The Coder’s Oath

Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath.  We need a Coder’s Oath.  Will you take it?

I am a software professional.  I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I build on the shoulders of the software professionals that have gone before me, recognizing that rarely are truly new programming paradigms invented. I therefore commit myself to fully understanding existing solutions before I reinvent the wheel.

I recognize that the simplest solution is almost always the best solution.  I will not over-engineer or prematurely optimize.

I will always seek out the root causes of problems. I understand that the time taken to seek out and address root causes will yield savings in all but the very shortest term.

I will work to understand my cognitive biases but recognize that I can never fully overcome them. In assessing the effort and time required to complete a task, I will consult with my peers to understand the true scope before making a commitment.

While I always strive to increase my skills and knowledge, I recognize that my work, and the work of my peers, will never be without errors. I accept that all software has bugs and that I myself will write many bugs.  I will allow my work to be scrutinized and critiqued by my peers without taking it personally.  I have the courage to say “I don’t know”.

I do not build software in a vacuum or create software for my own glorification or for technology’s sake. Instead, I create software that is valuable to users.

I accept that users are human beings and that human beings often do not behave rationally. I understand that if I build software expecting people to behave rationally, I will be forever frustrated.

While I may have entered into the software field because I am introverted and/or prefer computers to people, I commit to trying to understand users and the reality of how they use my software.

Frustrating though it may be to me, I understand and accept that most users will lack the time or inclination to understand how software works or why it was built the way it was. I accept that, to users, my software is just a tool to get a job done as quickly and easily as possible.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to further the software craft and produce software that delivers true value to users.

So, will you take it?  Let me know in the comments.

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So, you inherited a codebase… just how screwed are you?

In a perfect world, every software developer would finish school, build a product from scratch, IPO the company and retire. However, that’s very, very rarely the case and the majority of software people will at one time or another in their careers inherit a codebase that they weren’t involved in creating.

The most common situations where this happens are when a company is acquired by another and when joining a company (because of staff growth or turnover).  But, regardless of the reason, the software developers, managers and executives involved are expected to take it over and continue to achieve forward progress.

The problem is that not all codebases are created equal – they can range from absolute disasters to dream scenarios; from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Plus, aside from the code itself, there are a number of other factors which have a huge impact on the success or failure of the transition.

So, the purpose of this post is to give a framework for assessing how much of a risk the transition will be.  Put another way, it’s also a framework for asking the right questions and for setting expectations at the right level.

How Screwed Are You?…a formula

Every situation is unique, but this is my rough formula to calculate the “Codebase Risk Factor” (CRF):

CRF Formula

 

If you’ve immediately started to glaze-over from the math, don’t worry, I’m going to break it down for you.

This formula factors in what I believe are the 5 main risk factors when you inherit a codebase:

  • Test Coverage (“tc“)
  • Team Availability (“ta“)
  • Team (availability) Duration (“td“)
  • Defect Find/Fix Ratio (“ffr“)
  • Age of Codebase (“ac“)

The formula then weights each of these factors to give an overall score – the higher the number, the more screwed you are.

Let’s look at each of these factors in more detail.

Test Coverage

There are many other places you can go to read more about the benefits of test coverage and Test Driven Development (TDD) in general.  I am not going to make that case here.

Suffice to say that, when you inherit a codebase, Test Coverage is your friend.

For those that are new to the concept, Test Coverage is usually defined as a percentage and measures how much of the codebase comes with automated tests that validate whether it’s working or not.

When you first inherit a codebase, you understand almost nothing about it. However, despite that, in most cases you are going to be expected to a. keep it working and b. add new features. Good Test Coverage lets you add and change things in the codebase with a much lower risk of inadvertently breaking something else that you don’t understand yet.

So, how do you assess Test Coverage? Fortunately, for most platforms and languages (in fact all the platforms and languages I’ve come across), there are one or more automated tools to analyze Test Coverage. These are not perfect and you should always ask the developers who worked on the code originally what they believe the Test Coverage to be (more on that below).

Also, beware of getting a false sense of security from a raw Test Coverage % number. Just like any codebase, not all Test Coverage is created equal. I’ve seen many cases where tests are written but they don’t actually properly test the code in question.  Again, this is why you should seek out the view of the developers who worked on the codebase originally.

