October 6, 2018
Be The Code You Want To See In The WorldIt's no big secret that I'm very much from the "Just Do It" school of thought on how to apply good practices to software development. I meet teams all the time who complain that they've been forbidden to do, say, TDD by their managers. My answer is always "Next time, don't ask".
After 25 years doing this for a living, much of that devoted to mentoring teams in the developer arts , I've learned two important lessons:
1. It's very difficult to change someone's mind once it's made up. I wasted a lot of time "selling" the benefits of technical practices like unit testing and refactoring to people for whom no amount of evidence or logic was ever going to make them try it. It's one of the reasons I don't do much conference speaking these days.
2. The best strategies rely on things within our control. Indeed, strategies that rely on things beyond our control aren't really strategies at all. They're just wishful thinking.
The upshot of all this is an approach to working that has two core tenets:
1. Don't seek permission
2. Do what you can do
Easy to say, right? It does imply that, as a professional, you have control over how you work.
Here's the thing: as a professional, you have control over how you work. It's not so much a matter of getting that control, as recognising that - in reality - because you're the one writing the code, you already have that control. Your boss is very welcome to write the code themselves if they want it done their way
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. You want control? Take control. But be sure to be acting in the best interests of your customer and other stakeholders, including the other developers on your team. Code is something you inflict on people. Do it with kindness.
And so there you have it. A mini philosophy. Don't rant and rave about how code should be done. Just do it. Be the code you want to see in the world.
Plenty of developers talk a good game, but their software tells a different story. It's often the case that the great and worthy and noble ideas you see presented in books and at conferences bear little resemblence to how their proponents really work. I've been learning, through Codemanship, that it's more effective to show teams what you do. Talk is cheap. That's why my flagship TDD workshop doesn't have any slides. Every idea is illustrated with real code, every practice is demonstrated right in front of you.
And there isn't a single practice in any Codemanship course I haven't applied many times on real software for real businesses. It's all real, and it all really works in the real world.
What typically prevents teams from applying them isn't their practicality, or how difficult they are to learn. (Although don't underestimate the learning curves.) The obstacles are normally whether they have the will to give it a proper try, and tied up in that, whether they're allowed to try it.
My advice is simple: learn to do it under the radar, in the background, under the bedsheets with a torch, and then the decision to apply it on real software in real teams for real customers will be entirely yours.
August 26, 2018
Yes, Developers Should Learn Ethics. But That's Only Half The Picture.Given the negative impact that some technology start-ups have had on society, and how prominent that sentiment is in the news these days, it's no surprise that more and more people are suggesting that the people who create this technology develop their sense of humanity and ethics.
I do not deny that many of us in software could use a crash course in things like ethics, philosophy, law and history. Ethics in our industry is a hot potato at the moment.
But I do not believe that it should all be on us. When I look at the people in leadership positions - in governments, in key institutions, and in the boardrooms - who are driving the decisions that are creating the wars, the environmental catastrophes, the growing inequality, and the injustice and oppression that we see daily in the media - it strikes me that the problem isn't that the world is run by scientists or engineers. Society isn't ruled by evidence and logic.
As well as STEM graduates needing a better-developed sense of ethics, I think the world would also be improved if the rest of the population had more effective bullshit detectors. Taking Brexit as a classic example, voters were bombarded with campaign messages that were demonstrably false, and promises that were provably impossible to deliver. Leave won by appealing to voters' feelings about immigration, about globalisation and about Britain's place in the EU. Had more voters checked the facts, I have no doubt the vote would have swung the other way.
Sure, this post-truth world we seem to be living in now was aided and abetted by new technology, and the people who created that technogy should have said "No". But, as far as I can tell, it never even occured to them to ask those kids of questions.
But let's be honest, it wasn't online social media advertising that gifted a marginal victory to the British far-right and installed a demagogue in the White House, any more than WWII was the fault of the printing presses that churned out copy after copy of Mein Kampf. Somebody made a business decision to let those social media campaigns run and take the advertisers' money.
