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Words I Don’t Use, Part 3: “Best Practice”

The third “word I do not use” is best practice.

The “best practice” serves a vital need in any industry. It is the answer to, “Please don’t make me learn about this; just tell me what to do.” The “best practice” is a fine idea in spirit, but here’s the thing: many practices labeled “best” don’t deserve the adjective. They’re often containers for bad advice.

The most common problem with “best practices” is that they’re not parameterized like they should be. A good practice usually depends on something: if this is true, then do that; otherwise, do this other thing. But most “best practices” don’t come with conditions of execution—they often contain no if statements at all. They come disguised as recipes that can save you time, but they often encourage you to skip past thinking about things that you really ought to be thinking about.

Most of my objections to “best practices” go away when the practices being prescribed are actually good. But the ones I see are often not, like the old SQL “avoid full-table scans” advice. Enforcing practices like this yields applications that don’t run as well as they should and developers that don’t learn the things they should. Practices like “Measure the efficiency of your SQL at every phase of the software life cycle,” are actually “best”-worthy, but alas, they’re less popular because they sound like real work.