Team Availability

To be blunt, if you inherit a codebase but don’t have any access to the developers that wrote it, I’d say you’re in Big Trouble ™.

Only the original developers know where the bodies are buried: they understand how much Tech Debt has accumulated in the codebase that you’ll need to deal with, they know which parts of the code are solid versus which kept them awake at night and they know which bits of code were written by the good developers and which by that idiot that was fired.

By “developers”, I also count devops people since they are arguably the most important in keeping what you inherit up and running.

Now, by “Team Availability”, I don’t necessarily mean that the developers have to still be working for you full-time (although that would be best) but that they are available to answer questions and provide advice on an as-needed basis.

So, Team Availability is also defined as a percentage. You can either think of it as the % of people (e.g. 2 members of the original team of 10 are available, so 20%) or as a % of the people’s time (e.g. the original developers are available 1 day a week, so 20%).

Team (availability) Duration

Having access to the original team is great but often the follow-on question is, for how long?

From experience, I’d say 6 months is enough for most cases. It’s enough time to learn what’s already there and to make significant forward progress with new features.  After 6 months, the original developers no longer have familiarity with the newest code so their usefulness starts to diminish.

If you’re planning on acquiring/inheriting a codebase, I’d recommend that the absolute minimum you should try to keep the original team available for is 3 months.

Defect Find/Fix Ratio

The Defect Find/Fix Ratio is simply a measure of how rapidly bugs are being found in the code versus fixed in the code. It’s a useful measure of how troubled the codebase is at the point in time you inherit it. If bugs are being found faster than they’re being fixed, that’s an indication of a problem.

In practice, the amount of time allocated to bug fixing varies based on the team’s other commitments and, therefore, the Find/Fix Ratio will tend to oscillate.  So, it’s good to look at the Find/Fix Ratio over a period of time; the past month at least.  The lower the ratio, the better.

Age of Codebase

While it’s true that code itself doesn’t age or rust, older codebases are, in general, more problematic.

There are a number of reasons for this: firstly, the older the codebase, the more likely that the people who wrote the code are no longer available and/or have forgotten how it works.

Secondly, the older the codebase, the older the versions of the libraries, packages, tools, etc that it depends on, unless there has been very deliberate effort to update these (hint: this rarely happens). This makes it much harder to make changes to the codebase, especially if some of the versions it depends on have reach end-of-life or are no longer compatible.  This is all Tech Debt that you will have to address before you can move forward.

An Example

Let’s imagine that ACME Corp acquires Widgets Inc and the poor VP Engineering at ACME Corp inherits Widgets Inc’s codebase.

Widget Inc’s codebase is 4 years old.  The team has been pretty stable at 10 people but 7 of those people have quit in anger because of the acquisition.  The remaining 3 have been persuaded to stay around for 4 months in return for some ongoing stock vesting and a retention bonus.

The VP Engineering quizzes the remaining 3 and runs the test coverage tool.  He also looks at the bug tracking system to see the recent trend.  He discovers that Test Coverage is about 40% and, in the past 3 months, 280 bugs have been reported, of which 80 have been fixed.

So, here are our inputs to the formula:

  • test coverage: tc = 40%
  • team availability: ta = 30%
  • team (availability) duration: td = 4 months
  • defect find/fix ratio: ffr = 280/80 = 3.5
  • age of codebase = 4 years

Plugging them into the formula, here’s what we get:

CRFformula_example

 

So, this yields a Codebase Risk Factor of 320, compared to (as the mathematically-inclined will have noticed) a perfect score of 20.

In layman’s terms, pretty screwed.

 

Agree or disagree? Please leave a comment.

The Truth about Tech Debt

This is a topic which almost all non-technical and a lot of technical people don’t understand.  This is sad and somewhat ironic because, if you are in any way involved in the software development business, you HAVE to understand it.

I think part of the problem is that, to non-technical people, Tech Debt sounds very nebulous and like precisely the kind of excuse that software engineers come up with for not getting stuff done.

Be assured that tech debt is very real and very deadly.  Even those people who do understand what it is find it all too easy to kick the can down the road.  Never forget the old saw “a stitch in time saves nine”.

