Impress your CTO – avoid these boring complaints

Here are some of the most boring complaints I hear.

  • No-one knows how it works
  • You can’t measure the quality of what I’m doing
  • It’s because of all of our technical debt
  • We need to re-write this from scratch

They each contain an element of truth but at the same time they manage to completely miss the point. Hence boring.

No-one knows how it works

This really means “I don’t know how it works and nor does the person I usually work closest with”. I once saw a developer spend a huge amount of time trying to recreate, by reading the friendly source, the possible state transitions for a particularly key entity. Because “no-one understood it”. This had two problems:

  1. He may have missed something
  2. By reverse engineering requirements from the working code, what he ended up describing might have included bugs rather than how the feature was supposed to work.

And in this particular instance I could have pointed the developer to one person still in the business and one person who had left but would still be helpful. Next time you’re tempted to assert “no-one understands these state transitions” just change it to a question: “Is there anyone either on the team here, or who has left but is still friendly, who can help me understand how these state transitions are supposed to work?”

You can’t measure the quality of what I’m doing

This is invariably an attempt to hide something. I once worked with a team who didn’t report their test coverage because the lead developer felt that software is too complicated for a metric as simple as test coverage to be meaningful. We debated the subject and eventually agreed that although 100% coverage is probably not that meaningful, it is worth at least knowing where you are. Where were they when they measured code coverage? About 15%. I was amazed. Here we were debating the costs and benefits of 90% or 100% code coverage and all the time we were staring 15% in the face. I cannot think of anyone who would seriously argue that code coverage of 15% is in any way acceptable. For sure, you can’t measure everything, but the skill of a good developer is in helping finding a useful metric to use. For example on a recent project we agreed on a simple metric that if RubyCritic gives us an  A or a B grade then that’s good, if it’s any worse then we need to know why. It’s not perfect but it’s a lot better than hiding behind “you can’t measure what I’m doing”.

It’s because of all of our technical debt

As an experiment, I once agreed with a team to spend one month just doing technical debt cleanup. The results? Nothing noticeably better or faster for the users, nothing notably better quality as far as the QA people were concerned, no metric to show anything had improved, and I was still getting the same developers 3 months later making the same complaints about technical debt. The reality is that there will always be technical debt of some shape or form. Just like real world debt, some technical debt can be good if it helps you achieve other ends that you couldn’t otherwise achieve. Better developers would have a plan that says, for example, “Technical debt in module X is causing us problems, in order to fix those we will need to do Y”. This is better because it is specific and measurable and, if defined well enough, deliverable.

We need to re-write this from scratch

Stop thinking that. It’s a dreadful idea. Whenever you think of re-writing you are thinking of the 20% of the system that is a PITA to maintain. You’re not thinking of the 80% of the system that you will also need to re-write. I remember one project where a 5-month re-write was still going on 18 months later, still with no end in sight. And another where a re-architected system was being built in parallel but wasn’t able to keep up with the new features being added to the “legacy” platform. In shoert I’ve never seen a complete re-write that people were glad to have done. If you do need to make dramatic changes then you will need to find some way to change very specific parts of the application one by one. It will take a very long time: make sure you do your homework before advocating this.

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