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Computing Technical Debt with NDepend

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, take a look at the newest version of NDepend and its options for helping you quantify tech debt.

For years, I have struggled to articulate technical debt to non-technical stakeholders.  This struggle says something, given that technical debt makes an excellent metaphor in and of itself.

The concept explains that you incur a price for taking quality shortcuts in the code to get done quickly.  But you don’t just pay for those shortcuts with more work later — you accrue interest.  Save yourself an hour today with some copy pasta, and you’ll eventually pay for that decisions with many hours down the road.

So I say to interested, non-technical parties, “think of these shortcuts today as decisions upon which you pay interest down the line.”  They typically squint at me a little and say, “yeah, I get it.”  But I generally don’t think they get it.  At least, not fully.

Lack of Concreteness

I think the reason for this tends to come from a lack of actual units.  As a counterexample, think of explaining an auto loan to someone.  “I’m going to loan you $30,000 to buy a car.  With sales tax and interest factored in, you’ll pay me back over a 5 year period, and you’ll pay me about $36,000 in total.”  Explained this way to a consumer, they get it.  “Oh, I see.  It’ll cost me about $6,000 if I want you to come up with that much cash on my behalf.”  They can make an informed value decision.

But that falls flat for a project manager in a codebase.  “Oh man, you don’t want us to squeeze this in by Friday.  We’ll have to do terrible, unspeakable things in the code!  We’ll create so much tech debt.”

“Uh, okay.  That sounds ominous.  What’s the cost?”

“What do you mean?  There’s tech debt!  It’ll be worse later when we fix it than if we do it correctly the first time.”

“Right, but how much worse?  How much more time?”

“Well, you can’t exactly put a number to it, but much worse!”

And so and and so forth.  I imagine that anyone reading can recall similar conversations from one end or the other (or maybe even both).  Technical debt provides a phenomenal metaphor in the abstract.  But when it comes to specifics, it tends to fizzle a bit.

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Automation and the Art of Software Maintenance

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SubMain blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, check out CodeIt.Right for automating your code review process.

I have long since cast my lot with the software industry.  But, if I were going to make a commercial to convince others to follow suit, I can imagine what it would look like.  I’d probably feature cool-looking, clear whiteboards, engaged people, and frenetic design of the future.  And a robot or two.  Come help us build the technology of tomorrow.

Of course, you might later accuse me of bait and switch.  You entered a bootcamp, ready to build the technology of tomorrow.  Three years later, you found yourself on safari in a legacy code jungle, trying to wrangle some Sharepoint plugin.  Erik, you lied to me.

So, let me inoculate myself against that particular accusation.  With a career in software, you will certainly get to work on some cool things.  But you will also find yourself doing the decidedly less glamorous task of software maintenance.  You may as well prepare yourself for that now.

The Conceptual Difference: Build vs Maintain

From the software developer’s perspective, this distinction might evoke various contrasts.  Fun versus boring.  Satisfying versus annoying.  New problem versus solved problem.  My stuff versus that of some guy named Steve that apparently worked here 8 years ago.  You get the idea.

But let’s zoom out a bit.  For a broader perspective, consider the difference as it pertains to a business.

Build mode (green field) means a push toward new capability.  Usually, the business will regard construction of this capability as a project with a calculated return on investment (ROI).  To put it more plainly, “we’re going to spend $500,000 building this thing that we expect to make/save us $1.5 million by next year.”

Maintenance mode, on the other hand, presents the business with a cost center.  They’ve now made their investment and (at least partially) realized return on it.  The maintenance team just hangs around to prevent backslides.  For instance, should maintenance problems crop up, you may lose customers or efficiency.

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Competing with Software Consulting Companies

Thanks, everyone, for sending in your reader questions!  I’m flattered by how many folks have submitted and definitely have a healthy backlog from which to choose.  Today, I’m going to answer one about competing with software consulting companies.

I believe this question came from a post I wrote two weeks ago, about speaking to your buyers, rather than to peers.  We as software developers seem to love to speak to our peers.  We speak at conferences and write blog posts for the love of the game, without realizing that impressing peers is unlikely ever to pay the bills.  So in that post I talked about how to speak instead to buyers through your blog.