So What is It?

Firstly, let’s explain the analogy: it’s called “debt” in part because you pay “interest” on it.  That interest consists of the extra time and risk (therefore, cost) of adding or changing product features.

Furthermore, just like a credit card, the interest compounds.  If you don’t address the current debt but go ahead and build new features anyway (i.e. spend more) then you are building those new features on top of your existing debt, meaning you’re paying interest on interest.

The only way to avoid paying interest is to pay back the debt. If you let the debt grow too far, you’ll end up spending more servicing the debt than building new features. Ultimately, you’ll become bankrupt.

Just like other kinds of debt, it’s all too easy and tempting to ignore but it never goes away if you do that – it just gets worse.

Err…So What is It?

Let’s try another analogy:  think of your product like a building. Each feature you build is a floor you add to the top of your building.  In order for a new floor to stay up, it’s dependent on the support of all the other floors below.

Imagine your building has 8 floors. Now you’ve got demand from new tenants so you want to add a 9th floor.  Easy right?

The problem is that the 8th floor isn’t in great shape.  It looks ok from the outside but remember you put a lot of pressure on Mikey, the contractor who built the 8th floor, to get the job done because you had tenants waiting? Mikey’s a good guy but he definitely cut some corners to make the deadline you imposed. That wall that was supposed to be load-bearing is just a facade. The wiring is not up to code. The plumbing was rushed so it’s leaking – you haven’t seen the stains on the ceiling of the floor below yet…but you will.

And…remember when you built the 7th floor? That contractor, Dave, didn’t really know what he was doing, did he?  He didn’t understand architectural diagrams properly and didn’t know where the load-bearing walls were on the lower floors so he didn’t really lay out the 7th floor properly.

Oh…and don’t forget that Brian who built the 6th floor wasn’t involved in the building the original 5 floors so he didn’t understand the specialized heating system that had been put in and just added to it using standard components. The heating has never worked quite right on the 6th, 7th and 8th floors, has it?

So, ready to build that 9th floor? You could just go ahead.  It’ll probably be ok, right? I mean, the building hasn’t fallen down yet…

I think you get the point.

Of course, when it comes to buildings, this is unlikely to happen, at least in a modern, industrialized country. We have professional architects, permits, building codes and inspectors.

Guess what? There ain’t no permitting or inspection agency for software development (outside of some very specialized areas).  It’s the Wild West.

Causes

The causes of Tech Debt are manifold but I would say these all boil down to three root causes:

  • Time pressure.  Needing to meet a deadline is just business reality.  However, time pressure leads inevitably to corner-cutting. Corner-cutting creates tech debt. Beware artificial ship dates and their hidden cost (more below).
  • Pivots. Pivots are also part of business reality, especially for a startup. The only alternative to pivoting is flogging a dead horse…and then being a dead horse. But, to software engineering efforts, pivots are moving the goal posts.  Pivots lead to stretching existing product implementations to fit new objectives, to shoving square pegs in round holes. Keep stretching and eventually things break.
  • Team Changes.   If you inherit a codebase but not the team that wrote it, you probably don’t understand where the tech debt is or how big it is. You also don’t understand the quickest and easiest way to build on what has already come before. Similarly, when you add new people to the team, they typically have a steep learning curve to learn what has come before. In either case, that learning is never perfect.

Particularly Deadly to Startups

Tech debt is particularly deadly to startups because:

  • there is enormous time pressure because of funding rounds, meaning it accumulates quickly (and you never have time to address it), 
  • they tend to pivot frequently, meaning tech debt accumulates quickly (and you never have time to address it), and
  • startups are resource constrained so there is little to no bandwidth to address tech debt.

Beware Artificial Deadlines

Sometimes there is a real deadline to ship a product – a trade-show where the product will be launched, or running out of funding being two common examples.

In the absence of a real deadline, creating an artificial deadline definitely has its place. A deadline serves to galvanize a team. It helps stop the team endlessly tweaking and gilding the lily.

