20
Jan

A patch of flowers, a patch of code

The word patch has several different meanings. The first is that with which a gardener would be familiar. Every gardener has a little patch of this planet that he or she loves and tends to. In the gardening sense, a patch is a rectangular plot of land filled with dirt and flora; but, as gardeners know, it is also so much more than that. It is a living thing that needs care and attention; and in return, it brings great beauty and a feeling of fulfilment. A patch is also a permanent space on the land - a job that is never finished, some would say - and for as long as it is tended, it will flower and blossom.

Another meaning of patch is that usually applied to clothing and fabrics. To a tailor or a seamstress, a patch is a small piece of material, sewn over a hole or a rent in a garment. It is an imperfect and often temporary fix for a permanently damaged spot. A patch in this sense, therefore, connotes ugliness and scarring. A seamstress is hardly going to put as much time and attention into a patch as she would into a new garment: why bother, when it is only a 'quick fix', and will never look perfect anyway? There is no pride to be gained in making unseemly little patches. Designing and crafting something new, where all of the parts blend together into a beautiful whole, is considered a much more noble endeavour.

The latter and less glamorous meaning of this word seems to be the one that applies more widely. When a doctor tends your wounds, he or she may tell you that you're being patched up. Should you ever happen to meet a pirate, you may notice that he wears an eye patch (as well as saying "arrr, me hearties, where be ye wallets and mobile phones?"). And if you're a software programmer, and you find a bug in your program, then you'll know all about patching them pesky bugs, to try and make them go away.

But is it really necessary for software patches to live up to their unsightly reputation? Do patches always have to be quick 'n' dirty fixes, done in order to fix a problem that nobody believes will ever heal fully? Must they always be temporary fixes that will last only a few weeks, or perhaps a few months, before they have to be re-plastered?

As with most rhetorical questions that are asked by the narrator of a piece of writing, and that are constructed to be in a deliberately sarcastic tone, the answer to all of the above is, of course, 'no'. ;-)

I used to believe that software patches were inherently dirty things. This should come as no surprise, seeing that the only time I ever used to encounter patches, was when I needed to run Windows™ Update, which invariably involves downloading a swarm of unruly patches, 99% of which I am quite certain were quick and extremely dirty fixes. I'm sure that there are many others like me, who received their education on the nature of patches from Microsoft; but such people are misinformed, because this is analogous to being educated on the nature of equality by growing up in Soviet Russia.

Now, I'm involved in the Drupal project as a developer. Drupal is an open-source project - like many others - where changes are made by first being submitted to the community, in the form of a patch. I've seen a number of big patches go through the process of review and refinement, before finally being included in Drupal; and more recently, I've written some patches myself, and taken them through this process. Just yesterday, I got a fairly big patch of mine committed to Drupal, after spending many weeks getting feedback on it and improving it.

Developing with Drupal has taught me one very important thing about patches. When done right, they are neither quick nor dirty fixes. Patching the right way involves thinking about the bigger picture, and about making the patch fit in seamlessly with everything that already exists. It involves lengthy reviews and numerous modifications, often by a whole team of people, in order to make it as close to perfect as it can practically be.

But most of all, true patching involves dedication, perseverance, and love. A patch done right is a patch that you can be proud of. It doesn't give the garment an ugly square mark that people would wish to hide; it makes the garment look more beautiful than ever it was before. Patching is not only just as noble an endeavour as is designing and building software from scratch; it is even more so, because it involves building on the amazing and well-crafted work of others; and when done right, it allows the work of many people to amazingly (miraculously?) work together in harmony.

And as for patches being temporary and transient - that too is a myth. Any developer knows that once they make a contribution to a piece of software, they effectively own a little piece of its code. They become responsible for maintaining that piece, for improving it, and for giving it all the TLC that it needs. If they stick around and nurture their spot, then in time it will blossom, and its revitalising scent will spread and sweeten all the other spots around it.

Let's stop thinking about patches in their negative sense, and start thinking about them in their positive sense. That's the first step, and the hardest of all. After that, the next step - making and maintaining patches in the positive sense - will be child's play.

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