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?
April 6, 2018
Could Refactoring (& Refuctoring) Help Us Test Claims About Benefits of Clean CodeOne of the more frustrating things about teaching developers about code craft and "Clean Code" is the lack of credible hard evidence from respectable sources about the claimed benefits of it.
Not only does this make code craft a tougher sell to skeptics - and there was a time when I was one of them, decades ago - but it also calls into question whether the alleged benefits are real.
The biggest barrier to doing research in this area has been twofold:
1. The lack of data points. Most software engineering academic studies take data from a handful of projects. If this were, say, medical research, we'd never get our medicines on to the market.
2. The problem of comparing apples with apples. There are so many factors in software development that it's pretty much impossible to isolate one and rule out all others. Studies into the effects of adopting TDD can't account for the variations in experience and ability, for example. Teams new to TDD tend to have to deal with a steep learning curve before they become productive again.
When I consider some of the theories about what makes code harder to change - the central plank of the code craft thesis - some we have strong evidence to back them up, others... not so much.
I've had a bit of a brainwave in this area that might help researchers. Take a code base, then specifically vary it along a single dimension. e.g., refactor to remove duplication, or "refuctor" to introduce duplication (by inlining functions and modules). The resulting variants should all be functionally equivalent, but you could fine-grain the levels of variation. Then ask developers to make changes to the logic, and measure how much code had to be edited to achieve those changes. Automated acceptance tests would ensure that every change was logically equivalent.
I can easily envisage how refactoring (and it's evil twin, refuctoring) could be used to vary readability, complexity, duplication, coupling and cohesion (e.g., by moving methods between classes to introduce or eliminate feature envy), "swabbability" (e.g., by introducing dependency injection, or by reversing the dependency inversion by using explicit references to concrete implementations of interfaces) and a range of other code qualities. Automated tests could ensure that every variant still works exactly the same way on the outside.
And the tests themselves could be varied. For example, you could manipulate test suite execution time so that in some cases developers had to wait an hour for feedback, while others only need wait seconds for the same feedback.
I think I might be on to something. What do you think?
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 16, 2018
Lamenting the Golden Age of High-Integrity Software That Never CameWhen I was a much younger programmer, I read a paper that had a big impact on the way I thought about software integrity.
Up to then, I - like so many - believed that "software has bugs". It seemed inevitable. Because all the software I'd seen had bugs. And all the software I'd written had bugs. We just have to live with it, right?
And then along came this paper on a thing called Cleanroom Software Engineering, and my mind was blown.
IBM wrote a COBOL pre-compiler that had about 85,000 lines of code and zero bugs reported in production. Not one. Ever. And what really struck me is that - bearing in mind how primitive dev tools were in the 1980s - it only took a team of six, achieving an average dev productivity that was measurably higher than the industry average. Also, the cost of maintaining the product - typically a lot higher than the cost of initial development - was relatively low; just one developer-year per year. Because nobody was bug fixing.
Now, of course, compared to software today 85 KLOC isn't much. But it's not insignificant, statistically. Maybe an equivalent product today would have 20x as much code. But what's 20x zero?
A single paper turned my whole worldview about software integrity (vs. productivity) upside-down. I've been lucky enough to experience this kind of approach - not specifically Cleanroom, but along similar lines - since, and seen the results for myself. Seeing is believing, and - praise Knuth! - I'm a believer!
So you can probably imagine my frustration to see how, 20 years later, the "software has bugs" paradigm still dominates. Who out there is producing very high-integrity code? Vanishingly few. I've waited and waited for high-integrity development techniques to catch on. I've even stirred the pot a few times myself with attempts at training products and talks with various publishers about a book that updates the ideas for the hipster Agile generation. To no avail. Still, vanishingly few are interested.
It's not as if there isn't a compelling business case. More reliable code, for little to no extra cost (you might even save time and money)? Lower maintenance costs? Happier customers? A world of digital stuff we can rely on? What's not to like? It's not as if these techniques are incompatible with Agile, either. I've done both at the same time, for real.
But for every person like me out there selling the dream, there are 10 more actively briefing against it. "Quick and dirty". "Move fast and break stuff". "Perfection is the enemy of good enough." Etc etc etc.
It's an easy sell to managers who don't understand the relationship between quality, time and cost. Cut some corners, get there sooner, save some money. A much harder proposition is "take more care, get there sooner, save some money". Bosses don't believe it. Heck, most devs don't believe it, despite the mountain of strong evidence to back it up.
