Saturday, January 23, 2010

Changes in software – Different developers over time for a long-running project

To do changes to software you need to understand it. You need to understand the exact piece of code you are changing, you need an overview of the system to be aware of any dependent parts, and you need to understand the technologies in use. In the real world you can also end up with a few more difficulties. You need to understand why things work the way they do. Will the changes you are imposing break existing logic? Does any clear documentation of how things work exist, or that you'll need to update? Can you trust the documentation that does exist?

Once you have a "long-running project" you get the added difficulty of handling information stored only in a developers or business specialists head. Your best option is to have the same developers working on the project for its lifetime. That can be challenging in terms of getting the right people in on it. When that's not possible you need to make sure you don't end up in a situation where the knowledge is lost.

The state of the actual code is perhaps the most important. Documentation will always be hard to keep up to date, and the best description of what you have is your code. It's essential that it is well structured and readable to make changes possible. Do refactorings when it helps clarify code, or when your understanding of the problem or domain changes. Write small and well named automatic tests that each verify a single piece of behavior and explains why and in what context. For this context, the tests will help clarify how a piece of code works and is intended to be used (Do you know what AAA is? If not, it's about time you do).

Consider increasing the truck factor of your code - meaning, how many people must be hit by a truck before a piece of information is lost. This has a lot to do with how you handle code ownership. Does individuals only make changes in their piece of the code, are there module leaders that supervise changes to parts of the system, or do you have a form of collective code ownership (XP's view on collective ownership: Like every part of software development, there is no answer that is correct in every situation, but strong individual ownership is most likely to cause problems in my view. The truck factor is extremely low, a sort of "me versus they" mentality can lead to things falling between two chairs. Few developers knowing a piece of code means fewer can do changes to it if problems arise, and different parts of a system can end up being developed quite differently.

Documentation is another area. Do you document at all? Only high level requirements? Sequence or collaboration diagrams? Is the documentation kept up to date? No business decisions hidden in mail discussions or in developer or business users heads? In meeting minutes? This is such a tough area. I haven't quite made up my mind about this yet - but I do know one thing - keeping documentation truly up to date is extremely challenging. You can certainly try to document everything, but is it worth it in terms of ROI?

When a developer do choose to leave a project, make sure you work to capture as much knowledge as possible. Hopefully most of the knowledge of the developer is already shared with the team, but try to capture the rest as much as possible. It will cost a lot more to try and understand something later on.

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