How liable should programmers be for the quality of their software? The question may seem strange. Who else besides programmers should responsible for the product they create? However, an alternative philosophy exists suggesting that the programmer's primary responsibility is delivery speed. The responsibility of the project's quality must be a project concern.
Programmers write software designed to work as intended with the source code. During this process, they create defective code or "bugs." One of the main goals of any software project is to reduce the number of bugs while increasing the quality. There are well-known methods for bug finding in the source code and the product, including manual testing and peer reviews. However, these methods are rather reactive—they find bugs when the code already contains them, sometimes already after shipping the product to the users. Preventive methods for increasing the code's quality are often more desirable because they are cheaper.
One of the most popular and least obvious methods is to "hire better programmers." Munson (2003), for example, says that "a good programmer will produce fault-free code, while a bad programmer will produce code that is fault-ridden." This is a widespread misconception. We used to believe that more professional, expensive, and talented programmers are capable of writing bug-free code. However, this is not true.
"We do not make mistakes all the time, but we consistently make a certain number, even when we are being careful," says Panko et al. (1996). Moreover, Bugayenko (2015) argues that the correlation between a programmer's experience and the rate he or she makes mistakes seems to be the opposite: more experienced developers generate more bugs, while novice developers usually generate fewer, larger bugs. Even if this may not be true for all projects and teams, and "there are big differences between programmers," it is true that "no one's work is error-free," according to Kaner et al. (1999).
Beizer (1990) even demonstrated that there is a very predictable amount of bugs an average programmer produces: 2.4 per thousand source statements. The measurement was taken almost 30 years ago when languages were way more verbose and low-level, like C, Pascal, and Assembly. For modern languages,
The next equally questionable method of increasing the code's quality is to blame programmers for the bugs they make. The negative effect of this approach, also known as "Fear Driven Development," is greater than its benefits: programmers become more stressed, work much slower, and throw away a lot more
code. These effects are inherently counterproductive to software development. As Evans (2014) said in her famous blog post Fear makes you a worse programmer, "If you're scared of making changes, you can't make something dramatically better, or do that big code cleanup. Maybe you can't even deploy the code that you already wrote and tested, because it feels too scary. You just want to stick what's sort-of-working, even if it's not great."
Thus, all programmers make mistakes, but they should not be punished for these mistakes. This seems like a paradox. What can be done to decrease the number of defects in a code and at the same time allow programmers to feel free to make them? There is a solution.
Instead of blaming them for the code quality, it would be far more effective to allow the project to worry about it, letting programmers fearlessly contribute at full speed. The way to achieve this is to building a strong, automated, quality "Wall" around the code base to protect it from its programmers. The stronger the Wall, the safer programmers will feel.
First, they will make changes and mistakes in their own "feature branches" (in source code management systems). Second, they will suggest their changes for merging into the main code base, preferably via a pull request. Third, the Wall will validate the changes and reject them if it finds any new mistakes. Fourth,
when the author removes all the errors, the changes will be merged by the Wall.
Here are a few technical and organizational measures a software project can take to build such a Wall and protect the source code against its programmers (in order of complexity and importance).
Automated build aggregates most of the techniques listed below, with the help of Maven, Grunt, Gradle, Rake or similar "builders." The automation of a build provides a guarantee that no important steps will be missed, no matter how many times the build is executed. Configuring the build often is a complicated
task where responsibility rests with software architects or DevOps. Usually, the build is automated at the beginning of the project, and its configuration is maintained through its entire lifecycle.
Each programmer can run the build in a so-called "pre-flight" mode, on his or her laptop, to make sure the Wall does not reject the changes. This is not a guarantee, of course, since the build's environment may differ, affecting the result of the build.
Unfortunately, testing everything in an automated manner is not possible due to unbreakable dependencies, like databases, production data sources, network resources, etc. Modern containerization solutions like Docker or Vagrant seriously help, but cannot solve the problem of "build stability" entirely. When the
build is unstable—fails sporadically with very little predictability—programmers lose trust in the automation, and their frustration grows. Until decent stability is achieved, it would not be possible to enforce the Wall and require all project members to pass its automated gate checks.
Unit and integration tests that validate the correctness of the software modules by running them with a pre-defined set of input parameters and comparing their output against predefined expectations. Unit tests by definition are more stable than integration ones because they have less external dependencies.
However, without integration tests, it is almost impossible to guarantee that the entire application works as a whole.
"Automated tests" would be a better name for them all, since the distinction between unit and integration tests is rather vague. Test automation, even though commonly accepted as a best practice for software development, is not used as widely as software developers themselves would prefer, due to many variables,
including legacy code, lack of experience, low-quality code, high code complexity, and many others. However, without a decent amount of automated tests, it is impossible to put the quality Wall philosophy into action because automated tests are the strongest quality gatekeeper.
Mandatory coverage threshold is a metric collected from a set of tools like JaCoCo or Cobertura used right after running automated tests. If the actual amount of code covered by tests is lower than a pre-configured threshold, the build fails. It is expected that the higher the threshold is, the stronger the code
protection with automated tests is. TheWall must reject modifications if the coverage is lower than the threshold.
This is not as simple as it sounds, though. First, "100% coverage is not a sufficient condition for good quality," according to Prause et al. (2017). Second the metric itself is far more complicated than a simple number; according to Shahid et al. (2011) it includes "12 coverage item types like statement, branch, block,
decision, condition, method, class, package, requirement, and data flow coverage." However, despite all those limitations, the presence of coverage control makes the Wall stronger.
Mutation coverage threshold collected from a mutation testing framework makes micro-modifications to software modules, creating so-called "mutants." Next, automated tests are executed with an intent to calculate the number of failures, called "killed mutants." The higher the amount of successful killings,
the higher the coverage. Additionally, the Wall must reject modifications if the coverage is lower than the threshold.