I still live in hope that - one day - high-integrity software will go mainstream. The tools and techniques are not, despite what you may have heard, rocket science. Most devs are smart, and most devs could learn to do this. I did, so it can't be that difficult.
March 11, 2018
Proposing The xUnit "Meta-Kata"A while back I ruminated on refactoring old-fashioned "test it all with a main method" test code (like we did back in the day) into the xUnit unit test framework pattern.
It occurred to me that this might make a good code kata. TDD a well-known kata (e.g., FizzBuzz, Bowling Game, "Rock, Paper, Scissors"), but starting without a unit testing framework doing it all in a single main method.
As the code evolves, refactor the test code to remove code smells like methods testing more than one thing, classes testing more than one "unit" or "feature" (depending on how you roll), high-level modules that depend directly on low-level test fixtures, multiple tests being different examples of the same test, and so on.
It could be an interesting exercise in discovering frameworks. Perhaps it'll take multiple katas for a complete xUnit framework to reveal itself, just as so many great and useful frameworks don't really take shape until they've been reused a few times on other problems.
It might also be an exercise in applying the TDD discipline on two problems simultaneously; a test of your Craft Fu.
Really, it would be a kata within a kata: a meta-kata, if you like. And as such, I think it could be really interesting and rather challenging. I'll hopefully be giving it a go - well, probably a few goes - when I pair with my "apprentice" Will Price soon. When I think we've cracked it, I'll post a screencast and the code (with version history, so you can play it back).
March 9, 2018
S.O.L.I.D. C# - Online Training Event, Sat Apr 14thDetails of another upcoming 1-day live interactive training workshop for C# developers looking to take their design skills to the next level.
I'll be helping you get to grips with S.O.L.I.D. and much more besides with practical hands-on tutorials and exercises.
Places are limited. You can find out more and grab your place at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/solid-c-tickets-44018827498
February 4, 2018
Don't Bake In Yesterday's Business Model With Unmaintainable CodeI'm running a little poll on the Codemanship Twitter account asking whether code craft skills should be something every professional developer should have.
Every professional software developer should be able to write good unit tests, to use version control & do Continuous Integration, to apply design principles and to refactor code safely. Do you...— Codemanship (@codemanship) February 3, 2018
I've always seen these skills as foundational for a career as a developer. Once we've learned to write code that kind of works, the next step in our learning should be to develop the skills needed to write reliable and maintainable code. The responses so far suggest that about 95% of us agree (more than 70% of us strongly).
Some enlightened employers recognise the need for these skills, and address the lack of them when taking on new graduates. Those new hires are the lucky ones, though. Most employers offer no training in unit testing, TDD, refactoring, Continuous Integration or design principles at all. They also often have nobody more experienced who could mentor developers in those things. It's still sadly very much the case that many software developers go through their careers without ever being exposed to code craft.
This translates into a majority of code being less reliable and less maintainable, which has a knock-on effect in the wider economy caused by the dramatically higher cost of changing that code. It's not the actual £ cost that has the impact, of course. It's the "drag factor" that hard-to-change code has on the pace of innovation. Bosses routinely cite IT as being a major factor in impeding progress. I'm sure we can all think of businesses that were held back by their inability to change their software and their systems.
For all our talk of "business agility", only a small percentage of organisations come anywhere close. It's not because they haven't bought into the idea of being agile. The management magazines are now full of chatter about agility. No shortage of companies that aspire to be more responsive to change. They just can't respond fast enough when things change. The code that helped them scale up their operations simultaneously bakes in a status quo, making it much harder to evolve the way they do business. Software giveth, and software taketh away. I see many businesses now achieving ever greater efficiencies at doing things the way they needed to be done 5, 10 or 20 years ago, but unable to adapt to the way things are today and might be tomorrow.
I see this is finance, in retail, in media, in telecoms, in law, in all manner of private sector organisations. And I see it in the public sector, too. "IT delays" is increasingly the reason why government policies are massively delayed or fail to be rolled out altogether. It's a pincer movement: we can't do X at the scale we need to without code, and we can't change the code to do X+1 for a rapidly changing business landscape.
