Why do Software Developers always squawk when inheriting a foreign codebase?

The first thing that Software Engineers do when they inherit a codebase that they haven’t written is to squawk loudly.

This is terrible! That’s not the way to do it! We need to re-write this completely!

I recently had an experience when a project manager suddenly lost his developer and asked me to take over. ‘Here is the list of requirements from the customer, they’re just small changes’.

I said ‘OK, I’ll give this a look, doesn’t look too difficult‘. And then I started looking into the code, and I started grumbling more and more. There were no comments. No source control. No test code. The code I had in front of me what not working correctly, and I had no access to a codebase which was working. And within the code, there were so many times when I was thinking ‘Oh no, why would you do that? I’d really do it differently’.

So I promptly squawked. And the project manager expressed his incredulity. ‘It’s always the same with developers! They always complain of code that they haven’t written themselves!’.

So, here’s a little guide to explain why this happens.

We’re not masons.

That’s the crux. The job of building walls is well defined, and if a wall is not complete, you can hire another mason to finish the job. He’ll come to the site and the tools that he sees are familiar and he can start right where the previous person stopped. Easy.

That’s not how it works with software. There is a wide range of ways you can solve something, the wider since we basically can write your own tools. Another persons’ building site is going to be completely unfamiliar.

So here are my insights for non-developers, in the hope that you will get over the impression that we are whiners, and understand that software development is not masonry.

Software is easier to write than to read.

After about six months, even the code you have written yourself becomes more difficult to read. A good developer will be writing his code not just well enough for the machine to understand (bad developers stop at that point), but well enough for humans to understand.

This is a pretty accurate picture of what it’s like reading other people’s code from somebody else:

Software can be really badly written, and you can’t see it from outside.

This rejoins the points I was making in a previous post. Here we’re talking about maintainability, the ease with which a particular codebase can be modified.  Here are some best practices which you should insist that your developers follow:

  • One is to separate the responsibility of code into little independent boxes, which only do one specific thing. If you need to change something, there is only one place to look for. This is called modularity and follows the concept of separation of concern.
  • Another one is having Source Control. This shows all the changes that have been done on the codebase over time, including who did it, and enables us to revert code to what it was in the past (when a bug has been inserted, for instance.)
  • Automated tests make every small bit of the code run through its logic, often by trying to make it break. There is one thing that we software developers are scared of, and which happens a lot: we change a bit of code here and then notice that loads of other bits of code are no longer working. Automated tests enable you to be able to make bold changes because you immediately get feedback on whether you’ve broken something.
  • Finally, documentation really helps. And please note that I’m not talking about some separate Word Document that was once done for the client, I’m talking about comments explaining why things were done in a particular way embedded within the code.

If a software developer inherits a codebase which didn’t follow these guidelines, then that code is going to be a pain to maintain and to change. And as a developer, it’s a large source of frustration because we are in effect far slower at delivering changes than our predecessor, and our customer is not going to be impressed.

So, if you are a customer, request that these basics are followed, or else you’ve got a bad case of developer lock-in, where Bob is the only person who can maintain the code.

In conclusion:

If you are a customer and switch developers or provider for a project, you’ll have to factor in some budget and time just for the new developer to get acquainted with the project. You’ll also see that it will initially take longer to effect changes, depending on how well and maintainable the software was written in the first place.

 

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