August 19, 2017
Time For Learning - An Inconvenient TruthI've watched many tweet debates ("twebates"?) recently on the subject of finding time for learning in software development.
In the culture of the code craft movement, the consensus has been that you have to put in the hours. And by that, they tend to mean your own hours, outside of the day job. I've seen many job ads stipulating that candidates would need to show evidence of this extra-curricular commitment: blogs, speaking at conferences, OSS contributions, personal projects and all that.
The counter argument comes chiefly from people advocating greater diversity in software. Single parents, for example, have a lot on their plate that makes popping along to the Extreme Tuesday Club or speaking at a conference in, say, Norway, logistically difficult. Where's the time in their day/week/year to read all three volumes of the Art of Computer Programming?
My perspective on all this, I'm afraid, is cold and sobering. It takes a lot of reading and talking and sharing and experimentation (also known as "trying new stuff") to get good at writing software - and to stay good at it.
That's an inescapable reality. It's an inconvenient truth about software development. Everyone wants those skills, but nobody's willing to pay to develop them. Cui bono? Demonstrably, the employer benefits from more skilled developers. So they should make a contribution to bulding those skills. Simples.
What we're really debating is where does that time come from? Most employers aren't willing to support learning out of their own budgets. They expect developers to arrive fully formed, and that means that anything aside from direct on-the-job experience is down to us to learn in our own time. It's wholly inadequate to the task because we can only learn things that have immediate relevance to what we're doing.
Imagine if doctors had to learn everything that way. "Well, Mr Gorman, I'm afraid you have a burst appendix. This hasn't come up before, so I'm going on a course to learn how to treat it. See you in 2 weeks."
This also excludes people whose backgrounds and situations make finding those extra hours every week very difficult. This is why I believe offering developers "10% time" or "20% time" is really very necessary if we want a more diverse profession. This is another inconvenient truth about software development. Job ads that demand large amounts of extra hours of "elective" work are effectively restricting applications to people with not a lot else going on in their lives.
In practice, the code crafter landscape is still pretty homogenous. When I run public events, we still get about 85% men, and most of those are white. Very occasionally, someone with a disability comes along - and I always try to make sure the event's accessible, and advertise that fact.
But the fact remains that there are a lot of potentially great developers out there who, much as they'd like to, can't get along to a Saturday workshop, and whose employers won't let them take time out for learning during the working week.
Those are the people we in the dev community rarely see. But we shouldn't assume that they're not there because they don't want to learn.
If your job ads say you're committed to increasing diversity, and then demand a large portfolio of extra-curricular activities, you have a cognitive dissonance.
So, my question is this: how do we square this circle? My current belief is that we must adapt the very nature of our jobs so that time for learning and deliberate practice is built into the working week. I believe that this should become the norm, whereas today it's very much the exception.
I come from the school of "if this needs to happen, then let's just do it". We made the mistake, as professionals, of letting other people manage our time. If we're to move forward then that needs to stop. As "prima donna" as this sounds, we should take that time, and not ask for permission.
Because if we ask for permission, we know what the answer will be.
August 11, 2017
Update: Code Craft "Driving Test" FxCop Rules
I've been continuing work on a tool to automatically analyse .NET code submitted for the Code Craft "Driving Test".
Despite tying myself in knots for the first week trying to build a whole code analysis and reporting framework - when will I ever learn?! - I'm making good progress with Plan B this week.
Plan B is to go with the Visual Studio code analysis infrastructure (basically, FxCop). It's been more than a decade since I wrote FxCop rules, and it's been an uphill battle wrapping my head around it again (along with all the changes they've made since 2006).
But I now have 8 code quality rules that are kind of sort of working. Some work well. Some need more thought.
1. Methods can't be longer than 10 LOC
2. Methods can't have > 2 branches
3. Identifiers must be <= 20 characters. (Plan is to exempt test fixture/method names. TO-DO.)
4. Classes can't have > 8 methods (so max class size is 80 LOC)
5. Methods can't use more than one feature of another class. (My very basic interpretation of "Feature Envy". Again, TO-DO to improve that. Again, test code may be exempt.)