Mandatory static analysis with many pre-configured analyzers, like Checkstyle, Rubocop or PMD which go through the entire code base and find potentially problematic code blocks. They do not compile or execute the code. Instead, they find where the code violates the rules and coding conventions. The most powerful tools have hundreds of rules to apply, for example, Qulice—an aggregator of Checkstyle, PMD, and FindBugs—contains over 900 rules. Any violation of the rules means that the Wall must reject the modifications.
However, as Johnson et al. (2013) demonstrated, modern static analysis tools are far from perfect, for example, producing many false positives, causing dissatisfaction and rejection among programmers.
Multi-step code reviews, which must be mandatory for each change set that programmers introduce. Automated tests or static analyzers cannot catch every defect. Having several reviewers will increase the quality and protect the project source code even better. The Wall, through technical and organizational measures, must ensure that no modifications can go through unless they are being reviewed.
Even though this sounds obvious and easy, the industry still has much to improve. According to Ciolkowski et al. (2003), many companies "conduct reviews regularly but often unsystematically" and "don't exploit [these] reviews' full potential for defect reduction and quality control."
Read-only master branch, which nobody can push to, except the Wall. The restriction must be both technical and organizational. Without such a restriction it would be impossible to enforce everything listed above, since, under stress and business pressure there always will be a great deal of temptation to go
around the Wall and make modifications directly to the main code repository. By making such a workaround technically and organizationally impossible, the project will guarantee that the Wall is fully protecting the quality of its source code.
Potentially, there could be other obstacles intentionally created in front of programmers to make their lives more difficult before the merge. As Nygard (2018) said in his book Release It!: Design and Deploy Production-Ready Software: "Each stage of a build pipeline is looking for reasons to reject the build. Tests failed? Reject it. Lint complains? Reject it. Build fails integration tests in staging? Reject it. Finished archive smells funny? Reject it." In other words, the faster and the cheaper we can reject the changes, the better greater benefits for the project.
The question is, how can a programmer deliver faster if there are so many restrictions in the process and the code repository? There are many tricks, some that may look shady if the project is fragile and cannot protect itself. However, when the Wall fully protects the project, these methods will benefit everybody:
Make changes smaller. Thanks to significant barriers, the risk of pull request rejection is very high. A smart programmer will try to make a few small pull requests, which will have higher changes to be merged, instead of aiming for perfection and trying to solve and deliver the entire scope in one round.
Push back. When a problem is too complex and depends on other legacy code blocks, a smart programmer should not try to fix them all inside one pull request. Instead, reporting bugs and asking the project to fix the dependencies first would be a wiser move.
Break things. A properly protected codebase encourages programmers not to be afraid of breaking it. The less they care about the entire code base's overall stability (the architect should care about this), the faster they move forward, the more the project benefits.
Isolate changes. Trying to see the code base as a whole, studying the "big picture" and thinking about the consequences slows the programming process. Smart programmers try to isolate their efforts and focus on particular issues and features, letting the project and its architect worry about the overall result.
There must be a permanent conflict between a project and its programmers: 1) the project must be configured to reject anything that decreases the quality of its artifacts and 2) programmers must be interested in making changes to those artifacts. The project cares about the quality; the programmers care about modifications and fast delivery.
If these two interests conflict, a high-quality product will be created and grow rapidly. The project will enforce quality, and programmers will push the code forward, making changes fast and frequently.
Unfortunately, most projects have a very different philosophy. They delegate quality control to programmers, hoping that they will "do no evil." This leads to frustration, distress, constant fear of mistakes, long delays, blaming, and shaming. In the end, both the project and its programmers lose.
Of course, not every project will be able to configure itself in the most effective way. Most projects do not even know how to do it. In those projects, if developers "step on the gas," they will most likely ruin the code base in a few days. This is why we must be careful with encouraging programmers to speed up until the quality Wall is strong enough. It is also important to remember that building the Wall from scratch is usually a prolonged process that requires a lot of investments from programmers, architects, and managers. Declaring intentions is not enough. First of all, the source code itself will not be ready to reject low-quality modifications, because it will not be possible to differentiate low-quality from high-quality code. It will take a significant amount of time until it will be possible to start making grounded rejection decisions in an automated way.
However, once the first version of the Wall is ready and the source code begins protecting itself, the team will start seeing serious improvement in performance with an overall increase in the satisfaction of their work.
Beizer, Boris (1990). Software Testing Techniques. 2nd ed. International Thomson Computer Press.
Bugayenko, Yegor (2015). Good Programmers Write Bug-Free Code, Don't They? https://goo.gl/D2ghN6.
Ciolkowski, Marcus et al. (2003). "Software Reviews, the State of the Practice." In: IEEE software 20.6, pp. 46–51.
Evans, Julia (2014). Fear makes you a worse programmer. https://goo.gl/MeLGxN
Johnson, Brittany et al. (2013). "Why Don't Software Developers Use Static Analysis Tools to Find Bugs?" In: Proceedings of the
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Nygard, Michael T. (2018). Release It!: Design and Deploy Production-Ready Software. 2nd ed. Pragmatic Bookshelf.
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Prause, Christian et al. (2017). "Is 100% Test Coverage a Reasonable Requirement? Lessons Learned from a Space Software Project." In: International Conference on Product-Focused Software Process Improvement. Innsbruck, Austria.
Shahid, Muhammad et al. (2011). "A Study on Test Coverage in Software Testing." In: Advanced Informatics School (AIS), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
Yegor Bugayenko is founder and CEO of software engineering and management platform Zerocracy.
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