Rightly IMHO, it's turned a spotlight on social media that was long overdue. I do not argue that technology should not require ethics. Quite the reverse.
What I'm saying, I guess, is that a better understanding of the humanities among scientists and engineers is only half the picture. If we think the world's problems will be solved because a coder said "I'm not going to track that cookie, it's unethical" to their bosses, we're going to be terribly disappointed.
July 2, 2018
Level 4 Agile MaturityI recently bought new carpets for my home, and the process of getting a quote was very interesting. First, I booked an appointment online for someone to come round and measure up. This appointment took about an hour, and much of that time was spent entering measurements into a software application that created a 2D model of the rooms.
Then I visited a local-ish store - this was a big national chain - and discussed choices and options and prices. This took about an hour and a half, most of which was spent with the sales adviser reading the measurements off a print-out of the original data set and typing them into a sales application to generate a quote.
There were only 3 sales people on the shop floor, and it struck me that all this time spent re-entering data that someone had already entered into a software application was time not spent serving customers. How many sales, I wondered, might be lost because there were no sales people free to serve? We discussed this, and the sales advisor agreed that this system very probably cost sales: and lots of them. (Only the previous week I had visited the local, local shop for this chain, and walked out because nobody was free to serve me.)
With more time and research, we might have been able to put a rough figure on potential sales lost during this data re-entering activity for the entire chain (400 stores).
As a software developer, this problem struck me immediately. It had never really occurred to the sales advisor before, he told me. We probably all have stories like this. I can think of many times during my 25-year career where I've noticed a problem that a piece of software might be able to solve. We tend to have that problem-solving mindset. We just can't help ourselves.
And this all reminded me of a revelation I had maybe 16 years ago, working on a dev team who had temporarily lost its project manager and requirements analyst, and had nobody telling us what to build. So we went to the business and asked "How can we help?"
It turned out there was a major, major problem that was IT-related, and we learned that the IT departmet had steadfastly ignored their pleas to try and solve it for years. So we said "Okay, we'll have a crack at it."
We had many meetings with key business stakeholders, which led to us identifying roughly what the problem was and creating a Balanced Scorecard of business goals that we'd work directly towards.
We shadowed end users who worked in the processes that we needed to improve to see what they did and think about how IT could make it easier. Then we iteratively and incrementally reworked existing IT systems specifically to achieve those improvements.
For several months, it worked like a dream. Our business customers were very happy with the progress we were making. They'd never had a relationship with an IT team like this before. It was a revelation to them and to us.
But IT management did not like it. Not one bit. We weren't following a plan. They wanted to bring us back to heel, to get project management in place to tell us what to do, and to get back to the original plan of REPLACING ALL THE THINGS.
But for 4 shiny happy months I experienced a different kind of software development. Like Malcom McDowell in Star Trek Generations, I experienced the bliss of the Nexus and would now do pretty much anything to get back there.
So, ever since, I've encouraged dev teams to take charge of their destinies in this way. To me, it's a higher level of requirements maturity. We progress from:
1. Executing a plan, to
2. Building a product, to
3. Solving real problems people bring to us, to
4. Going out there and pro-actively seeking problems we could solve
We evolve from being told "do this" to being told "build this" to being told "solve this" to eventually not being told at all. We start as passive executors of plans and builders of features to being active engaged stakeholders in the business, instigating the work we do in response to business needs and opportunities that we find or create.
For me, this is the partnership that so many dev teams aspire to, but can never reach because management won't let them. Just like, ultimately, they woudn't let us in that particular situation.
But I remain convinced it's the next step in the evolution of software development: one up from Agile. It is inevitable*.
*...that we will pretend to do it for certifications while the project office continues to be the monkey on our backs
April 11, 2018
The Foundation of a Dev Profession Should Be MentoringWhat makes something like engineering or law or medicine a "profession"? Ask me 20 years ago, I'd have said it was standards and ethics, policed by some kind of professional body and/or the law. There are certain things, say, an electronic engineer isn't supposed to do, certain things you can't ask your doctor for, certain things a lawyer would end up in jail for doing.
