Why Python Encourages Maintainable Systems

I love Python. I don’t think it’s the right answer for everything, but I do act as its advocate for many new projects. Since most of my programming has been spent working with legacy systems, I am primarily concerned with maintainability, and Python is built on two ideas that directly benefit that cause: explicitness and a culture of documentation.


If you run import this in a Python console, you’ll get the Zen of Python - a series of guiding principles for the language. First is “beautiful is better than ugly”, and immediately following is my favorite:

Explicit is better than implicit.

Explicitness is a core part of Python; it’s been conciously taken into account when designing the language.

I’ve written previously on Python’s modules; let’s just say that it’s very explicit and gives me a hard-on, and we’ll leave it at that.

While Python is not statically-typed, it is strongly-typed. A string is a string, even if it happens to have numbers in it, so if you want to treat it as an integer, you must first explicitly convert it as such using int(). This helps prevent bugs that surface in weakly-typed languages such as C and PHP.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Python’s obsession with explicitness is self - the most hated part of Python other than using indentation to determine program structure. In Java, a seemingly benign assignment

foo = 'bar'

could either be assigning to a local variable or an instance variable. Worse, the action of this code can change completely by altering other code around it!

Python requires the instance to be explicitly listed as a parameter to class methods, and any alterations to instance variables must go through that variable. Non-Pythonistas think this is crazy. I think it has very good reasons for existing and we’re the only sane ones. Sigh.

A Culture of Documentation

The Python community, as a whole, loves to write documentation. In fact, they love to write good, nay, great documentation, just as much as Rubyists write unit tests for even the simplest programs. It’s just a part of the culture. But how did it end up this way - by accident? Indeed not, as the language itself encourages documentation through a number of means.

At a meta level, while much discussion happens on the mailing lists, important decisions about Python end up as PEPs. PEPs have several purposes, one of which is to document the arguments for and against various proposals, and the rationale used to choose one. When there’s a question of why something is the way it is, there’s a PEP with the corresponding answer.

At a level closer to implementation, Python uses a construct called docstrings. These are comments that are recognized by the Python parser as documentation for a module, class, or function, and bundled as part of the code they describe. Rather than having to dig through a complex webpage of documentation, a developer wishing to receive some information on a particular object need only pass it to the help() function to receive the documentation specified in its docstring. Since this is incredibly handy and doesn’t require any special tools, developers are encouraged to incorporate them into their own code, whichs leads to happier programmers down the road.


Should you rewrite your project in Python? Almost certainly not. But if the maintainability of a new project years in the future is of concern to you, please take a look at Python and consider what it can do for you.