30 September 2009

Slacking Off

... or why automatic checks are necessary.

Human Factors
I must confess, I'm a slacker. For example I've been writing this post for three months and still haven't finished. I skip my workouts again and again. More important things just pop up all the time. Concepts like interesting or important are subjective and priorities are likely to change between individuals and over time. So everybody has his or her sweet spot of slacking. It's impossible (and probably also unwise) to work hard on all aspects of life. When everything runs smoothly, people get sloppy. (Again that might be something good for boring, repetitive tasks - except when a surgeon performs his 1.000th appendix extraction.) When things work out great, we might even get delusions of grandeur and bathe in the glow of our own greatness. Everybody does it, you do it, I do it. Only Chuck Norris does not.

Hmm. I'm mixing different behaviours here: slacking, sloppiness, laziness, lack in motivation, doing things half-hearted, leaving things unfinished. I use all these words synonymously. I Know that's not entirely correct. (Probably that's the reason I can't get this post into proper shape. I've already rewritten it five times. I know that I must not ship shit but I'm getting tired. So I will have to live with it. I'm sloppy myself ;-)

SlothThere are several causes for these factors, e.g. lack of interest (I don't care), boredom (I do it the hundredth time), distraction (I'm not able to concentrate on it - I just love cubicle spaces.), lack of background information (why do I do this crap), fear of wasted effort (I might not need it later) and time pressure (I have no time to do it proper).

Oh My!
What implications do these factors have for code quality? (By code quality I mean the internal code quality, maintained by the developer day after day.) Consider a product 'A'. Features have been added to it for the last five years. The natural laziness of all developers has taken its toll. The code is a mess. Maintenance costs go up. Suddenly code quality gets important. Suddenly management is interested in coding conventions and development processes. Suddenly people are aware of a need for an architecture. Suddenly people want to stop slackerism. But when the product is in trouble it's too late. Not really too late, as software is soft and can be changed all the time, it's just much more expensive. All these things are not new. It's well known that software erodes over time. Slacking developers may just be one of its causes.

Check What?
After this lengthy introduction I prepared my point: The need for automatic checks. Checks are good for you. (Like daily sit-ups.) Do them. Even better, set them up so you don't have to do them yourself. (Somebody does all the sit-ups for you. Every day. Isn't it great ;-) Remember: if it's not checked, it's not there. Paper is patient, automatic checks are not. Really, make your checks and reviews automatic. It's important, like your daily vitamins.

Automated testing is only one aspect of checking your code, albeit the most popular one. The test infected community already knows that if it's not tested, it's broken.. So next to testing you need to check other aspects of your code, like coding conventions. Usually these include whitespace policy, formatting, naming and other design idioms. Coding conventions cover a much broader area than most people think. They are not only about naming. They are also about higher level boiler plate code, e.g. how to handle transactions, how to access the database, how to log, how to handle exceptions, etc. These things are project specific and depend on the overall architecture.

Slacker Vandalism? End Work Check It!
All projects have some sort of coding conventions. But are they complete? Are they documented? Do developers comply with them? Unlikely. They need to be documented and even more need to be checked automatically. Probably most of your rules are not checked. It's time to write them down and define some concrete checks for them. Most tools and even some IDEs ship with basic rules for simple things like whitespace, naming or common coding idioms. These are perfect for a start. Start small. Use a few rules. You can always add more later. The limit of what you can check depends entirely on your determination: design rules, layering, modularity, architecture, code coverage and documentation and much more.

The problem is that rule enforcement provokes opposition. People don't want to leave their cosy comfort zone. Discussing and agreeing on a new coding convention is not a problem. But adding a new rule to already checked coding convention might be a fight. You have to convince developers to accept it. You have to argue with management for time to remove rule violations in legacy code. You have to struggle through, especially when you're only a grunt. Small steps are crucial. Don't press on it too much. If there is opposition, offer to drop the new rule. Make it look like there is the option of not having it. This enables discussion. (Of course that's not an option and you are not really offering it, but people like to have options to discuss about.) As soon as some rules showed their value, developers will vote for them if you oppose them, be the devil's advocate.

So let's finish this rant about human nature. I'm a slacker. Most likely there are some more in our trade. We must accept that. we are lazy. We make mistakes. Sometimes we are weak. That's normal. We just have to be aware of it. So be paranoid. Don't trust anyone. Automate anything that you might screw up. (Robustness #2) Automatic checks are your safety net. They help you avoiding making the same mistake twice. If there is a bug in your code, create a unit test to ensure the bug stays fixed. If you have inconsistent formatting, add format checks to your daily build. If you notice wrong usage of a design idiom during a review, create a custom rule to enforce proper usage. If ... well you get the point.

All this leads to the 2nd Law of Code Quality - Automatic Checks to fight slackerism.

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