Ask me today, and my answer would be this: a profession is a community of people following a vocation - like writing software or teaching children - that professes how it works to people who want to learn how to do it.
Experienced school teachers help people learning to be school teachers how to teach. They pass on the benefit of their experience, including all the stuff an even more experienced teacher passed on to them.
I still very much believe that standards and ethics must be part of a profession of software development. But I'm increasingly convinced that the bedrock of any such profession would be mentoring. I think of all the time I wasted in my early years of programming, and all the things that would have helped enormously to know back then. Even programming for fun in my teenage bedroom would have been made easier with some basic code craft like unit testing and rudimentary version control.
I was very lucky to be exposed to much more experienced "software engineers" who nudged me firmly in the direction of rigorous user-centred iterative software development, mentioning books I should read, newsgroups I should visit, courses I should go on, and showing me with their day-to-day examples techniques I still apply - and teach - today.
I make it my business today to pass on the benefits of the mentoring I received.And that, to my mind, should be the basis for a profession of software development.
For that to work, though, it's necessary that developers stay developers. "Use it or lose it" has never been more true than in software. I see developers I coached 10 years ago get promoted into management roles - sheesh, I know a lot of CTOs, according to LinkedIn - and quickly lose their coding abilities and fall behind with the technology. Their experience might be invaluable to someone starting out, but it's hard to lead by example if the last programming you did was in Visual C++ 6.0 and your junior devs are working in F#.
So, another pillar of this professional foundation must necessarily be parallel career progression - up to CTO equivalent - for developers. Looking for work for the first time in a decade has left me in little doubt that - with a handful of glorious exceptions that I'm exploring - many employers don't want older (i.e., more expensive) developers, and even the most senior dev roles typically pay a lot less than management equivalents. I meet a lot of senior managers who are reluctantly in this roles because they have big mortgages and school fees to pay. They'd much rather have stayed hands-on. If the best potential mentors are disappearing into meeting rooms all day, it will always be impossible to square this circle.
The idea's been floated before - including by me - but I think it's finally time to start a software developer's guild, with a specific purpose of championing long-term mentoring and parallel career progression for devs who want to stay devs.
Who's with me?
March 24, 2018
Code Craft: What Is It, And Why Do You Need It?One of my missions at the moment is to spread the word about the importance of code craft to organisations of all shapes and sizes.
The software craftsmanship (now "software crafters") movement may have left some observers with the impression that a bunch of prima donna programmers were throwing our toys out of the pram over "beautiful code".
For me, nothing could be further from the truth. It's always been clear in my mind - and I've tried to be clear when talking about craft - that it's not about "beautiful code", or about "masters and apprentices". It has always been about delivering software that works - does what end users need - and that can be easily changed to solve new problems.
I learned early on that iterating our designs was the ultimate requirements discipline. Any solution of any appreciable complexity is something we're unlikely to get right first time. That would be the proverbial "hole in one". We should expect to need multiple passes at it, each pass getting it less wrong.
Iterating software designs requires us to be able to keep changing the code over and over. If the code's difficult to change, then we get less throws of the dice. So there's a simple business truth here: the harder our code is to change, the less likely we are to deliver a good working solution. And, as times goes on, the less able we are to keep our working solution working, as the problem itself changes.
For me, code craft's about delivering the right thing in the short-to-medium term, and about sustaining the pace of innovation to keep our solution working in the long term.
The factors involved here are well-understood.
1. The longer it takes us to re-test our software, the bigger the cost of fixing anything we broke. This is supported by a mountain of evidence collected from thousands of projects over several decades. The cost of fixing bugs rises exponentially the longer they go undetected. So a comprehensive suite of good fast-running automated tests is an essential ingredient in minimising the cost of changing code. I see it being a major bottleneck for many organisations, and see the devastating effect long testing feedback loops can have on a business.
