27 February 2017

Time for Quality

Since one of my very first presentations in 2009 I have been asked how to make time for testing and code quality related activities. Keeping the code of high quality is difficult if your manager or product owner is only interested in deadlines and the number of hours spent on creating the software. People told me that in their organisation there is neither time nor budget for code quality and that their boss does not consider it necessary. While this is the perfect subject for an angry rant, this time I want to list some options instead.

First let me set the context for my answers:
  1. The demand for software developers and IT professionals in general is ever increasing. We are a highly privileged part of the entire workforce. While finding a decent job is always a (subjective but nevertheless real) problem, finding any work in software just to feed the family is not an issue. There is always another job.

  2. Testing is a mindset - you have to want it. There are thousand excuses why not to write a test or delay that particular cleanup. Some people pretend not to be allowed to create quality code, while they are just lazy. I would rather hear their honest views. I am suspicious of colleagues, who claim an interest in quality code but keep delivering crap on a daily basis.

  3. More often than the lack of interest is the lack of knowledge. For example many developers I meet are not sure how to write good automated tests, because they have written only a few in their entire career. Because they are unsure - they do not know how to start - they claim it to be time consuming and drop the idea. If I do something for the first time I will not do it well. Until I master the new skill I will be slow. These developers need training, more specifically they need practise. Every developer needs to be familiar with clean code, refactoring unit testing, and much more. If you feel not sure enough to apply these core skills in your daily work, ask for training, attend programming workshops at conferences or get a programming coach. Coding Dojos and Coderetreats are a great place to start.
So you want to write unit tests and are able to do it. But your boss has no interest in it or there is no team culture to do it. What could you do?

An argumentFirst read my favourite article of Joel Spolsky, Getting Things Done When You're Only a Grunt, which covers some organisational issues. Like Joel, I recommend staying true to yourself - just do it. This is hard in the beginning when you are alone, but others might follow. (It takes a lot of energy and several years to transform a whole team from within.) When complaints about your work start coming in you have several options:
  1. Do not try to defend yourself and avoid arguing. This is the way you work, end of discussion. Again, you need to be fluent and sure to be able to do that. Especially if you are a new employee you have some privileges. The team might accept your new style. If you are applying testing and clean code successfully others might follow.

  2. Argue for code quality. Sure you need some extra time to write these tests, but then you will not have to go back and fix the code again and again which results in less context switches, less defects and less hot-fix releases. I have not met any manager who would not understand that. But sometimes we (IT) do not use the right vocabulary to be understood by managers. When you talk to your boss, it is better to talk about cost, risk and financial benefit than technical issues. Using the management speak is a skill. Start by collecting hard facts about code quality related activities. Research the estimated cost and later benefit for your particular case and compare it to the risk and later cost of skipping it. The Technical Debt metaphor helps here. Create a simple Powerpoint (yes, blasphemy ;-) with these facts. End with the red traffic light or the estimated downward trend of the team's velocity. For example instead of "the code is ugly" you could say that "because of its inconsistent structure you are more likely to introduce mistakes when changing it." Charts displaying the absence of structure, e.g. class diagrams with edges all over the place, make the missing structure obvious for non-technical people.

  3. Silence, pleaseHide the activities. Push for code quality while you create the code. If you write the test before (TDD anyone?) or immediately after the implementation, writing unit tests is not visible as separate activity. The same is true for refactoring. Do not wait for Friday afternoon to clean up the code you wrote all week, because you might not have time for that. If you improve the code after each green test, there is no bad code even if you are forced to stop early. Further add the time for testing and cleanup to your estimates, but do not talk about it. I know some developers who estimate higher than others. Their estimates are accepted because their solutions are better and have less defects.

  4. Make excuses. Even technical managers do not know the exact details about the code you work with. Maybe there were some issues not anticipated during planning. There are always some. Communicate their (exaggerated) impact and argue that you needed some time to deal with them while in reality you had to restructure some legacy class to add to it.

  5. Finally, you can always find another job. Today you have more options than ever due to remote work.
There are several related questions on Stack Exchange which give more options, e.g. what do you do when your boss doesn't care about code quality or how can I convince management to deal with technical debt.

I wish you all the best for your quest for more code quality in your daily work!