However, the hidden cost of an artificial deadline is Tech Debt. Because of the planning fallacy (beyond the scope of this post), software development projects are almost always late so corners have to be cut to make deadlines.  That might be ok if you put in place a plan to address the accumulated tech debt immediately after the product launches…but, let’s be honest; that never happens. Tech debt almost always gets kicked down the road because of the pressure to fix defects and respond to user feedback and requests.

Therefore, be wary of artificial deadlines – they have their place but they also have a dangerous, hidden price.

How to deal with Tech Debt

So, now we know what it is, how should you deal with Tech Debt?

1.  Understand what it is

Firstly, accept the reality that Tech Debt is a thing.  It exists.  It’s real and it has to be monitored and addressed. Ignore it and it will get worse and bite you in the rear.

2.  Understand where it is

Next, understand how much Tech Debt you have and where it is in your product. If you are not part of the development team, the developers will be happy to tell you; trust me.

3.  Prioritize it

Once you know where the debt is and how big it is, it’s time to assess how critical it is to address it.  There will always be some Tech Debt – it’s inevitable. Not all Tech Debt is critical to address immediately.

There are no easy answers because the future is not easy to predict.  However, here are some rough rules of thumb:

  • Tech Debt that exists in core features that differentiate your product and/or which users rely on should be addressed urgently, because you are likely to want to continue to develop those features.
  • Tech Debt that exists in any layer of your product which future development will rely on should be addressed urgently, or you’ll be continuing to build on shaky foundations.
  • Tech Debt that exists in rarely used features, features that you don’t compete on or features that you plan to deprecate is a lower priority to address.

4.  Plan to address it

This might be the hardest part. Addressing Tech Debt will take time. Unless that time is planned and built into the priorities and the schedule, it will not happen.

There is also an associated opportunity cost. You cannot change the laws of physics. Addressing Tech Debt will mean you can’t use that same time to move forward on new feature development. You have to accept that reality.

How to Minimize Tech Debt

You can’t avoid Tech Debt completely – it’s an inevitable part of shipping a product.  There is unfortunately no perfect answer here – you have to strike a balance that minimizes Tech Debt but, at the same time, avoids the equal evils of premature optimization, gilding the lily and complete rewrites.  Swinging the pendulum too far in another direction will be just as much of a disaster.  (Hint: Software is never “done” and, left to their own devices, most engineers would prefer to tinker indefinitely without the annoyance of real users using the product and doing stupid things that they shouldn’t.)

But, just because you can’t avoid Tech Debt, doesn’t mean you can’t take some actions to minimize it:

  1. Spread awareness of Tech Debt in your organization to make sure you have a common understanding that it exists, that it needs to be dealt with and the dangers of kicking it down the road.
  2. If you’re not personally involved in the details of software development effort, try to keep your finger on the pulse of the level of Tech Debt is accumulating and communicate that with other stakeholders (particularly the board and investors).
  3. Always build time into product development schedules to address Tech Debt and factor it into commitments made to customers and investors. Expect to spend a chunk of time/money after each major feature release to address the Tech Debt accumulated during the push to get the feature over the finish line.
  4. If you inherit a codebase from a prior team or company, make sure you have ongoing access to someone who worked on it originally, for an absolute minimum of 6 months.
  5. Practice Test-Driven Development (TDD). The details are beyond the scope of this post but good test coverage is invaluable in minimizing Tech Debt.
  6. Avoid “proof-of-concept” implementations of products and features, especially in a startup where you are very resource constrained. While it’s definitely critical to develop iteratively and build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to test if users are interested in your product before you invest too much, you should also assume that all code written will make it into production – you can’t afford to write things twice. This doesn’t mean over-engineer; it means engineer once.

In terms of striking the right balance between being aggressive about shipping products versus premature optimization, my recommendation is that you only make investments that will get you through your next funding milestone or the next 12 months, whichever is later.  i.e. if it won’t pay off in 12 months or before you flame out, it’s not worth it.

Further Reading

“Shipping first time code is like going into debt. A little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back promptly with a rewrite… The danger occurs when the debt is not repaid. Every minute spent on not-quite-right code counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an unconsolidated implementation…” – Ward Cunningham, 1992

I recommend you also check out “Lehman’s Laws of Software Evolution“.  They started in 1974 so we’ve known about Tech Debt for a while.