checked in, making sure authentication tokens and other passwords aren’t checked in, running quick tests, etc. On the server-side, you can use tools such as TravisCI or CircleCI to run suites long-running tests as soon as code has been pushed to a Github branch, informing you of the results as soon as the tests are done. These tools make it very easy to see when tests are failing or passing, and thus be confident in merging a branch into master or requiring more debugging.

Second, you should begin heavily relying on Github PRs for branch management and code reviews. There’s no particular reason to do this via PRs, but they are a very convenient mechanism to have code reviews shared between multiple participants, with a fairly easy viewing and commenting interface.

Large-Scale Modularity

You should develop with an eye not only for small-scale codebase-local modularity and code quality, but also for the way different codebases you create interact and depend on each other, making sure that you pay attention to large-scale modularity between the codebases.


  • Modularity: The benefits of small-scale modularity translate also to large-scale modularity. Modular codebases are easier to test, easier to develop on, easier to use, and more reliable in the long term.
  • Smooth Upgrade Paths: By focusing on large-scale modularity, you avoid strong dependencies between your large codebases. As a result, a codebase can be easily swapped out for another, as long as the behaviour of both is roughly identical. This allows you to retire old codebases and technologies as your needs outgrow them, without having to also fix all your other codebases.
  • Technology Flexibility: By ensuring that your components are modular and have well-defined interfaces, you free ourselves from the constraint that all components are written using the same languages, technologies, operating systems, etc. This allows you to use the right tool for the job.

Actionable Advice:

Very carefully document the interfaces of all your codebases. Specifically, each codebase should be well-defined in the ways one interacts with it, and interactions should be strictly limited to those that are documented. Avoid sharing code between codebases (except for general library code), as that creates very tight coupling that can be very hard to undo later. Codebases should communicate through well-defined and documented protocols, and nothing else.

When possible, you should have these protocols defined through language-agnostic REST APIs, with endpoints accepting JSON blobs describing requests and serving JSON blobs as results. JSON blobs should be incredibly well-defined, with every key present being documented, and allowing those keys and only those keys. Communication protocols should be versioned, with the version number being part of each JSON object, and with messages being rejected if the versions of the client and the server do not match. (This same idea is extensible to any other protocols and methods of communication – it does not have to be HTTP or JSON based, and could just as easily be ZeroMQ, inter-process communication, file-system based logging and messaging, etc.)