6. Boolean parameters are not allowed
7. Methods can't have > 3 parameters
8. Methods can't instantiate project types, unless they are factory or builder methods that return an abstract type. (The beginning of my Dependency Inversion "pincer movement". 2 more rules to come preventing invocation of static project methods, and methods that aren't virtual or abstract. Again, factories and builders will be exempt, as well as test code.)
What's been really fun about the last couple of weeks has been eating my own dog food. As each new rule emerges, I've been applying it frequently to my own code. I'm a great believer in the power of Continuous Inspection, and this has been a timely reminder of just how powerful it can be.
After passing every test, and performing every refactoring, I run a code analysis that will eventually systematically check all my code for 15 or so issues. I fix any problems it raises there and then. I don't commit or push code that fails code analysis.
In Continuous Inspection, this is the equivalent of all my tests being green. Of course, as with functional tests, the resulting code quality may only be as good as the code quality tests. And I'm refining them with more and more examples, and applying them to real code to see what designs they encourage. So far, not so shabby.
And for those inevitable occasions when blindly obeying the design rules would make our code worse, the tool will have a mechanism for opting out of a rule. (Probably a custom attribute that you can apply to classes and fields and methods etc, specifying which rule you're breaking and - most importantly - documenting why. Again, a TO-DO.) In the Driving Test, I'm thinking candidates will get 3 such "hall passes".
If you want to see the work so far, and try it out for yourself, the source code's at https://github.com/jasongorman/CodeCraft.FxCop
And I've made a handful more tickets available for the trial Code Craft "Driving Test" for C# developers on Sept 16th. It's free this time, in exchange for your adventerous and forgiving participation in this business experiment :)
August 9, 2017
Clean Code isn't a Programming Luxury. It's a Business NecessityI'm not going to call out the tweeter, to spare their blushes, but today I saw one of those regular tweets denigrating the business value of "clean code".
This is an all-too-common sentiment I see being expressed at all levels in our industry. Clean Code is a luxury. A nice-to-have. It's just prima donna programmers making their code pretty. Etc etc.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Just from direct personal experience, I've seen several major businesses brought to their knees by their inability to adapt and evolve their software.
There was the financial services company who struggled for nearly a year to produce a stable release of the new features their sales people desperately needed.
There was the mobile software giant who was burning $100 million a year just fixing bugs while the competition was racing ahead.
There was the online recruitment behemoth who rewrote their entire platform multiple times from scratch because the cost of changing it became too great. Every. Single. Time.
I see time and time again businesses being held back by delays to software releases. In an information economy - which is what we now find ourselves in (up to our necks) - the ability to change software and systems is a fundamental factor in a business's ability to compete.
Far from being a luxury, Clean Code - code that's easy to change - is a basic necessity. It is to the Information Age what coal was to the Industrial Age.
No FTSE500 CEO these days can hatch a plan to change their business that doesn't involve someone somewhere changing software. And the lack of responsiveness from IT is routinely cited as a major limiting factor on how their business performs.
Code craft is not about making our code pretty. It's about delivering value today without blocking more value tomorrow. It's that simple.
August 1, 2017
Codemanship Code Craft Driving Test - Trial Run
In my last blog post, I talked about the code quality criteria for our planned "driving test" for code crafters.
If you're interested in taking the test, I'm planning a trial run on Saturday Sept 16th. Initially, it will be just for C# programmers.
Entry is free (this time). You'll need a decent Internet connection, Visual Studio (2013 or later, Community is fine), and a GitHub account. Resharper is highly recommended (you can download a trial version from https://www.jetbrains.com/resharper/download/ - but don't do it now, because it will time out before the trial!) You'll be writing tests with NUnit 2.6.x. You can use whichever .NET mocking framework you desire. No other third-party libraries should be required.
The project we'll set you should take 4-8 hours, and you'll have 24 hours to submit your solution and your screencast link after we begin.
If you've been on Codemanship training courses, the quality criteria should make sense to you, and you'll know what we're looking for in your screencast.
If you haven't, then I recommend twisting the boss's arm and sending them a link to http://www.codemanship.com :)
You can register using the form below.
July 26, 2017
Gold Standard Teams do Continuous Inspection
Working with so many dev teams across a diverse range of industries gives me a great insight into the common features of teams that consistently do great work.
I call these the Gold Standard development teams. And they write gold standard code.