2. The harder it is to understand the code, the more likely it is we'll break it if we change it.
3. The more complex our code is, the harder it is to understand and the easier it is to break. More ways for it to be wrong, basically.
4. Duplication in our code multiplies the cost of changing common logic.
5. The more the different units* in our software depend on each other, the wider the potential impact of changing one unit on other units. (The "ripple effect").
6. When units aren't easily swappable, the impact of changing one unit can break other modules that interact with it.
* Where a "unit" could be a function, a module, a component, or a service. A unit of reusable code, essentially.
So, six key factors determine the cost of changing code:
* Test Assurance & Execution Time
* Abstraction of Dependencies
Add to these, a few other factors can make a big difference.
Firstly, the amount of "friction" in the delivery pipeline. I'd classify "friction" here as "steps in releasing or deploying working software into production that take a long time and/or have a high cost". Manually testing the software before a release would be one example of high friction. Manually deploying the executable files would be another.
The longer it takes, the more it costs and the more error-prone the delivery process is, the less often we can deliver. When we deliver less often, we're iterating more slowly. When we iterate more slowly, we're back to my "less throws of the dice" metaphor.
Frequency of releases is directly related also to the size of each release. Releasing changes in big batches has other drawbacks, too. Most importantly - because software either works as a whole or it doesn't - big releases incorporating many changes present us with an all-or-nothing choice. If change X is wrong, we now have to carefully rework that one thing with all the other changes still in place. So much easier to do a single release for change X by itself, and if it doesn't work, roll it back.
Another aside factor to consider is how easy it is to undo mistakes if necessary. If my big refactoring goes awry, can I easily get back to the last good state of the code? If a release goes pear-shaped, can we easily roll it back to a working version, with minimal disruption to our end customer?
Small releases help a lot in this respect, as does Version Control and Continuous Integration. VCS and CI is like seatbelts for programmers. It can significantly reduce lost time if we have a little accident.
So, I add:
* Small & Frequent Releases
* Frictionless Delivery Processes (build-test-deploy automation)
* Version Control
* Continuous Integration
To my working definition of "code craft".
Noted that there's more to delivering software than these things. There's requirements, there's UX, there's InfoSec, there's data management, and a heap of other considerations. Which is why I'm clear to disambiguate code craft and software development.
Organisations who depend on software need code that works and that can change and stay working. My belief is that anyone writing software for a living needs to get to grips with code craft.
As software continues to "eat the world", this need will grow. I've watched $multi-billion on their knees because their software and systems couldn't change fast enough. As the influence of code spreads into every facet of life, our ability to change code becomes more and more a limiting factor on what we can achieve.
To borrow from Peter McBreen's original book on software craftsmanship, there's a code craft imperative.
March 20, 2018
Why I Won't Take Automated "Hacker Tests" To Get Job InterviewsI'm back on the contract market - give me a shout if you're in the London area (or looking for remote-workers) and could use a very experience Java and/or C# bod - and it's been a looong time since I looked for regular work.
Much seems to be the same as it was when I was last contracting: the junior recruiters randomly filtering out candidates because their CV doesn't specifically mention that version of Spring, the dispiriting job ads that effectively say "It's a shitstorm here, but you get foosball and free breakfast!", the banks who make us wait 6 weeks for an interview date, the ever-growing lists of languages, tools and frameworks we're expected to have 500 years experience of. Yep. It's all as I left it.
But there's something new among all this. More and more of us are apparently being asked to take some kind of automated online coding test before the employer will even consider speaking to us. I was asked this week to take a hackerrank test that lasted 90 minutes. The recruiter said the client was "very positive" about my CV. But, it turns out, this step in the recruitment process was non-negotiable.
I have no problem with being asked to demonstrate technical competence. I kind of do it for a living. I code in front of other developers on training workshops, at conferences, on YouTube, and via my Github account. I'm not hiding anything. If you want to pair program with me on a problem to see the cut of my jib, I'm okay with that.
