Jake Worth

Work Small

June 11, 20172 min read

Write programs that do one thing and do it well. –The Unix Philosophy

I believe in working small.

I love small Git commits and pull requests. When I commit, I like a short message. The code should only do what’s described by that message, in limited migrations, each of which can be rolled back. The changes should touch a limited number of files, and leave a green test suite. Everything should be reversible without side effects.

Anyone who has paired-programmed with me knows that I’m quick to say “Can we commit this now?” I want to commit as soon as the tests are green, as soon as I have an inkling that refactoring or optimization is imminent, the moment we let our attention drift, the second anything other than the current feature is up for discussion.

I call this philosophy Work Small.

What is Working Small?

Work small: obsess over the small task at hand. Measure and remeasure, discuss edge cases, ponder if you are using the right tools, sharpen them. Pick the smallest part of the problem you can solve and solve it. Don’t stop until it’s perfect. When it’s perfect, sand the splinters away, cast it in lacquer, put it on display.

A handful of great programmers I’ve met can carry entire wings of a codebase in their heads. They are happiest when their Git log is dirty, their Vim buffers are full, and they are walking high above the ground on a tightrope with no harness. They know what they want and they are driving toward it with total focus. They finish their thought process with a complex commit process, divvying up hours of work into a series of patches.

That’s not how I work, or how I think most beginners should try to work. Pausing to think, to commit, to ship what you have, to deliver where you are, is the heart of Agile. Doing otherwise takes a risk: that work will never be finished, that it’s irreversible, that future maintainers will not understand your thought process and delete or hack apart your code.

Don’t want to work small? No problem; go ahead and open a pull request that changes forty files, has six commits that break the build, and migrates the database five times. It takes a brave soul to read that pull request, and an even braver one to challenge or approve it. You’ll most likely get silence or a tentative ‘looks good to me.’ Merge and deploy it in on a Friday if you want an excuse to cancel your weekend plans.

As an OSS maintainer, small is everything. Your commits tell a story. If that story is a mess, take the time to clean it up before asking someone else to load it into their head, too. I’ll take four tight commit messages over twenty ‘WIP’s every time. I understand each step, and can revert them someday. We can always squash the pull request once everyone approves the change.

Work small.


Blog of Jake Worth, software engineer in Maine.

© 2021 Jake Worth.