Time Will Tell

The May 2012 Dr. Dobb's interview with Ward Cunningham has an interesting quote about Ward's notion of technical debt:

I was really devoted to finding great code, especially when objects were new. Objects gave us an extra dimension beyond functional decomposition. And the question was, "Are these the right objects or not?" And the answer was, "Time will tell."

I work off and on with a handful of great programmers in the Portland area. Several years ago, James Shore and Dave Woldrich created CardMeeting, an agile remote collaboration tool. Jim and Dave are both very good programmers. For this project, they decided to forgo their usual test-driven development and just write code so as to deliver a working prototype on a very strict deadline.

Jim took to calling that experience "leveraged technical debt". My estimate (not having read the code, but having tested a lot of code written without testing in mind) is that it takes at least as long to write tests for untested code as it took to write the code and much longer the more time has passed between writing the code and writing the tests.

Jim, Dave, and I have all worked on small, software-driven businesses doing things we've never seen anyone else do before. We've all had to deal with the risk of building lots of code that may or may not solve the problems of real customers with real money. When I say write the wrong code first, I don't mean "deliberately do things you know won't work" or "paint yourself into a corner" or even "use the fact you don't know everything you're doing as an excuse to play with completely new technologies you don't know how to use". (Not that the latter is a bad thing, but if you decide to do that, do so only after you've considered the risks and the rewards.)

Last night, we had a short conversation with John Wilger, another PDXer. He works with a successful and relatively young startup with a huge software component. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but it sounds like their software is, colloquially, a mess. Their developer team is trying to get to the point of slapping hands whenever someone needs to make a change and starts by copying and pasting code.

Four years after founding (and two years after discovering its cash cow business), the company was worth at least $3 billion.

It's irresponsible to derive meaningful statistics from a single data point, but we can say this: the technical debt of their codebase didn't entirely prevent the company from achieving its current measure of success. (You can also say that the liberal application of candy-flavored magical unicorn shavings of Ruby and Rails didn't prevent people from making an unholy mess.)

Time will tell if changing the development culture and refactoring the code and paying down all of the technical debt will help the company adapt and take advantages of new opportunities.

Time will tell if the codebase collapses under its own weight.

Time will tell if a competitor (and several exist!) will prove more agile and nimble because it has much better flexibility thanks, in part, to better code.

The whole situation reminds me of Facebook's HipHop virtual machine, where it's apparently cheaper and easier and faster and less risky to hire lots of developers to create and maintain a compatibility layer for the existing code than to rewrite existing code in a better language, or in a better fashion, or to improve it meaningfully.

I'm not suggesting that the only way to build a big business from nothing is to write bad code. I'm not suggesting that scaling to billions in revenue is the goal of all software-driven businesses. I'm not suggesting that you have to choose between test-driven development and business success.

In an ideal world, I can write the right software the first time. I can have sufficient test coverage to have complete confidence in the behavior of the code. I can deliver a feature which gets me paying customers in an afternoon without having to rewrite other parts of the code or taking shortcuts I know that I'll have to clean up when I get a spare weekend afternoon.

For a profession where some of us call ourselves "engineers", we certainly spend a lot of time discussing practical concerns as if the risks and rewards and limitations of the real world did not apply. (I wonder if the academic/practical divide between computer science and software development has some relationship to this.)

In the real world, I have to remind myself every day when I'm working on proof of concept code that proving my concept workable is more important than solidifying my code into well-tested and well-designed software and when I'm working on code I intend to keep that doing things as right as possible now will help me modify it to get it more right in the future.

None of this guarantees success. All of this benefits from the hard-won experiences I have from doing things the wrong way—and occasionally getting it very right. (In the real world, I spent part of the day finding and deploying a shim to turn SVG into VML for Internet Explorer 8 and earlier.)

Maybe Jim and Dave could have thrown out a couple of features and spent more time writing tests for the most valuable parts of their application. Maybe I'm wasting my time optimizing SQL queries for a search feature no one will ever use. Maybe John's company waited too long to untangle the admin and the user sides of their application.

If we're honest with ourselves, the best answer we can give is that time will tell. May we pay attention when it does.

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on May 16, 2012 3:28 PM.

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