But I draw the line at these online timed tests. The focus on them is necessarily very narrow, for a start. Maths puzzles and algorithms and "stuff about programming languages". That sort of thing. Is this the new "whiteboard interview"? (Flashbacks to interviews where someone wrote some Java on a board and asked "Will that compile?" I'm sorry, I wasn't aware we'd be compiling this software in our heads.)
I think the focus has to be narrow, because there's a limit to what can be scored automatically. Basically, "this is what we know how to measure". I understand that a lot of these tests focus on algorithms. You're asked to solve a problem, and then scored on passing acceptance tests (easy to automate) and execution time (again, easy to automate).
While I agree that passing acceptance tests is kind of important, I worry about the next biggest factor being Big O-style algorithmic efficiency. Maybe my solution is slower, but easier to understand, for example. And it's sneaky, too. If there are performance criteria, we should bee told what they are up-front. I'm not in the business of making code faster than it needs to be just as a matter of course.
I also worry about the competition element of some of these tests, especially given the narrow focus. I do not rank "hackers" by their ability to create efficient algorithms alone, or by their in-depth knowledge of Java syntax. Let's measure something else to illustrate what I mean; in my Team Dojo, developers have to work together to solve a set of non-trivial problems. They also score points for passing acceptance tests. And what I've learned from watching hundreds of teams take this test is that individual technical ability is a poor predictor of team performance. Teams of coding ninjas are routinely outperformed by teams of average devs who just worked together better. It's quite inspiring to watch.
My other objection to taking these tests is the time candidates are expected to invest speculatively, just to be considered for interview. If you're on the market for work, you may be making multiple applications every week. What if they all ask you to take one of these tests, just to be considered? This creates a big overhead for candidates. If you're coming to the end of a contract, have young kids at home, or are caring for a relative, or have other time commitments, where are you going to find 90 minutes in your day just to prove that you know LINQ. Every. Single. Time. You. Apply?
I would be in favour of a website where devs can once-and-for-all demonstrate their competence in something. Not every time an employer says "dance for me!" I thought this site was called "Github", but that shows what I know.
But I'm not in favour of this cookie-cutter-one-size-fits-all approach to filtering. I guess my real gripe about being asked by a well-known Agile consultancy to take a hackerrank test is not that they asked, but that there was simply no other way of demonstrating my coding chops that they'd consider.
In discussing this with other developers, it seems as if there's a "horses for courses" situation here. Not everyone codes in their spare time, not everyone has a portfolio of stuff (e.g., on Github) they can point to. Not everyone shines when they're put on the spot. Not everyone likes to take stuff away and work alone. There's no one single way that will give every developer a chance to show us what they can really do.
Perhaps what I'm saying here is that we should let the candidate choose how they demonstrate technical competence. I might say "take a look at my screencasts" or "let me fire up Zoom.us and pair with one of your devs" or "how about I come in and run a little hands-on workshop?" Someone else might want to do the hackerrank test, perhaps because they lack job experience and need to demonstrate some raw ability, or maybe they just get nervous with new people. Someone else might want to do a - gulp - whiteboard interview because they worry they'll mess up coding in front of other people, but can demonstrate how much they've learned.
The point is that I can tell shit from shinola any of these ways. If you suck, and you have a portfolio, I'll know it from looking at that. If you suck and we pair, I'll know soon enough. If you suck and take a hackerrank test... I'll still want to see the code. But eventually, I'll know. (So might as well look at your Github.) And if you suck and we get around a whiteboard, I'll get it from that, too.
It seems to me that these automated coding tests are an attempt to remove the "it takes one to know one" element from filtering candidates. My contention is that you can't. That kind of machine intelligence is still decades way. Meanwhile, we're stuck with people assessing other people. And it helps enormously if those people know what they're looking at (and what they're looking for.) That's what needs fixing here.
There's no economy of scale in software development. Why would we believe there's economy of scale in software developer recruitment? That's the problem these online tests claim to solve, but - evidently - they haven't. They just filter out experienced candidates like the many developers I've spoken to.
