One of the things I’ve spent a good bit of time doing over the last year or so is called “Craftsmanship Coaching.” This involves going into teams and helping them adopt practices that will allow them to produce software more reliably and efficiently. Examples include writing automated unit and acceptance tests, setting up continuous integration and deployment, writing cleaner, more modular code, etc. At its core though, this is really the time-honored practice of gap analysis. You go in, you see where things could be better, and you help make them better.
Using the word “craftsmanship” to describe the writing of software is powerful from a marketing perspective. Beyond just a set of practices revolving around XP and writing “good code,” it conjures up an image of people who care about the practice of writing software to the point of regarding it as an art form with its own sort of aesthetic. While run-of-the-mill 9–5ers will crank out code and say things like, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” software craft-people will presumably agonize over the smallest details, perfecting their code for the love of the game.
The drawback with using a term like “software craftsmanship” is the intense subjectivity and confusion of what exactly it entails. One person’s “well crafted code” might be another’s spaghetti, not to mention that subjective terms tend to get diluted by people wanting, merited or not, to be in the club. To understand what I mean, consider the practice of scheduling a daily status meeting, calling it “daily Scrum,” and declaring a shop to be “agile.”
How then are software developers who are not associated with the software craftsmanship movement to know whether they should want in or not? How are they even to know what it is? And if they don’t easily know, how are overhead decision makers like managers to have any clue at all? Well, let’s momentarily forget about the idea of software craftsmanship and return to the theme of gap analysis. In the rest of this post, I’ll describe signs that you could stand to benefit from some of the practices that I help clients with. If you notice your team experiencing these things, the good news is that you can definitely simplify your life if you pursue improvements.
Similar Features Take Longer and Longer to Implement
Remember a simpler time when adding a page to your site took a few hours, or maybe a day, max? Now, it’s a week or two. Of course, that makes sense because now you have to remember to implement all of the security stuff, and there’s the validation library for all of the input controls. And that’s just off the top. Let’s not forget the logging utility that requires careful edits to each method, and then there’s the checklist your team put together some time back that you have to go through before officially promoting the page. Everyone has to think about localization, checking the color scheme in every browser, and so on and so forth. So it’s inevitable that things will slow down, right?
Well, no, it’s not inevitable at all. Complexity will accrue in a project as time drifts by, but it can be neutralized with carefully considered design approaches. The examples that I mentioned, such as security and logging, can be implemented in such a way within your application that they do not add significant overhead at all to your development effort. Whatever the particulars, there are ways to structure your application so that you don’t experience significant slowdown.
Simple Functionality Requests Are Anything But Simple
- “Hey, can you change the font on the submit button?”
- “Not without rewriting the whole presentation layer!”
- “I don’t understand. That doesn’t seem like it should be hard to do.”
- “Well, look, it is, okay? Software is complicated.”
Have you ever participated in or been privy to a conversation like this? There’s something wrong here. Simple-seeming things being really hard is a smell. Cosmetic changes, turning off logging, adding a new field to a web page, and other things that strike non-technical users as simple changes should be simple, generally speaking.
While clearly not a universal rule, if a vast gulf routinely appears between what common sense says should be simple and how hard it turns out to be, there is an opportunity for improvement.