Here’s the follow up question.  (He actually provided more context, which I’ve elided)

What motivates buyers to buy? In my experience, the big companies buy from other big companies — ones with infrastructure and support in place. Starting off, lest we share the fate of Ahab, we NEED to chase the smaller fish to cut our teeth in business. So, for the beginner chasing smaller fish, isn’t it more important to compete on price, given small fish don’t have the capital of big firms?

There’s a lot to unpack here, in terms of explanations.  So let me start out by drawing a meaningful distinction.  In that previous post, I talked specifically about freelance software developers.  But here we seem to be talking instead about consulting.  Or, at least, we’re talking about someone with a defined specialty.

Generalist Freelancers Don’t Compete with Firms… or Really Anyone

Why do I infer that we’re talking about someone already specialized?  Well, first of all, that was the whole point of my previous post.  But, beyond that, getting work as a generalist freelance software developer is too generic for the question to make much sense.  You might as well talk about how every maker of bottled drinks in the world could compete for a guy named Steve who’s in a gas station right now and thirsty.  It’s too generic a transaction to bother considering it as appropos of anything beyond the moment.

If you’re a software developer that does web apps using ASP MVC, Javascript, and C#, you’re conceptually competing with hundreds of thousands of people for every gig that you get.  And, worse, you’re competing with all of them via the interview process.  And job interviews basically just amount to picking people randomly and retroactively convincing yourself that there was a method to the madness.  So, as a freelance supplicant to the interview process, you’re kind of just playing game after game of roulette until your number comes up.  Or, you’re one of a hundred soft drinks and iced teas, hoping that Steve feels like something grape flavored and carbonated.

When you're a random soda, you're not competing with software consulting companies

To put a more emphatic point on it, think of it this way.  As a generalist freelance software developer, you needn’t bother thinking about your competition.  Your competition is too nebulous, and low leverage opportunities too plentiful to bother.  Just play a numbers game.  Throw your resume at contract matchmakers and recruiters, and line up regular interviews for yourself.  That gets enough people into the gas station that one of them feels like grape soda.

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Exploring the Tech Debt In Your Codebase

Editorial note: I originally wrote this for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, check out the tech debt features in the newest version of NDepend.

Recently, I posted about how the new version of NDepend lets you compute tech debt.  In that post, I learned that I had earned a “B” out of the box.  With 40 minutes of time investment, I could make that an “A.”  Not too shabby!

In that same post, I also talked about the various settings in and around “debt settings.”  With debt settings, you can change units of debt (time, money), thresholds, and assumptions of working capacity.  For folks at the intersection of tech and business, this provides an invaluable way to communicate with the business.

But I really just scratched the surface with that mention.  You’re probably wondering what this looks like in more detail.  How does this interact with the NDepend features you already know and love?  Well, today, I’d like to take a look at just that.

To start, let’s look at the queries and rules explorer in some detail.

Introducing Quality Gates

Take a look at this screenshot, and you’ll notice some renamed entries, some new entries, and some familiar ones.

In the past, “Code Smells” and “Code Regressions” had the names “Code Quality” and “Code Quality Regression,” respectively.  With that resolved, the true newcomers sit on top: Quality Gates and Hot Spots.  Let’s talk about quality gates.

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Be a Savvy Consumer: Software Licenses Explained

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the Monitis blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, take a look at their monitoring services for your important stuff in production.

If you share my worldview, the subject of software licenses will bore you to the very fiber of your being.  Seriously.  I got into the world of software because I like to build stuff.  So, when the building finishes and the time comes to argue about who is allowed to copy what, when, and where, I prefer to let the bureaucrats sort it out.

Unfortunately, however, I can’t always do that.  From time to time it matters to me in a business context, advising clients.  Likewise, if I start slapping things on Github (or selling them), at some point, I have to think about licensing.  But today, I want to talk about arguably the most common way to encounter licensing: as a consumer.

Software seems to run on pretty much everything these days, so the question of who owns what can get murky.  You might find yourself in possession of a piece of software that you shouldn’t have, whether you realize it or not.  Or, you might download something free to use, as a developer, only to smack into legalese preventing you from redistributing it.  As you consume software, it behooves you to understand a bit about it.

Now, I cannot possibly explain every licensing model in a single post.  That topic presents such complexity that folks built an entire website dedicated to helping you sort it out.  What I’ll do instead is offer a quick primer.  I’m going to give you a breakdown of software licenses in terms of copyright implications.  Copyright governs a content producer’s rights to reproduce, publish, and sell that content.  In our case, we’re talking about source code and the resultant software.

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