So we might as well let candidates put their best foot forward and let them decide which foot that is.
Otherwise the end result is you filter out a lot of good people who'd be great additions to your team, but who just don't fit in your recruiting process.
Perhaps we need a Dev Recruitement Manifesto?
February 1, 2018
BDD & Specification By Example - Where Did We Go Wrong?I've been saving this post up for a while, but with a bit of pre-dinner free time I wanted to put it out there now.
I meet a lot of teams, and one thing many of them tell me is that the "customer tests" they've been driving their designs from are actually written by the developers, not the customer.
DEV TEAMS who do BDD/ATDD: who writes your Cucumber/FitNesse/RSpec etc tests?— Codemanship (@codemanship) July 18, 2016
Sure, they're written using a "Behaviour-Driven Development" or "Acceptance Testing" tool like Cucumber or Fitnesse. But just because you've built a "granny annex" on your house, if there's no granny living in it, it's just an "annex".
We've dropped the ball on this. The CHAOS report, published every year by the Standish Group, consistently cites lack of customer involvement as the number one factor in project failure. A tool won't fix that.
Especially when that tool wasn't designed with customer collaboration in mind. When your "Getting Started" guide begins "First, install Visual Studio..." or requires your customer to learn a mark-up language or to use version control, arguably you're bound to have a hard time getting them to engage in the process.
Increasingly, I work with teams who want to somehow connect the way their customer actually prefers to capture examples with the way devs like to automate tests. 90% of the time, that means pulling data out of Excel spreadsheets - still the most widely used tool in both communities - into unit tests. Some unit testing frameworks even have that facility built in (e.g., MSTest for .NET). But reading data from spreadsheets is child's play for most developers. With OLD DB or JDBC, for example, a spreadsheet's just a database.
But, regardless of the tools, the problem most teams need to solve is a people problem. I've found that close customer involvement is so critical to the chances of a team succeeding at solving the customer's problems that I actually stop development until they engage at the level we need them to. No play? No code.
The mistake many of us make is to give them a choice. "Would you like to spend a lot of time with us discussing requirements and playing with candidate releases and giving us feedback?" "No thanks, ta very much. See you in a year's time."
We made a rod for our backs by allowing them to be absentee partners and trying to figure out what they want and need for them. Specification By Example presents us with an opportunity to make the relationship clearer. The customer has to be "trained" to understand that if they haven't agreed a test for it, they ain't gonna get it.
January 21, 2018
Delegating "Junior" Development Tasks. (SPOILER ALERT: It doesn't work)When I first took on a leadership role on a software development team 20 years ago, from the reading I did, I learned that the key to managing successfully was apparently delegation.
I would break the work down - GUI, core logic, persistence, etc - and assign it to the people I believed had the necessary skills. The hard stuff I delegated to the most experienced and knowledgeable developers, The "easy" stuff, I left to the juniors.
It only took me a few months to realise that this model of team management simply doesn't work for software development. In code, the devil is in the detail. To delegate a task, I had to explain precisely what I wanted that code to do, and how I wanted it to be (in terms of coding standards, our architecture, and so on).
If the task was trivial enough to give to a "junior" dev, it was usually quicker to do it myself. I spent a lot more time cleaning up after them than I thought I was saving by delegating.
So I changed my focus. I delegated work in big enough chucks to make it worthwhile, which meant it was no longer "junior" work.
Looking back with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, I realise now that delegating "junior" dev tasks is absurd. It's like a lead screenwriter delegating the easy words to a junior screenwriter. It would also probably be a very frustrating learning experience for them. I'm very glad I never went through a phase in my early career of doing "junior" work (although I probably wrote plenty of "junior" code!)
The value in bringing inexperienced developers in to a team is to give them the opportunity to learn from more seasoned developers. I got that chance, and it was invaluable. Now, I recommend to managers that their noobs pair up with the old hands on proper actual software development, and allow for the fact that it will take them longer.
