Today I’ve read two interesting posts: The Cost of Code by @unclebobmartin and Code as a Cause of Project Failure by @DocOnDev. They discuss various arguments to prove that all projects fail because of code. The main argument is that if code is free and light-fast to change, project can’t fail. OK. But this case is rather extreme and obviously impossible. We don’t live in a world with hyper-space jumps, teleportation and free medicine (unfortunately). In real life code costs a lot and it will be true in the next decades for sure, so this argumentation proves nothing. In ideal world there is no such thing as code. In ideal world you have a solution in seconds without computers, software and other complicated things. So I don’t buy this idea. Code is not the main reason for projects failure in reality.
Code is not free. Code is expensive. We do not sell source code though, we sell solutions. If it is possible to create a solution without source code, it would be fantastic. Let’s take an industry that handles tangible objects. Automobile industry does not sell carbon and metall — it sells cars. It sells a solution to transportation problem. Teleportation is an ideal solution, but we can’t teleport nothing but electrons, sadly. We buy cars to get from point A to point B. We buy a solution.
Code != Solution
I think the main problem with projects is that they provide either bad solution or no solution at all. Nobody buys stagecoaches these days, since there are more efficient solutions. If a project does not solve anything, it will fail. If a project solves something, but in a nasty, unusable way, it will fail. You can create an absolutely beautiful architecture with the cleanest code in the world. You may have 100% test coverage, complete separation of concerns, flat hierarchies and methods without boolean arguments. You may have all that beauty, but still fail miserably if the program does not solve user’s problems efficiently.
You may argue that with clean code you can refactor it fast and change everything. C’mon, it will be a full re-write if it solves the wrong problem. Can you fix a stagecoach to make it a true competitor of a car?
On the other hand, if a projects solves a right problem, but with some issues, clean code is very important. You can’t adopt fast without it. You can’t change things and react to people demands.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that clean code is an important thing, but it is not the most important asset in software development.
Everything has its life-cycle. Even stars. Even The Universe. Everything.
It is quite sad for intelligent creatures, but it is just a fact of life. I want to draw some quite obvious parallels to reveal the real danger of Technical Debt for a software product.
Let’s take a human. When we are young, we are overflowed with energy. Do you know how a 7 year-old boy spends his day? I have a son, so I’ll tell you. He wakes up at 7 am (sometimes before 6 am!) and tries to play some quite silent games (it is too early to make much noise). He can restrain himself till about 8 am, then he starts to jump, does somersets, some boxing etc… By 8.30 we have a real “tornado” in our house. It may take him an hour to exhaust and have a breakfast. Such periods of activity can be easily repeated 2-3 times a day. And he literally turns off around 9 pm – sleep is when he recharges his batteries.
An old man is quite the opposite. He saves every movement, everything is hard and slow. He makes many mistakes and health maybe getting worth. Learning new things is also getting harder at times. Yes, wisdom and tremendous life experience is there, but very often there is no energy to move forward.
But what’s next? Years later progress stops. Product becomes old with all the bad and good side-effects. Suddenly it is much harder to add new features. Ages of development make the product more complex. Millions of technical debts rotten its body like cancer . There is no clear architecture anymore and there are so many patches that one small change can produce a totally unpredictable impact and bring along new bugs in unexpected areas. Yes, development team has wisdom. But often no courage and energy to revive the product.
Technical Debt Is a Cancer
How long does this cycle last? It really depends. We all visit doctors. Most of us want to live longer and healthier. Early cancer detection gives good chances to fight and win the disease. We should do exactly the same with software. Here are typical symptoms:
- Velocity has dropped significantly over the last several iterations/releases
- A bug fix triggers one or several new bugs too often
- Nobody knows ideas behind the original software architecture
- Team spends more time fixing bugs than developing/improving features
- Automatic tests are red 80% of the time (if it is 100% — the product is most likely in coma)
If you see at least 2 such symptoms, you’ve just discovered a product cancer — Technical Debt. Technical debt is a true killer when you have deadline (time to market). If you have the symptoms, you should fight the disease right now. You may think that it is OK to wait several months, add some more “cool and highly requested” features and then get back to the real problems. It is a wrong decision, believe me. I used to make it and I used to fail with it. It bogs you down. You lose focus and make stupid mistakes. It leads to fear. And fear is a bad ally. You go from one extreme to another to only increase entropy, nothing else.
If you miss the deadline, all the possible actions will not help. Cancer will win. And then you will have just two options: re-write the product completely from scratch or start a new product.
If you see these symptoms, you should stop and think about the attitude of your development team. If you’ve survived over several years, priorities should be changed. Reset your development team and use chemotherapy.
- Focus on quality. Fix the roots of the problems.
- Teach the original architecture to all, pair program, communicate.
- Introduce “No new code without tests” rule.
- Fight fear. Let the knowledge spread. Knowledge eliminates fear.
- Put the most experienced people on fundamental problems solving.
You have to fight the cancer to bring energy back, to bring courage back, to live and produce a great software product. Otherwise it will be as dead as Lotus Notes.