Gold standard code, to me, is code that maybe only 1% of teams are writing. It's more reliable and more maintainable than 99% of the code I see.
Importantly, Gold Standard dev teams don't usually take any longer to deliver working software than their Silver and Bronze Standard peers. Often, they deliver sooner. And it's no coincidence. The practices that lead to gold standard code also tend to make earlier and more frequent delivery easier.
One common feature I see in Gold Standard dev teams is that they do continuous inspection of their code to ensure that it's of a high quality.
Some teams review code quality once in a blue moon. Some review code in every iteration. Some review code with every check in.
Gold Standard dev teams review code quality as often as they test their code, every few minutes. This means they pick up code quality "bugs" almost as soon as they're introduced.
Like functional bugs, code quality bugs are much easier to fix the sooner they're caught. Catching issues immediately enables Gold Standard dev teams to produce very high quality code at little to no extra cost. Often, it saves time.
Continuous testing of software requires a high level of test automation. It's not really possible any other way. Continuous code inspection is no different. Rigorously examining the code for a multitude of problems every few minutes is extremely difficult to do by eye alone. Pre-check-in reviews, and even pair programming, are not enough.
Luckily, there's an ever-growing supply of tools we can use to automate our code inspections. Unsurprisingly, demand for the specialist skillset required is growing rapidly, too.
What kind of questions should we ask in our continuous code inspections? To some extent, that will depend on your specific code quality goals. But there are themes that are common to most code:
1. Complexity - How much "stuff" is there in our code? How many lines of code in this function or module? How many branches? How many operators and operands?
Gold Standard dev teams know the price of increasing code entropy, and fight it vigorously. Is this method getting a bit big? Let's split it into a composed method. Is this class doing too much? Let's split it into multiple classes that each have one distinct job.
2. Duplication - When we duplicate code - and concepts - we end up having to maintain the same logic in multiple places, multiplying the cost of making changes to it.
Gold Standard dev teams monitor the code closely for similarities. Are these two blocks of code kind of the same? Let's turn it into one parameterised method. Are these two classes sort of doing the same thing? Maybe extract the common elements into their own class and have both of them reuse that.
3. Dependencies - If we change a line of code in one place, how much of the rest of the code will break? Unmanaged dependencies - couplings - in our code can amplify the "ripple effect" and multiply the cost of even the smallest changes.
Gold Standard teams are continually aware of, and constantly managing, the dependencies in their code. When a class depends too much on other classes, they reshape the code and redistribute the responsibilities to localise the impact of change.
They also make sure that as many of their dependencies as possible are swappable: that is, one function or class or component can be easily swapped with a different implementation with no impact on the calling code.
4. Readability - Code that's difficult to understand is difficult to change without breaking it.
You may be thinking that it's not possible to automate the checking of code readability, and to some extent that's true. But studies have shown a very strong correlation between the complexity of code and how easy it is to read and understand. For example, code that has a lower Maintainability Index tends to score lower for readability, too.
As well as monitoring code for complexity, Gold Standard dev teams can also monitor the semantic content of their code using an increasingly sophisticated array of Natural Language Processing tools.
Simple applications of well-established readability metrics, like Flesch Reading Ease, can also help draw our attention to difficult code.
And even something as simple as calculating the conceptual correlation between names in our code and words used by our customers to describe the problem domain can help highlight code that may not be "speaking the customer's language".
5. Test assurance - If we made a change that broke the code, how soon would we know? How easy would it be to pinpoint the problem?
This is a crucial factor in the cost of changing code, and one that's usually overlooked in discussions about maintainability. Bugs cost exponentially more to fix the later they're discovered. The goal of automated regression tests is to discover them sooner, which saves us a lot of time.
Gold Standard teams continuously monitor how good their automated tests are at catching regressions. The way they do this is to deliberately introduce errors into their code, and see if any of the tests catch them. This is called mutation testing, and there are tools available for many programming languages that will do it automatically, alerting devs to any gaps in their automated test suites and giving them increased confidence when making changes.
Another key component of test assurance is how often we can run our automated tests. The longer they take to run, the less often we can run them and the longer we have to wait for feedback. Gold Standard teams monitor test execution time and optimise their test suites to run as fast as they need.
