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Stories about Software

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Is There Value in Having Non-Technical People Do Code Review?

Editorial note: I originally wrote this post for the SmartBear blog.  Go to their site and check out the original!  If you like this post, there are a lot of good ones there by a variety of authors, on topics like code review, API design, testing, and more.

Here’s a thought exercise for you. Should non-technical people participate in code reviews?

It’s off the beaten path, to be sure, but I think it’s an interesting philosophical consideration. We’re entirely used to code review as an exercise by developers and for developers. But is there a place or purpose for outsiders to review our code?

Why do it?

I’ll state up front my answer to that question: “yes, provided it happens in a specific, directed way.” But to convince you, let me offer some potential benefits that I see, depending on who reviews what.

  • In general, it could bring members of the team with different skill sets closer together. Developers learn the business domain; why not let the business people understand the developers’ world?
  • This could serve as a sanity check. Are developers writing code that accurately reflects the domain?
  • It could also force developers to write code that is cleaner, more readable, and more maintainable. Imagine having to write code that a non-technical person might understand.

I’ll offer more detailed rationale for this thinking shortly.  But I imagine you’d agree that these goals would be worth pursuing.  If an occasional, different style of code review can help, then it’d be worth doing.

Be careful with this.

Dragons

But before I talk about what these reviews might look like and how they could help, it’s important to stress that I’m not proposing a radical change to the code review process.  What I’m proposing is an occasional exercise to offer a different perspective on the team’s code.  Having non-technical folks look at the code shouldn’t be a vehicle for micromanagement or for former techies to quibble over code.  It shouldn’t be exhaustive, since a lot of plumbing code will be nonsense to them.

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Hiring is Broken… And It Isn’t Worth Fixing

Usually I fly home from client sites late in the day, but the whims of fate had me driving home instead, early (for me, anyway) this morning.  The end result was a pocket of uncommon free time this evening, before resuming long days and seemingly non-stop travel on the morrow.  Naturally, I wasted this free time poking around the internet.

My travels led me, via Twitter, to this blog post entitled, “F*** You, I Quit — Hiring Is Broken.”  Apparently, this led to some heated, sometimes-angsty debate on Hacker News, where the original piece earned a good number of points.  And, why wouldn’t it?  “Hiring is broken” would serve as a rallying cry for those who don’t play the interview game well, while seeming a shot across the bow of those who do and are now on the other side of it.

Read the article, please.  You need to for context, because when I reference it further, it’ll just be a reductionist tl;dr.  I’ll come back to that.  First, I’d like to address one of the few points that almost everyone seems to agree on, before they get down to armchair dissection of Sahat’s character and market worth.

The hiring process is imperfect deeply flawed (if not broken), but no one knows how to fix it.

Except, that’s not actually true, because I know how to fix the interview/hiring process.  It’s actually pretty easy.  Just stop doing it.  If the value proposition you’re offering to prospective laborers is so weak that you have to solicit and subsequently torture strangers, you should prioritize fixing your organizational mess above making the mess larger (or, in the case of attrition, before doing the same thing again).

TriviaInterview

I’m honestly not kidding, but let me come back to the mindless growth point later.

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Please Stop “Geeking Out”

Mostly, I try to stay away from semantic quibbling and I almost always try to stay away from anything sensational, so please forgive me in advance.  I’m taking a hard line of sorts with a blog post entitled, “stop geeking out.” and I’m somewhat doing so for effect.  But this is coming from a place of earnestness.

I don’t really care too much about the term “geek” in and of itself; it’s the concept of “geeking out” that frustrates me.  And it truly is the concept — I’m not interested in term policing.  It’s not like I’d blow a gasket and be insufferable toward someone saying this in front of me; rather saying it in front of me inspires sort of a vague sadness in me, upon which I wouldn’t bother to comment.

But before I get to the reasons for my objection and my sadness, let’s take a look at the origins of the term “geek” as we know it today, originating from the idea of a “geek show.

The Online Etymology Dictionary give the following for “geek”: “sideshow freak,” 1916, U.S. carnival and circus slang, perhaps a variant of geck “a fool, dupe, simpleton” (1510s), apparently from Low Ger. geck, from an imitative verb found in North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian meaning “to croak, cackle,” and also “to mock, cheat.” The modern form and the popular use with reference to circus sideshow “wild men” is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham‘s novel Nightmare Alley (made into a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power).

The billed performer’s act consisted of a single geek, who stood in center ring to chase live chickens. It ended with the performer biting the chickens’ heads off and swallowing them.[1] The geek shows were often used as openers for what are commonly known as freak shows. It was a matter of pride among circus and carnival professionals not to have traveled with a troupe that included geeks. Geeks were sometimes alcoholics or drug addicts, and could be paid with liquor – especially during Prohibition – or with narcotics.

