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Static Analysis Isn’t Just for Techies

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, download a trial of NDepend and give it a spin.

I do a lot of work with and around static analysis tools.  Obviously, I write for this blog.  I also have a consulting practice that includes detailed codebase and team fact-finding missions, and I have employed static analysis aplenty when I’ve had run of the mill architect gigs.  Doing all of this, I’ve noticed that the practice gets a rap of being just for techies.

Beyond that even, people seem to perceive static analysis as the province of the uber-techie: architects, experts, and code statistics nerds.  Developing software is for people with bachelors’ degrees in programming, but static analysis is PhD-level stuff.  Static analysis nerds go off, dream up metrics, and roll them out for measurement of developers and codebases.

This characterization makes me sad — doubly so when I see something like test coverage or cyclomatic complexity being used as a cudgel to bonk programmers into certain, predictable behaviors.  At its core, static analysis is not about standards compliance or behavior modification, though it can be used for those things.  Static analysis is about something far more fundamental: furnishing data and information about the codebase (without running the code).  And wanting information about the code is clearly something everyone on or around the team is interested in.

To drive this point home, I’d like to cite some examples of less commonly known value propositions for static analysis within a software group.  Granted, all of these require a more indirect route than, “install the tool, see what warnings pop up,” but they’re all there for the realizing, if you’re so inclined.  One of the main reasons that static analysis can be so powerful is scale — tools can analyze 10 million lines of code in minutes, whereas a human would need months.

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4 Ways Custom Code Metrics Make a Difference

Edit: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, download NDepend and give it a try.  If you like static analysis, you’ll find yourself hooked.

One of the things that has surprised me over the years is how infrequently people take advantage of customizable code metrics.  I say this not from the perspective of a geek with esoteric interest in a subject, wishing other people would share my interest.  Rather, I say this from the perspective of a business man, making money, and wondering why I seem to have little competition.

As I’ve mentioned before, a segment of my consulting practice involves strategic code assessments that serve organizations in a number of ways.  When I do this, the absolute most important differentiator is my ability to tailor metrics to the client and specific codebases on the fly.  Anyone can walk in, install a tool, and say, “yep, your cyclomatic complexity in this class is too high, as evidenced by this tool I installed saying ‘your cyclomatic complexity in this class is too high.'”  Not just anyone can come in and identify client-specific idiosyncrasies and back those findings with tangible data.

RobotProgramming

But, if they would invest some up-front learning time in how to create custom code metrics, they’d be a lot closer.

Being able to customize code metrics allows you to reason about code quality in very dynamic and targeted terms, and that’s valuable.  But you might think that, unless you want a career in code base assessment, that value doesn’t apply to you.  Let me assure you that it does, albeit not in quite as direct way as it applies to me.

Custom code metrics can help make your team better, and they can do so in a variety of ways.  Let’s take a look at a few.

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The Biggest Mistake Static Analysis Prevents

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  Take a look at NDepend while you’re there; if static analysis interests you in the .NET space, it’s a must-try.

As I’ve probably mentioned before, many of my clients pay me to come do assessments of their codebases, application portfolios and software practice.  And, as you can no doubt imagine, some of my sturdiest, trustiest tools in the tool chest for this work are various forms of static analysis.

Sometimes I go to client sites, by plane, train or automobile (okay, never by train).  Sometimes I just remote in.  Sometimes I do fancy write-ups.  Sometimes, I present my findings with spiffy slide decks.  And sometimes, I simply deliver a verbal report without fanfare.  The particulars vary, but what never varies is why I’m there.

Here’s a hint: I’m never there because the client wants to pay my rate to brag about how everything is great with their software.

Smelly computer

Where Does It All Go Wrong?

Given what I’m describing here, one might conclude that I’m some sort of code snob and that I am, at the very least, heavily judging everyone’s code.  And, while I’ll admit that every now and then I think, “the Daily WTF would love this,” mostly I’m not judging at all – just cataloging.  After all, I wasn’t sitting with you during the pre-release death march, nor was I the one thinking, “someone is literally screaming at me, so global variable it is.”

I earnestly tell developers at client sites that I don’t know that I’d have done a lot better walking a mile in their shoes.  What I do know is that I’d have, in my head, a clearer map from “global variable today” to “massive pain tomorrow” and be better able to articulate it to management.  But, on the whole, I’m like a home inspector checking out a home that was rented and subsequently trashed by a rock band; I’m writing up an assessment of the damage and not tsking their lifestyle.

But for my clients, I’m asked to do more than inspect and catalog – I also have to do root cause analysis and offer suggestions.  So, “maybe pass a house rule limiting renters to a single bottle of whiskey per night,” to return to the inspection metaphor.  And cataloging all of these has led me to be a veritable human encyclopedia of preventable software development mistakes.

I was contemplating some of these mistakes recently and asking myself, “which was the biggest one” and “which would have been the most preventable with even simple analysis in place?”  It was interesting to realize, after a while, that the clear answer was not at all what you’d expect.

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Static Analysis for Small Business

Editorial note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  Check out the original, here, at their site.  While you’re there, download a trial of NDepend and give it a spin.  It’s one of the most important tools in my software consultant’s tool chest.

I was asked recently, kind of off the cuff, whether I thought that static analysis made sense for small business.  I must admit that the first response that popped into my head was a snarky one: “no, you can only reason about your code once you hit 1,000 employees.”  But I understood that the meat of the question wasn’t whether analysis should be performed but whether it was worth an investment, in terms of process and effort, but particularly in terms of tooling cost.

And, since that is a perfectly reasonable question, I bit my tongue against the snark.  I gave a short answer more or less of “yes,” but it got me thinking in longer form.  And today’s post is the result of that thinking.

I’d like to take you through some differences between small and large organizations.  And in looking at those differences, I will make the perhaps counter-intuitive case that small companies/groups actually stand to benefit more from an investment in static analysis tools and incorporation of the same into their software development processes.

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Static Analysis and The Other Kind of False Positives

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at the NDepend site.  If you’re a fan of static analysis tools, do yourself a favor and take a look at the NDepend offering while you’re there.

A common complaint and source of resistance to the adoption of static analysis is the idea of false positives.  And I can understand this.  It requires only one case of running a tool on your codebase and seeing 27,834 warnings to color your view on such things forever.

There are any number of ways to react to such a state of affairs, though there are two that I commonly see.  These are as follows.

  1. Sheepish, rueful acknowledgement: “yeah, we’re pretty hopeless…”
  2. Defensive, indignant resistance: “look, we’re not perfect, but any tool that says our code is this bad is nitpicking to an insane degree.”

In either case, the idea of false positives carries the day.  With the first reaction, the team assumes that the tool’s results are, by and large, too advanced to be of interest.  In the second case, the team assumes that the results are too fussy.  In both of these, and in the case of other varying reactions as well, the tool is providing more information than the team wants or can use at the moment.  “False positive” becomes less a matter of “the tool detected what it calls a violation but the tool is wrong” and more a matter of “the tool accurately detected a violation, but I don’t care right now.”  (Of course, the former can happen as well, but the latter seems more frequently to serve as a barrier to adoption and what I’m interested in discussing today).

Is this a reason to skip the tool altogether?  Of course not.  And, when put that way, I doubt many people would argue that it is.  But that doesn’t stop people form hesitating or procrastinating when it comes to adoption.  After all, no one is thinking, “I want to add 27,834 things to the team’s to do list.”  Nor should they — that’s clearly not a good outcome.

Fumigation

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some common sources of false positives and the ways to address them.  How can you ratchet up the signal to noise ratio of a static analysis tool so that is valuable, rather than daunting?

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