I've seen PHP code that amounts to nothing more than a giant switch construct... a hundred lines here to handle this condition over here, another hundred or so lines in the branch for that condition over there, maybe a dozen conditions... you get the idea. But such code isn't necessarily spaghetti. What's wrong with it is not that it's unreadable, I would argue, but rather there is a lack of encapsulation. There's a greater chance of inadvertently modifying the wrong variable 800 lines down in some unknown branch, but scoping isn't spaghetti. The code may otherwise be beautifully formatted with the coding standard du jour, and the logic might be crystal clear.
I've also seen OOP code that has been so meticulously refactored that it would bring a tear of joy to just about any DRY-advocate's eye, but that doesn't always mean the code is well organized or easy to follow. It can be frustrating to trace through deep inheritance chains without the help of a modern IDE with project support. IDEs are tools that should help make working with code easier, not be a requirement to navigate what is essentially a set of text files. New professionals coming out of college now with an OOP perspective would be comfortable with such code. They view the same procedural code an old-time C programmer would be comfortable with as messy, unorganized, sloppy spaghetti.
An informal poll I took asked a handful of developers to try to explain what is spaghetti code. They all agreed that it was a term used to describe bad code, but everyone has his or her own opinion as to what aspects would make them label it spaghetti:
- Spaghetti code is code that is written quickly and doesn't follow the accepted standard.
- Spaghetti code is any code that uses goto.
- Spaghetti code is code written by a beginner who's learning to program in Basic.
- Spaghetti code is like spaghetti in that after you've digested it you are fatigued.
The best response I received was from a friend and former co-worker, Sean H. "Spaghetti code is what we call other people's code when we think it's a pile of blackened shit that's baked in the sun and has flies swarming about it but we still want to be polite." Spaghetti code really has nothing to do with code, but rather how we choose to interact with one another. Lacking a proper definition but carrying a negative connotation, spaghetti is just complaining about other people's work which is not beneficial to ourselves or to the quality of the code we produce/maintain.
Some programmers are very protective of the code they write and they can react in a variety of ways to people who call their work spaghetti. Depending on their personality, in an extreme case they may view such comments as a personal attack and become overtly confrontational. Few people like to be challenged on their way of doing something. In a more subtle case, the programmer may begin to resent others. He feels misunderstood and begins to draw inward, subconsciously severing communication channels.
But besides negatively affecting others, our complaining about spaghetti code hurts ourselves too. It's easier to motivate ourselves when tasked with fixing a bug when we're not dreading having to trudge through spaghetti. When we label code as spaghetti code, we are actually creating roadblocks that hamper ourselves and artificially increase the difficulty of the task at hand. A better perspective to have is that we have been given the opportunity to use our skills to fix something and to make it better. Constant complaining only reinforces the wrong attitude and makes it easier to become disillusion with our craft; negativity "sucks the life out of you" and doesn't serve to create a better work environment.
It's almost always easier to complain and set oneself up for failure rather than success. Should I stop harping on Java? Probably. Should I not let my skin crawl every time I run into Zend Framework? Maybe. Though I consider myself successful, how much more successful could I be if I didn't put up mental blocks for myself over what amounts to other people's preference? I have no idea. Old habits die hard, but it's a worthy goal to strive for to stop alienating others and making life difficult for myself by complaining about spaghetti code. Feel free to join me in doing so.