Kicking the can down the road
Being a developer is an interesting profession. On one hand there are an engineering feel to it but on the other hand it’s far more like art. For me calling myself a “Software Engineer” is more for marketing then anything else. But lets face it, little of what developers/programmers do is actual engineering.
Engineers are certified go through an apprenticeship process then design and create things in the real world that, for the most part, have to stand the test of time. To me Electrical, Mechanical, Structural, etc are the real engineers and us developers haven’t yet earned that right to use that title in the way we do.
How often in a development meeting do we sit there, talk about a design/architecture/code flaw that could cause issues down the road but decide to not even begin to address it? It happens so often we have an industry term for it “Tech Debt”. Can you imagine some structural engineer’s having the same discussion?
Tom: “So I cobbled together this bridge design from a bunch of other actual bridge designs and sample designs and we look ready to go.”
Mike: “Nice, but looking at these designs if we have the amount of traffic we estimate, and we fully expect the bridge to be popular in the near future, it will start leaning to one side”
Tom: “Yea, but we have a deadline, we can always go back and add more supports latter”
Structural Engineers can’t go back and refactor the bridge after it’s been built as easily as developers can with code. There are also lots of other differences, but it really boils down to is that engineers can’t kick the can down the road as easily as developers can, and so we do.
We talk about “performance as a feature”, but what about “ease of maintenance as a feature”, “scalable architecture as a feature”, “security as a feature” or “testing as a feature”? Every time we kick something down the road, label it as “Tech Debt” and put it in the backlog if were being truthful with ourselves we know full well that unless it catches fire we will almost never be back to address it.
Eventually all that Tech Debt will catch up to you and when it does, it can cost you business, alienate customers, hurt your image or even cause your company to fail. I’ve talked about this problem before and at Resgrid I try and follow a 60/40 approach. 60% new features/customer facing bugs, 40% tech debt, testing, automation and tooling.
Here are some guidelines I feel will help stop us from kicking cans down the road and start turning developers into engineers.
- Design/Code for the developers around you.
One thing I’ve always admired about the military is the “Do it for the person next to you” attitude most service members have. The same can be said for the fire service. Sure you start off wanting a thrill, but after the first few times your going in because it’s your duty and because your doing it for your crew. Developers need to have the same mentality, don’t code for yourself or for your company, craft code for the developers on your team. Do it for the person in the cube next to you.
- Balance Architecture & Implementation
I’ve seen my fair share of architecture astronauts in my day and they can do more harm then good. The architecture implemented needs to match the problem domain and how it’s going to be implemented. The architecture you use for a internal LoB app will be different then one that will be deployed on the cloud. No architecture is perfect and it never will be. Ideally you need to design your Architecture for the worst case scenario for 5 years out? How many users do expect in 5 years? Double that, then how are you going to handle that? How many web servers, databases will you need? Is that the scale you should have been using eventing, CQRS, etc?
- Code for now and for the future
If your response to something new is “well that’s the way we’ve always done it” or some variation of it your coding in the past. Yes it’s painful to constantly keep up to date with the latest trends and best practices, but your hurting yourself and the entity you working for by not incorporating the current best practices. You will find it increasingly hard to find developers that want to work, or even know how to work, in your ‘brand new’ code base. I’ve been interviewing a lot of developers lately and almost none of them with less then 7 years experience have ever worked on an WebForms app. Starting a new project? Using WebForms? You will find it very difficult to find developers that know that technology in the near future. This same principal goes for patterns & practices.
- Don’t Investing in Tooling/Automation too Early
When you first starting out a project get the minimum amount of tooling/automation you need. This is a train of thought used by startups. Time spent on setting up elaborate tooling, complex automation is time not spent properly architecting your project, implementing features or fixing bugs. Because tooling/automation lives out-of-band of your core project you can cycle on it more quickly and once you’ve done things by hand a while you know exactly where the pain points are. When you first start off, you’ll just be guessing. A lot of tooling/automation is coupled to your environment as well, so you may start off deploying locally, but then move to Azure, your tooling will have to change at that point. Start working on automation/tooling once your project is established, is maintaining good velocity and your target environments are well known.
- 60/40 Every Sprint, In Every SDLC Phase
Whether your just starting your app or are in maintenance mode balance the work between features/bugs (the 60%) and tech debt, testing, automation and tooling (the 40%). Break down complex technical debt items into smaller pieces and work on them every sprint. I call the 40% bucket “Preventative Code Maintenance” and it should be the #3 priority on your backlog at all times.
- Document your culture and live it
Have coding contracts and guidelines before you start any project. Your codebase, especially early on, should be unified and feel cohesive. If I got into Mikes code it should feel like Sally’s. Utilize tools like Style/FX Cop and ReSharper to nudge people in the right direction. Utilize Pull Requests, Peer Reviews or Pair Programming to keep your codebase like a well run HOA. No one developer should ‘own’ code, go in clean up code and fix broken windows. Practice Scout Coding at all times. Not everyone on the team needs to be in complete agreement on something, but once the team commits to it everyone needs to be on board. You can either succeed as a team or fail individually.
- “Whatever” as a feature
When your documenting what your application or system should do. Right there should be “It should be performant, it should scale, it should be maintainable and it should be secure”. Even for internal only applications if your app goes down or is slow, it’s costing you money in wasted employee time. You shouldn’t, on a whim, sacrifice performance or security to push out a new feature without the business knowing the full extent of the tradeoff.
- Automate Deployments with Smoke Tests
At first glance this may seem contradictory to #4, but that item is based on timing. When you first start working on the project you won’t be deploying to a production or pre-prod environment. Much latter down the road (hence the timing aspect) you should completely automate your deployments. In the day of Containers, Slot Deployments, CI servers you should never be manually modifying your production environment. One day you will mess up and it could cost you. Yes, the “rm –rf” guy was a hoax, but it’s also a cautionary tale.
We have to balance getting features out or getting the product out with all of the ‘back of the house’ concerns. But we have to remember that we spend our days in the ‘back of the house’. If the architecture it’s good, code isn’t well formed or meets standards, patterns and practices aren’t being followed it’s only going to slow development down, cause bugs and arguments.
If you’re a First Responder or know one check out Resgrid which is a SaaS product utilizing Microsoft Azure, providing logistics, management and communication tools to first responder organizations like volunteer fire departments, career fire departments, EMS, search and rescue, CERT, public safety, disaster relief organizations.