This necessitates - if you want the team to be productive as a whole - that the experienced developers outnumber the juniors. Actually, let's not call them that. The trainees.
Over time - months and years - the level of mentoring required will fall, until eventually they can be left to get on with it. And to mentor new developers coming in.
But I still see and hear from many, many people who are stuck in the hell of a Thousand Junior Programmers, where senior people - often called "architects" - are greatly outnumbered by people still wet behind the ears, to whom all the "painting by numbers" is delegated. This mindset is deeply embedded in the cultures of some major software companies. The result is invariably software that's much worse, and costs much more.
It also leads to some pretty demoralised developers. This is not the movie industry. We don't need runners to fetch our coffee.
ADDENDUM: It also just occurred to me, while I'm recalling, that whenever I examined those "junior" dev tasks more closely, their entire existence was caused by a problem in the way we were doing things (e.g., bugginess, lack of separation of presentation and logic, duplication in data access code, etc). These days, when it feels like "grunt" work - repetitive grind - I stop and ask myself why.
January 3, 2018
Professionalism & the "Customer"Just a few words to add to a post I wrote a few days ago about TDD & "professionalism". I scribbled a quick Venn diagram to illustrate my ideas about stuff software development "professionals" should aim for.
A few good folk have understandably raised objections, which is the natural consequence of saying stuff on the Internet. In particular, some folk object to the idea that a "professional" doesn't write code the customer didn't ask for.
What if the customer doesn't know what they want? Should we build something and see if they like it? Call it an "experiment". We could do that. But before we do that, we could discuss it with the customer and seek their input before we build what we're planning to build. A mock-up, a storyboard, or other lo-fi prototype could clue them in as to what exactly it is we're planning to try for them.
And what if we're building software for the general public? How do we seek permission to try ideas?
This is the problem with words.
What exactly is a "customer"? Different teams will be working in different situations with different kinds of "customer". And there are many understandings of what that word means.
To me, the "customer" is whoever decides what the money gets spent on. In relation to professionalism, we can look at our relationship with our "customer" in many ways.
Think of doctors and patients: the doctor doesn't ask the patient "What medicine would you like me to prescribe?" Instead, she examines the patient, diagnoses the illness, and proposes a treatment. But she still seeks permission from the patient to try it. (Unless the patient is unable to give consent.) Arguably, it would be "unprofessional" of a doctor to administer a treatment without telling the patient what it is, what it's supposed to do, and what side effects it might have. There is a dialogue, then there is consent. The patient decides yay or nay, usually.
Or think of it as gambling. In the casino of software development, decisions are made to bet sums of money on features and changes. Some bets will be bigger than others. Some features will have a potentially larger pay-out than others. In that scenario, where we don't know what the outcome is going to be (which is - let's be honest - how it really is in software development anyway), who are we? Are we the gambler? Or are we the croupier? Do we take their money and tell them to go to the bar while we place bets on their behalf? Or do we ask them to sit at the table, and at least seek consent for every bet before it's placed?
And when it's us deciding what features to try, aren't we the "customer"? In this situation, it's our money we're gambling with. Do we randomly write code and see how it turns out? Or do we take aim before we fire? I've found it to be a bad idea to start writing code without a clear idea of what that code's supposed to do, regardless of whether this is decided in a conversation with a "customer", or in a conversation with myself.
One thing is clear to me (and feel free to disagree): all software development is an experiment. So, personally, I don't distinguish between a "spike" and a "finished solution". They're all spikes. I've found I'm genuinely no quicker producing working code when I cut corners. So my spikes have automated tests, and the code's maintainable. (I rarely even write sample code (e.g., for blog posts) without tests any more.) And they proceed a conversation in which the purpose of the spike is explicitly agreed, and consent - even if it's my own consent - is given to do it.
Now, like I said in the original post: I don't find discussions about professionalism very helpful. Words are difficult. However I spin it, some folk will object. And that's fine. Don't wanna do it my way? Don't do it. I'm not in charge of anyone except myself.