I've always maintained that code craft is a business imperative. I might even go as far as to say a societal imperative, as software seeps into every nook and cranny of our lives. If we don't address issues like how easy to change our code is, we risk baking in the past, relying on inflexible and unreliable systems that are as anachronistic to the way things need to be in the future as our tired old and no-longer-fit-for-purpose systems of governance. An even bigger risk is that other countries will steal a march on us, in much the same way that more agile tech start-ups can steam ahead of established market players simply because they're not dragging millions of lines of legacy code behind them.
While the fashion today is for "digital transformations", encoding all our core operations in software, we must be mindful that legacy code = legacy business model.
So what is your company doing to improve their code craft?
January 26, 2018
Good Code Speaks The Customer's LanguageSomething we devote time to on the Codemanship TDD training course is the importance of choosing good names for the stuff in our code.
Names are the best way to convey the meaning - the intent - of our code. A good method name clearly and concisely describes what that method does. A good class name clearly describes what that class represents. A good interface name clearly describes what role an object's playing when it implements that interface. And so on.
I strongly encourage developers to write code using the language of the customer. Not only should other developers be able to understand your code, your customers should be able to follow the gist of it, too.
Take this piece of mystery code:
What is this for? What the heck is a "Place Repository" when it's at home? For whom or for what are we "allocating" places?
Perhaps a look at the original user story will shed some light.
The passenger selects the flight they want to reserve a seat on.
They choose the seat by row and seat number (e.g., row A, seat 1) and reserve it.
We create a reservation for that passenger in that seat.
Now the mist clears. Let's refactor the code so that it speaks the customers language.
This code does exactly what it did before, but makes a lot more sense now. The impact of choosing better names can be profound, in terms of making the code easier to understand and therefore easier to change. And it's something we all need to work much harder at.
January 23, 2018
Without Improving Code Craft, Your Agile Transformation Will Fail"You must be really busy!" is what people tend to say when I tell them what I do.
It stands to reason. If software is "eating the world", then code craft skills must be highly in demand, and therefore training and coaching for developers in those skills must be selling like hotcakes.
Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you?
The reality, though, is that code craft is critically undervalued. The skills needed to deliver reliable, maintainable software at a sustainable pace - allowing businesses to maintain the pace of innovation - are not in high demand.
We can see this both in the quality of code being produced by the majority of teams, and in where organisations focus their attentions and where they choose to invest in developing skills and capabilities.
"Agile transformations" are common. Some huge organisations are attempting them on a grand scale, sending their people on high-priced training courses and drafting in hundreds of Agile coaches - mostly Scrum-certified - to assist, at great expense.
Only a small minority invest in code craft at the same time, and typically they invest a fraction of the time, effort and money they budget for Agile training and coaching.
The end result is software that's difficult to change, and an inability to respond to new and changing requirements. Which is kind of the whole point of Agile.
Let me spell it out in bold capital letters:
IF CODE CRAFT ISN'T A SIGNIFICANT PART OF YOUR AGILE TRANSFORMATION, YOU WILL NEVER ACHIEVE AGILITY.
You can't be responsive to change if your code is expensive to change. It's that simple.
While you build your capability in product management, agile planning and all that scrummy agile goodness, you also need to be addressing the factors that increase the cost of changing code. Skills like unit testing, TDD, refactoring, SOLID, CI/CD are a vital part of agility. They are hard skills to crack. A 3-day Certified Code Crafter course ain't gonna cut the mustard. Developers need ongoing learning and practice, with the guidance of experienced code crafters. I was lucky enough to get that early in my career. Many other developers are not so lucky.
That's why I built Codemanship; to help developers get to grips with the code-facing skills that few other training and coaching companies focus on.
But, I'll level with you: even though I love what I'm doing, commercially it's a struggle. The reason so few others offer this kind of training and coaching is because there's little money it. Decision makers don't have code craft on their radars. There's been many occasions when I've thought "May as well just get Scrum-certified". I'm not going to go down without a fight, but what I really need (apart from them to cancel Brexit) is for a shift in the priorities of business who are currently investing millions on Agile transformations that are all but ignoring this crucial area.
Of course, those are my problems, and I made my choices. I'm very happy doing what I'm doing. But it's indicative of a wider problem that affects us all. Getting from A to B is about more than just map reading and route planning. You need a well-oiled engine to get you there, and to get you wherever you want to go next. Too many Agile transformations end up broken down by the side of the road, unable to go anywhere.
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.