We founded CodeStream because despite having worked in the communications space for over two decades, connecting and enabling conversation for millions of customers, and witnessing and participating in a wide array of innovations for personal and business communication, it was our observation that there was one audience in particular that had been left underserved: software developers. So we set out to fix that.
Understanding code is one of the hardest problems in software development, after of course the other two: cache invalidation, naming, and off-by-1 errors.
The mental mapping required to translate computer code into something a person can understand is a sufficiently complex activity that it consumes up to 75% of an average developer’s time, making it unnecessarily difficult to contribute ideas and solutions to existing code. In addition, fewer than 20% of developers use internal tools to learn about the codebase they were hired to work on, leaving developers largely on their own in figuring out the right path forward.
Developers have always appreciated the necessity to communicate about source code within the source code itself. Some of the first examples of computer programs, dating back to 1936, include code comments that bridge a connection between machine-readable code and human-readable understanding.
And yet despite the invention of literally thousands of programming languages, including programs that can write programs, in the eighty years since the first code comments were introduced, the process of commenting on code has remained essentially unchanged. There have been innovations for every imaginable part of the software development process, and still not a single effective improvement to the way we map software to wetware.
We want to fix this by creating a set of systems that make it dramatically easier to discuss source code with other people, and capture all of the discussion and activity about your codebase exactly where it belongs: with your code.
Make it Easier to Understand Code by Making it Easier to Talk About Code
If the hardest part of every developer’s job is to understand the code they are looking at, the easiest way for them to learn is to talk to the author of that code. That’s surprisingly difficult to do today using existing tools which generally fall into two categories.
First, you have code-specific lifecycle tools, such as GitHub PR comments, which are fantastic for their intended purpose but are limited in terms of what code you can talk about, are generally disconnected from your editor, lack modern messaging capabilities, and essentially vanish once the PR is merged.
Then there are general-purpose communication tools, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams (also fantastic), which are divorced from your codebase and require a deep context switch to engage. How deep?
Imagine if every time you wanted to ask a question about a Google Doc you had to…
…and yet if you substitute “source code” for “Google Doc” and “Slack” for “Gmail” that’s essentially what developers have to fight through today, every single time they want to do something as simple as asking a question about the codebase they are working on.
So we made a wish-list of features we would like to see in a messaging system for engineers:
This approach solves the single largest hurdle to making conversation about code more common, which is to eliminate the friction inherent in using software development tools not designed for communication, and general-purpose communication tools not designed for software development.
Once we sketched out how this could all work, we had somewhat of an epiphany: if we know you are talking about code, what if we could tie that conversation thread directly to the code in a way that could be referenced later?
Every CodeBase Should have a Knowledge Base
Today, development teams around the world use git to track every change to every line of every file in their repository, all the way back to the beginning of time when the project was started. And yet almost all of those same teams are taking all the discussion about that code, which often explains how it all works, and are unwittingly throwing it away in Slack or Gmail, or burying it in a PR comment, probably never to be seen again.
Kind of crazy, once you really think about it.
We believe that every piece of information about your codebase should be saved with your codebase, visible to every developer in the context of looking at a file or a function, at any time. This simple concept is, rather surprisingly, not implemented by any tool in widespread use today.
Legacy code comments (/* like this */), when used properly, are effective as a form of documentation for one simple reason: the comments retain local proximity to the code they refer to. We brainstormed a marker system which allows arbitrary data to be associated with a codeblock, connecting discussion and activity to lines of code.
Ideally, markers should:
By connecting team discussion and system activity directly to your source code, markers become a new form of documentation, annotating the source files themselves, and create a knowledge base from which future developers can learn.
Thus, a virtuous cycle is born:
This is why we built CodeStream: comments on steroids, connected to your tools, captured with your code.
Please share your thoughts and feedback @teamcodestream.
CodesStream is an IDE extension that helps dev teams discuss, review, and understand code. Discussing code is now as simple as commenting on a Google Doc - select the code and type your question.
Integrates with Slack, Jira, Trello, Github, Live Share and more.