And isn't that, after all is said and done, the real definition of a "professional"?
December 30, 2017
TDD & "Professionalism"Much talk (and gnashing of teeth) about the link between Test-Driven Development and "professionalism". It probably won't surprise you to learn that I've given this a bit of thought.
To be clear, I'm not in the business of selling TDD to developers and teams. If you don't want to do TDD, don't do it. (If you do want to do TDD, then maybe I can help.)
But let's talk about "professionalism"...
I believe it's "unprofessional" to ship untested code. Let me qualify that: it's not a good thing to ship code that has been added or changed that hasn't been tested since you added or changed it. At the very least, it's a courtesy to your customers. And, at times, their businesses or even their lives may depend on it.
So, maybe my definition of "professionalism" would include the need to test (and re-test) the software every time I want to ship it. That's a start.
Another courtesy we can do for our customers is to not make them wait a long time for important changes to the software. I've seen many, many businesses brought their knees by long delivery cycle times caused by Big Bang release processes. So, perhaps it's "unprofessional" to have long release cycles.
When I draw my imaginary Venn diagram of "Doesn't ship untested code" and "Doesn't make the customer wait for changes", I see that the intersection of those two sets implies "Doesn't take long to test the software". If sufficiently good testing takes weeks, then we're going to have to make the customer wait. If we skimp on the testing, we're going to have to ship untrustworthy code.
There's no magic bullet for rapidly testing (and re-testing) code. The only technique we've found after 70-odd years of writing software is to write programs that automate test execution. And for those tests - of which there could be tens of thousands - to run genuinely fast enough to ensure customers aren't left waiting for too long, they need to be written to run fast. That typically means our tests should mostly have no external dependencies that would slow them down. Sometimes referred to as "unit tests".
So, to avoid shipping broken code, we test it every time. To avoid making the customer wait too long, we test it automatically. And to avoid our automated tests being slow, we write mostly "unit tests" (tests without external dependencies).
None of this mandates TDD. There are other ways. But my line in the sand is that these outcomes are mandated. I will not ship untested code. I will not make my customer wait too long. Therefore I will write many fast-running automated "unit tests".
And this is not a complete picture, of course. Time taken to test (and re-test) the code is one factor in how long my customer might have to wait. And it's a big factor. But there are other factors.
For example, how difficult it becomes to make the changes the customer wants. As the code grows, complexity and entropy can overwhelm us. It's basic physics. As it expands, code can become complicated, difficult to understand, highly interconnected and easy to break.
So I add a third set to my imaginary Venn diagram, "Minimises entropy in the code". In the intersection of all three sets, we have a sweet spot that I might still call "professionalism"; never shipping untested code, not making our customers wait too long, and sustaining that pace of delivery for as long as our customer needs changes by keeping the code "clean".
I achieve those goals by writing fast-running automated "unit tests", and continually refactoring my code to minimise entropy.
Lastly - but by no means leastly - I believe it's "unprofessional" to ship code the customer didn't ask for. Software is expensive to produce. Even very simple features can rack up a total cost of thousands of dollars to deliver in a working end product. I don't make my customers pay for stuff they didn't ask for.
So, a "professional" developer clearly, unambiguously establishes what the customer requires from the code before they write it.
Now my Venn diagram is complete.
ASIDE: In reality, these are fuzzy sets. Some teams ship better-tested code than others. Some teams release more frequently than others, and so have shorter lead times. Some teams write cleaner code than others. Some teams waste less time on unwanted features than others.
So there are degrees of "professionalism" in these respects. And this is before I add the other sets relating to things like ethics and environmental responsibility. It's not a simple binary choice of "professional" or "unprofessional". It's complicated. Personally, I don't think discussions about "professionalism" are very helpful.
Like I said at the start, TDD isn't mandatory. But I do have to wonder, when teams aren't doing TDD, what are they doing to keep themselves in that sweet spot?