Okay, so quick recap.  Before the term meant “technology enthusiast” it meant, “idiot substance-abuser that earns a living performing unspeakable acts to amuse mobs.”  That’s quite the transition!

GeekShow

The Historical Connection

Let’s examine that transition a bit.  When I was a kid in the 1980s, I remember “geek” being an insult, but it was sort of interchangeable among a bevvy of insulting synonyms: dork, dweeb, nerd, etc.  You can go looking for meaning in a taxonomy if you’re so inclined, but I don’t remember much distinction.

But, as I’d learn later, “geek” had a special and unique flavor of implication.  It conveyed obsession and interest in technology.  Interesting.  But how do you get from “slow-witted alcoholic that will eat chicken heads for free booze” to “guy that really, really likes computers?”

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Why You Should Do Periodic Reviews of Legacy Code

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SmartBear blog.  Go take a look at the original here, at their site.  If you like posts about collaboration, code review, and other topics, take a look around while you’re there.

Legacy code is sort of like your house’s storage crawlspace.  It tends to be a repository for things that mattered to you in days past or on special occasions.  The code sits there, largely unnoticed, until such time as an odd change or a production bug causes you to dig it up, dust it off, and revisit it.  Barring extraordinary circumstances, it tends to sit, largely forgotten, and possibly rotting or getting riddled with moth holes.

By and large, this considered an acceptable and even desirable state of affairs in our industry.  A lot of folks that manage software development efforts and hold the purse strings think of software construction the way they think of building construction.  Once you’ve built a house, it’s done.  Why would you go back and revisit it unless there was some kind of problem that had cropped up?  The problem with this well-intentioned, bottom-line thinking is that building software isn’t much like building houses.

When you build software, you stack the new atop the old and everything comes along for the ride.  Sure, there may be the occasional new module that stands all by itself or plugs in with the rest, but that’s the exception.  The new code interacts with the old stuff, calling into it, relying on it, and running beside it in production.  If housing construction worked this way, a short circuit in the house across the street might cause your shower to stop working.

The result is that, however well-intentioned someone encouraging you not to focus on legacy code might be, the edict is often misguided.  If the short circuit across the street meant you couldn’t shower, would you listen to someone who told you their wiring was none of your business?  Clearly, you wouldn’t go storming over there out of nowhere, remodeling that house, but you wouldn’t just ignore it either.

OldHouse

This is the approach required with legacy code in your code base.  The fact that someone typed it out years ago doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a very real, current impact on your team every time you deploy your code.  Because of this, it behooves you to review it occasionally, when time permits.

Let’s examine some specifics as to why it makes sense to audit your legacy code from time to time.  Having your finger on the pulse of everything going into production is a compelling but abstract argument.  So, let’s get more concrete.

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A Taxonomy of Software Consultants

The conversation that follows this paragraph is a dramatization.  But it’s a composite of actual conversations that I’ve held, distilled and focused.  And I think it will illustrate why I believe we need a taxonomy of software consultants.

“What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m a software consultant.”

“Oh, nice.  So, what, you like, go out to client sites and help them with their projects?”

“No, I work for a software consulting firm and I just go there.  My company writes apps for other companies, and I’m on a team working on something for one of those companies.”

“Ah, okay.  Do you interact with your client over the phone or via chat or something?”

“No, that’s mainly the project manager — I just code up requirements.”

“Oh, gotcha.  So no one really consults with you, per se.”

“Yeah, huh, I guess not.  I guess I’m more like a contractor or something.”

The surface problem here is that the definition of consultant has been somewhat watered down.  But I’d say the deeper-seated problem is one rooted in history.

In a world (of, say, 30 years ago) where software was mainly a maintenance concern for line of business automation and hardware-based products, the people that wrote code were employed by the companies that consumed the code they wrote.  Someone without domain knowledge that went around writing software would rightly have been considered a consultant, since specialized knowledge of software was uncommon.  But as the balance of the world shifted to software being ubiquitous, someone unmoored from a particular domain, writing code for a living, is no longer highly specialized nor is that person likely to be consulted for their unique expertise.

DevSkills

As the world evolved, however, the terminology did not.  A software consultant continues to be defined as “anyone who writes software for a company other than the one direct depositing pay into their bank accounts.”  This can be the ‘consultant’ described above, an agency staff augmentation, a CRM specialist installing a CRM installation, or a person advising the dev manager on a migration strategy.  To gain some clarity, I propose some clarity around terms.

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