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Don’t Do It: Ignore Best Practices

April 24, 2020
“The Code is more what you call guidelines, than actual rules,” Hector Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Best practices are generally accepted and prescribed policies and procedures often set by management, an authority, or governing body that are designed to improve quality, prevent problems, and streamline processes. They include, for instance, accredited management standards such as ISO 9000 and ISO 14001. And standards like MISRA-C are best practices for programming.

At this point, most of us are following best practices to avoid spreading and catching COVID-19. This involves things like social distancing, washing hands or using hand sanitizer regularly, wearing a face mask, avoiding coughing or sneezing toward someone, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.

The social isolation has led to the rise of video conferencing and telecommuting. These were often discounted, discouraged, or outright banned by many, but they have become the norm whether we like it or not. Though best practices for these exist, people often don’t know them, or they ignore them.

For example, Zoom is a video-conferencing service that has become invaluable. In “Rescuing Our Science Fair from COVID-19,” I highlight how the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair was able to happen when Rider University shut down due to the virus. We used Zoom to do the judging and student interviews. Some were with students that had returned home to overseas destinations.

Zoom has been criticized because of a lack of security when users weren’t following best practices like using password protection for meetings. Part of the problem is that there are many best practices. It’s not really a good practice to default to password-less meetings.

Unfortunately, ignoring best practices isn’t something unique to one set of practices, groups following those practices, or those defining them. Hector Barbossa highlights how many people regard best practices as just guidelines. Ignoring them is just something that’s done.

Numerous best practices have been formalized and following them is often a requirement. Program coding standards are one example where the rules need to be followed and compliance can be enforced by software. Ada and SPARK programming language contract support takes this to the extreme, where rules are part of the code rather than just recommendations.

The thing is that best practices are typically specified to simplify a job, and changing circumstances often means modifying best practices or adopting new ones. Security and backup are two examples that crop up when it comes to telecommuting and remote access. Is your laptop, used at home for work, being backed up locally or to the cloud? Is the connection secured by a VPN? Is data being moved offsite that should not be? Are there controls implemented to manage this process, and are they automatic or manual? What are the best practices for all of these situations?

Finding best practices for a particular situation is an easy task. The internet can help, but given the plethora of recommendations and the quality of those recommendations, it’s possible to wind up with a set of best practices that aren’t the best for a particular situation. In fact, they may wind up being the worst practices for that situation.

These days one needs to be flexible. Adjusting the current set of best practices should be done carefully—however, sticking rigidly to some may not be the best practice.

There are potential benefits to reevaluating currently employed practices that have been—or need to be—changed based on the current climate. For example, we plan on having students post more information about their science fair projects online. It wasn’t as burdensome as many had assumed and brought about the added benefit of the information being available to everyone. Essentially, part of the fair is permanent rather than transient. 

So don’t ignore best practices, but do try to adapt and find the best set for your situation.

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