And finally, when a test does fail, Gold Standard teams are able to pinpoint the problem and fix it sooner, because their tests typically ask less questions. A Gold Standard automated test suite might cover 100,000 lines of production code with 10-20,000 tests, each having only one reason to fail. LOC/test is a key metric for Gold Standard teams, and they rarely let it go beyond 10 LOC/test.
PS. Shameless plug: If you'd like to learn more about Continuous Inspection, I run a bite-sized training workshop on code craft metrics.
July 18, 2017
Why Don't We Eat Our Own Dog Food?You may already know I'm a big advocate of developers eating our own dog food.
Using the software we create as real end users, in the real world, provides insights that no amount of meetings or documentation can provide.
A quick straw poll I ran on Twitter suggests 2 out of 3 of us haven't actually used the software we're working on for real.
Devs: have you used the software you last worked on a release of as an *end user*?— Codemanship (@codemanship) July 15, 2017
I've been banging this drum for years, for a largely reluctant audience. Managers say "Our users aren't happy with the latest release" and ask me what can be done. And I say "Walk a mile in your customer's shoes". And they say "Thanks for that. But no."
It's such a simple thing to do, and yet somehow so very hard. There's something psychological going on, I reckon. The same reason most hotel chain employees have no idea what it's like to be a customer in their own hotels...
I urge you to try it. Now.
July 16, 2017
Developers & Employers Prefer to Connect Through NetworksI ran Twitter polls on developers' preferences for finding work, and employers' preferences for finding developers.
Devs: how do you prefer to find work?— Codemanship (@codemanship) July 13, 2017
Employers/hiring managers: how do you prefer to find software developers?— Codemanship (@codemanship) July 14, 2017
There's significant alignment. Both devs and employers prefer to connect through their networks - employers apparently more so.
This makes a lot of sense. There's the benefit of "it takes one to know one". And hiring devs who already know your devs may mean a better team fit.
It raises the question of how people who aren't in those networks find opportunities. This has implications for diversity. Hiring entirely through networks could lead to an effectively closed shop.
We should think about how to extend our networks to include people who might not normally be included. For that, we probably need outreach.
Noted also just how little devs and employers think of agencies. This comes as no surprise, when you've been in the industry as long as I have and heard many complaints from both sides.
Handing responsibility for hiring highly skilled workers to someone with no understanding has obvious drawbacks. You may as well ask your greengrocer to do it..
How IT recruitment agencies survive - and thrive - in a market that sees little value in them? It's a mystery for sure. There are just so many better routes now.
I think it boils down to the interpersonal. Sales people in these agencies build relationships with people working in client organisations. It's that simple.
As rational as we like to paint ourselves, we are - in essence - just shaved apes. "Yes, there may be better ways of hiring. But Phil from Computer Bastards Ltd bought me dinner. So they get the job."
That may well change, though. Social media's making it easier for these communities to find each other. As with so many other markets, the Web could end up cutting out the middle man.
July 9, 2017
Why You Should Put Learning Opportunities Front-And-Centre In Dev Recruitment
Devs: what would lure you away from your current job?— Codemanship (@codemanship) July 6, 2017
A little Twitter poll I ran under the Codemanship acccount seems to confirm something that many of us have been saying for years. 41% of those polled said they could be lured from their current job by greater opportunities to learn.
Software development is a career that involves lifelong learning, and lot's of it. That's how we progress. So it doesn't come as a surprise that it was ranked significantly higher than "More money".
It's surprising, then, that learning opportunities don't figure higher in dev recruitment campaigns. I've banged this drum with clients many, many times. Want to attract and retain great developers? Make learning - mentoring, conferences, training, time to read, time to share - a greater part of the job. No, scratch that. Accept that learning is the job, and build your team culture around that inescapable fact.
When you're hiring, don't just look for what they know now. Look for their potential to learn. And their potential to teach (e.g. by example) the stuff they know so others can learn from them. And clear the way for that to happen. A lot.
Sadly, such employers are too few and far between. The unreasonable and unrealistic attitude that developers should arrive knowing everything they need to know, and no learning should go on on company time, is a leading cause of developer attrition.
