Are Time-Thieves Living in Your Software? (Part 1)

category ➞ Technology

Photo: "Time Bandit for Sanyo MBC-550" image courtesy of Blake Patterson and Gerry Brophy

I see two time-thieves in the corner up to no good!

What would you do if time was like spare change? You save a few seconds here and there and find an extra hour on Saturday afternoon. Or, you might collect otherwise unproductive minutes and use them on days when you are at your most creative. So much can happen in a few seconds that time, like spare change, is a resource to protect. When you rely on software for work or entertainment, the last thing you want is to stare at a spinning icon while the application loads. After all, you could be watching a movie, creating the next Skynet, or even pulling your neighbor from a burning building. A slow application is a real drag for everyone. In fact, Kissmetrics says "47% of consumers expect a [Web] page to load in 2 seconds or less." Web applications are no exception. So what do you do if the software you built takes a long time to load? Capture the time-thieves out to steal your seconds.

There are five common time-thieves. This guild of temporal robbers takes residence in your software and is out to slow your application to a crawl. However, these thieves are not so tough when confronted one-by-one. The first thief is slow asymptotic time complexity. It sounds mysterious, like a swarthy stranger from a faraway land, but underneath the exotic clothing is a sloppy algorithm. Some algorithms legitimately take time to run. Generating all subsets from a set of values is going to take a few CPU cycles. In contrast, finding all values in a list less than a defined input value should not. Review the algorithms that generate output for a slow feature to see if they can be optimized to run faster.

The second time-thief is slow database access. This thief is a chronic hoarder and encourages you to pull all records from your database on every query. After all, if a few records solve one problem, every record solves every problem, right? Wrong. That's just what this thief wants you to think. In fact, the more of your query you can push into the database layer the better. Databases are built to be fast, so lean on that. Consider writing direct query code to handle complex requests, like SQL for a MySQL database, to get exactly what you need in exactly the format you need it before data ever hits the application layer. Node.js, Django, Rails, Play, and other frameworks are a great foundation, but let the database do database things.

These are only the first two time-thieves you will face when clearing your lethargic software of villains. Defending your time against these robbers continues with optimizing your "XML and HTTP Request" calls, compressing big static assets in a variety of clever ways, and requesting "Document Object Model" updates at a pace your browser can manage. See Part 2 for further instruction on what you can do to enforce law and order in your digital domain. Your time depends on it!