26.1 Style Matters

20200105 Programming is an art and a way to express ourselves. Often that expression is unique to us individually. Just as we can often ascertain the author of a play or the artist of a painting from their style we can often tell the programmer from the program coding structures and styles.

As we write programs we should keep in mind that something like 90% of a programmers’ time (at least in business and government) is spent reading and modifying and extending other programmers’ code. We need to facilitate the task—so that others can quickly come to a clear understanding of the narrative.

As data scientists we also practice this art of programming and indeed even more so to share the narrative of what we discover through our living and breathing of data. Writing our programs so that others understand why and how we analysed our data is crucial. Data science is so much more than simply building black box models—we should be seeking to expose and share the process and the knowledge that is discovered from the data.

%A common dichotomy in the artificial intelligence and machine learning %communities over the years has viewed ourselves as either building %black boxes that behave intelligently or else seeking to understand %intelligence and to then capture this knowledge computationally. Data %science often lives in the latter camp with the goal to discover and %expose knowledge and to then operationalise that knowledge in %intelligent applications. Telling the narrative we discover from our %data is important.

Data scientists rarely begin a new project with an empty coding sheet. Regularly we take our own or other’s code as a starting point and begin from that. We find code on Stack Overflow or elsewhere on the Internet and modify it to suit our needs. We collect templates from other data scientists and build from there, tuning the templates for our specific needs and datasets.

In being comfortable to share our code and narratives with others we often develop a style. Our style is personal to us as we innovate and express ourselves and we need consistency in how we do that. Often a style guide helps us as we journey through a new language and gives us a foundation for developing, over time, our own style.

A style guide is also useful for sharing our tips and tricks for communicating clearly through our programs—our expression of how to solve a problem or actually how we model the world. We express this in the form of a language—a language that also happens to be executable by a computer. In this language we follow precisely specified syntax/grammar to develop sentences, paragraphs, and whole stories. Whilst there is infinite leeway in how we express ourselves and we each express ourselves differently, we share a common set of principles as our style guide.

The style guide here has evolved from over 30 years of programming and data experience. Nonetheless we note that style changes over time. Change can be motivated by changes in the technology itself and we should allow variation as we mature and learn and change our views.

Irrespective of whether the specific style suggestions here suit you or not, when coding do aim to communicate to other readers in the first instance. When we write programs we .

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