The Need for Technical Discipline

Technical discipline is a critical part of any development team. To me, technical discipline is the act/process of continually improving the code. In other words, pay down technical debt as it is created. Doing this can mean the difference between an enjoyable project and a hated project.

Every story completed by every developer adds technical debt. Sometimes the debt is realized immediately; other times the debt appears because of a  future change request. The problem with debt is it makes change more difficult. And, the more debt that is allowed to build up, the more difficult changes become.

When the debt builds to some critical mass is when the project is in trouble. Simple changes that used to take 2 days take twice as long. Complex changes are taking three or four times as long. It’s difficult to explain why.

This is when the pressure to deliver stories starts to weigh down on everyone. And everybody gets unhappy because this great project has just become the latest debacle.

How Did We Get Here?

Most projects don’t start intending to build up lots of technical debt. Usually the road to having mountains of technical debt is paved with good intentions.

 

It starts when with small things. Sometimes these sacrifices start with a decision to deliver a time-sensitive item quickly, sacrificing whatever we have too. More commonly, it is a lot of little decisions made by the developers as they are developing stories:

  • Avoiding refactoring work to hit the estimate
  • Limiting automated testing to hit the estimate
  • Not removing unused code
  • Leaving Ugly, complicated code as-is
  • Duplicating common code instead of extracting it

For a more thorough explanation of the types of technical debt, check out http://martinfowler.com/bliki/TechnicalDebtQuadrant.html.

When the pile of technical debt gets big enough, the developers try to start doing it. But this leads to a different problem. The business team starts to pressure the developers to cut out those unnecessary activities because delivery is getting slower. After all, if it was okay to avoid these things up until now, why isn’t it okay now? And, if the development team gives into that pressure, things get worse on the project quickly.

The development team has to realize that they are mostly responsible for this situation. But avoiding things that extended the time early on, precedent has been set that the activities are totally unnecessary.

One way I’ve seen attempts to fix this is to create refactoring stories. That is, create a story to fix the mess made while developing a story. I’ve seen lots of projects with refactoring stories but I’ve never seen a project fix a technical debt problem with refactoring stories. The approach doesn’t work because the refactoring stories, aka stories that take valuable development time and deliver nothing, have a way of always having the lowest priorities.

How Do We Fix It? And Keep It From Recurring?

The fix is simple but hard to implement. Don’t cut corners during development except when there are pressing reasons to do so. And those exceptions should be few. In other words, the developers should strive to slightly improve the code base with every story.

This is a difficult transition. The longer the team has let discipline lapse, the more difficult it is. After just a few painful weeks, the team should start seeing improvements in delivery times. Things will continue to improve; slowly, for quite a while.

When making the transition, it’s important to not try and fix everything at once, that’s impossible. Instead, focus on the areas of the codebase that cause the most difficulty with the stories being played.  Other areas will be addressed later when they are being changed by other stories.

When technical discipline lapses, the development team can feel like it is being a better business partner by delivering faster. The reality is the opposite, delivering faster means  paying dearly later.Being the better partner means retaining discipline all the time.

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