It's also the reason why you've been searching in vain these last 6 months for a fluent Mandarin and Dutch-speaking full-stack JS/Node/Java/Clojure/Ruby/NoSQL/SQL/Docker/COBOL/Eiffel/Vim/Linux/Windows developer who has an HGV license and is licensed to practice medicine (salary: market rate).
Software developers tend to be highly educated, but the most important thing we learn is how to learn and it's one of the most important skills your money can buy. In return, one of the most valuable perks you can offer them is more opportunities to learn.
As a professional trainer and mentor, I am of course biased. I tell devs what I do, and they say "Wow, you must be really busy!" and I say "You'd think so, wouldn't you?" But the reality is that the majority of employers don't offer their devs any training at all, let alone time to, say, read a book.
The kind of bosses I run training for are unfortunately very much in the minority. Although, interestingly, they seem to have a lot less trouble hiring good developers.
July 4, 2017
Are We Only Pretending To Care About Cost of Change?Wise folk have occasionally told me - when I've claimed that "I really wanted X" - that, if X was within my control, then I couldn't have wanted it badly enough or I'd have X.
You know, like when someone says "I really wish I knew Spanish"? Obviously, they really don't. Or they'd know Spanish.
Likewise when development teams say "I really wish we understood our end users better". Evidently not. Or we'd understand our end users better.
And, talking about it today with colleagues, there's a nice little list of things development teams are only pretending to care about. If they did, they'd have done something about it.
Take the cost of changing code. Is your team tracking that? Do you know how much it cost to add, change or delete a line of code for your last release? Do you know how the cost of changing is, well, changing?
The vast majority of teams don't keep those kinds of records, even though the information is almost always available to figure it out. Got version control? You can get a graph of code churn. Got project management or accounts? Then you know how much money was spent during those same periods. Just divide the latter by the former, and - bazinga! - cost of changing a line of code.
The fact that most of us don't have that number to hand strongly suggests that, despite our loudest protestations, we don't really care about it.
And what's very interesting is that it's no different within the software craftsmanship community. We talk about cost of change a great deal, but I've yet to meet a self-identifying software craftsperson who knows the cost of changing their own code.
This seems, to me, to be like a club for really serious golf enthusiasts in which nobody knows what their handicap is. At the very least, should we not be building a good-sized body of data to back up our claims that code craft really does reduce the cost of change? It's been nearly a decade since the software craftsmanship manifesto. What have we been doing with our time that's more important than verifying its central premise?
June 10, 2017
Could You Be A Mentor To An Aspiring Software Developer?I've been beavering away these last few weeks putting together the basis for an initiative that will enable experienced software developers to mentor new programmers looking to become developers one day.
It'll take the form of a Software Developers' Guild - a sort of clearing house that helps talented new programmers find old hands who can provide "light-touch" guidance over the long-term (4-6 years).
I see it working along similar lines to what I've been doing with my "apprentice" Will Price (who's just finished his final exams for his CS degree, and has turned out pretty spiffy as a developer, too). I've been pairing with Will regularly for a couple of hours every fortnight or so, working on the skills formal education tends to leave out (using version control, test automation, TDD< refactoring, design principles and other practical aspects of code craft).
I've also been nudging him towards certain sources of information: books, blogs, conferences, and so forth, and generally giving him a steer on what he would find most useful to know as a software developer.
Reflecting on how it's gone, both Will and I feel it's been of immense value - and not just for Will. Mentoring someone new to this field has spurred me to learn new things, too (like Python, for example) and reinvigorated my enthusiasm for learning. So, after twelvety-stupid years as a developer, I feel renewed. And looking forward to doing it again.
The industry is also up on the deal by one potentially great developer.
My thinking of late has been that this could be a workable route to avoiding the Groundhog Day that our profession seems stuck in, where new developers have to go through the same long process of rediscovery, with all the false leads and dead ends I wasted years on.
And so, this year, I tentatively begin the process of trying to scale this approach up. You can find out a bit more by visiting the Software Developers' Guild holding page. And, maybe, you'd be interested in becoming a mentor?
I'm looking for experienced developers who've "been around the block at least twice" ( call it my Rule of Two), and who'd be willing and able to provide a similar kind of light-touch guidance to someone at university, or from a code club, or returning to work after raising children or caring for a relative, or retraining for a career change, etc.
Could that be you?