What slows down the development of software?
Think about this question for a bit. Why is it that as most software evolves it gets harder and harder to add features and improve its structure?
Why is it that tasks that would have at one point been simple are now difficult and complex?
Why is it that teams that should be doing better over time seem to get worse?
Don’t feel bad if you don’t have an immediate answer to those questions. Most software practitioners don’t. They are hard questions after all.
If we knew all the answers, we wouldn’t really have these problems to begin with.
Regardless though, you’ll find many managers, business owners, customers and even software developers themselves looking for the answers to these questions, but often looking in the wrong place.
Process is almost always the first to be blamed. It stands to reason that a degradation of process or problems with the software development process are slowing things down.
Often there is some merit to this proposition, but I’ve found that it is often not the root cause. If your team is not sitting idle and the work that is important is being prioritized, chances are your process is not slowing you down.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that these are the only two important aspects to judge a software development process, but I am saying that if generally your team is working hard on important stuff most of the time, you can’t magically improve process to the point of increasing productivity to any considerable order of magnitude. (In most cases.)
Often questions are asked like:
- Should we pair program or not pair program?
- Should we be using Scrum instead of Kanban?
- Should we be changing the way we define a backlog?
- Should we use t-shirt sizes or story points or make all backlogs the same size?
- Do we need more developers or more business analysts?
- Do we need to organize the team differently?
Now these are all great questions that every software project should constantly evaluate and ask themselves, but I’ve found over and over again that there is often a bigger problem staring us in the face that often gets ignored.
Let’s do a little experiment.
Forget about process. Forget about Scrum and backlogs and story points and everything else for a moment.
You are a developer. You have a task to implement some feature in the code base. No one else is around, there is no process, you just need to get this work done.
It might help to think about a feature you recently implemented or one that you are working on now. The important thing with this experiment is that I want to take away all the other “stuff” that isn’t related directly to designing and implementing that feature in the code base.
You will likely come to one of these conclusions:
1. The feature is easy to implement, you can do it quickly and know where to go and what to modify.
Good! That means you don’t really have a problem.
2. It is unclear what to do. You aren’t sure exactly what you are supposed to implement and how it fits into the way the system will be used.
In this case, you may actually have somewhat of a process problem. Your work needs to be more clearly defined before you begin on it. It may be that you just need to ask more questions. It may be that half baked ideas are ending up in your pipeline and someone needs to do a bit more thinking and legwork, before asking a developer to work on them.
3. Its hard to change the code. You’ve got to really dig into multiple areas and ask many questions about how things are working or are intended to work before you can make any changes.
This is the most likely case. Actually usually a combination of 2 and 3. And they both share a common problem—the code and system do not have a design or have departed from that design.
I find time and time again with most software systems experiencing a slow down in feature development turnaround that the problem is the code itself and the system has lost touch with its original design.
You only find this problem in successful companies though, because…
Sometimes you need to run with your shoelaces untied
I’ve consulted for several startups that eventually failed. There was one thing in common with those startups and many other startups in general—they had a well maintained and cared for codebase.
I’ve seen the best designs and best code in failed startups.
This seems a bit contradictory, I know, but let me explain.
The problem is that often these startups with pristine and well maintained code don’t make it to market fast enough. They are basically making sure their shoes laces are nicely tied as they stroll down the block carefully judging each step before it is taken.
What happens is they have the best designed and most maintainable product, but it either doesn’t get out there fast enough and the competition comes in with some VB6 app that two caffeine fueled not-really-programmers-but-I-learned-a-bit-of-code developers wrote overnight or they don’t actually build what the customer wants, because they don’t iterate quick enough.
Now am I saying that you need to write crap code with no design and ship it or you will fail?
Am I saying that you can’t start a company with good software development practices and a clean well maintainable codebase and succeed?
No, but what I am saying is that a majority of companies that are successful are the ones that put the focus on customers and getting the product out there first and software second.
In other words if you look at 10 successful companies over 5 years old and look at their codebase, 9 of them might have some pretty crappy or non-existent architecture and a system that departed pretty far from the original design.
Didn’t you say something about pulling up your pants?
Ok, so where am I driving at with all this?
Time for an analogy.
So these companies that are winning and surviving past year 5, they are usually running. They are running fast, but in the process of running their shoelaces come untied.
They might not even notice the shoelaces are untied until the first few times they step on one and trip. Regardless they keep running. And to some degree, this is good, this is what makes them succeed when some of their failed competitors do take the time to tie their shoelaces, but those competitors end up getting far behind in the race.
The problem comes pretty close to after that 5 year mark, when they want to take things to the next level. All this time they have been running with those shoelaces untied and they have learned to do this kind of wobble run where they occasionally trip on a shoe lace, but they try to keep their legs far enough apart to not actually step on a shoelace.
It slows them down a bit, but they are still running. Still adding those features fast and furious.
After some time though, their pants start to fall down. They don’t really have time to stop running and pull up those pants, so as they are running those pants slip further down.
Now they are really running funny. At this point they are putting forth the effort of running, but the shoelaces and pants are just too much, they are moving quite slow. An old woman with ankle weights power walks past them, but they can’t stop now to tie the shoelaces and pull up those pants, because they have to make up for the time they lost earlier when the pants first fell down.
At this point they start looking for ways to fix the problem without slowing down and pulling up the pants. At this point they try running different ways. They try skipping. Someone gets the idea that they need more legs.
I think you get the idea.
What they really need to do at this point though is…
Stop running, tie your shoes and pull up your pants!
Hopefully you’ve figured out that this analogy is what happens to a mature system’s code base and overall architecture.
Over time when you are running so fast, your system ends up getting its shoelaces undone, which slows you down a little. Soon, your system’s pants start to fall down and then you really start to slow down.
It gets worse and worse until you are moving so slow you are actually moving backwards.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic answer. If you’ve gotten the artificial speed boost you can gain from neglecting overall system design and architecture, you have to pay the piper and redesign that system and refactor it back into an architecture.
This might be a complete rewrite, it might be a concerted effort to get things back on track. But, regardless it is going to require you to stop running. (Have you ever tried to tie your shoelaces while running?)
Don’t feel bad, you didn’t do anything wrong. You survived where others who were too careful failed. Just don’t ignore the fact that your pants are at your ankles and you are tripping over every step, do something about it!