C. Keith Ray

C. Keith Ray writes about and develops software in multiple platforms and languages, including iOS® and Macintosh®.
Keith's Résumé (pdf)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

New Skills for Developers

(Originally posted 2003.May.03 Sat; links may have expired.)

Extreme Programming requires new skills for both Managers and Developers; in today's entry, I write about some of the new skills required for Developers.

In typical "traditional" development (which is often waterfall / code-n-fix), a developer needs the skill to design from scratch. To some extant, this skill is taught in school and in books. Some developers master it better than others. Unfortunately, it doesn't help too much with maintenance, and about 90% of developer work is maintenance. Debugging is a very valuable skill for this kind of work, but only learned from experience. Testing is done after development, if it is done at all, (typically just manual testing is done) and very few projects keep automated tests running in maintenance mode.

Traditional Development State of Code
Design from scratch Good
"Patch" for new feature Less Good
"Patch" for bug fix Even Less Good
Repeat Patching for years Eventually Declared Unmaintainable

In Extreme Programming, a developer doesn't have to make a good design from scratch. During the Test-Code-Refactor cycle, the developer's first stab at code doesn't have to have a really good design, it just has to pass the test. Then the developer "puts on his refactoring hat", and improves the code to good design. The project is in maintenance mode after the first week, and the discipline of refactoring keeps the design good throughout its life. Keeping the tests up-to-date is also required. It also turns out that pair programming and this test-first approach mostly removes the need for debugging.

Extreme Programming State of Code
Write a Test No Code Yet
Code To Pass Test Minimal Code, Possibly Poor Design
Refactoring Good Design
Write another Test No Changes to Code Yet
Code To Pass Test "Patched" Code, Possibly Poor Design
Refactoring Good Design

If you compare the two methods, you see that XP requires testing skills, which are not emphasized in traditional methods, and it requires refactoring skills, which isn't (or wasn't until recently) taught in school, and is only described in very few, recently-published books.

Experienced developers, particularly those who have spent time in maintenance, know that patching leads to unmaintainable code, but many of them haven't learned refactoring, the "cure" for patching. Younger developers, particularly those that got started in the dot-com boom, haven't even had time in maintenance, and of course they are still learning how to do design from scratch.

I've spent the last several days teaching a developer how to write code test-first. Writing the test for a nonexistent class or method is fairly easy, and writing the code to pass that test is fairly easy. It can even have a good design, since it isn't being patched (yet).

Writing a test to drive modifying the behavior of an existing class can be more tricky. In some cases (equality functions), we had to regard a "passing" test as a failure, in order to follow the XP rule of never modifying the code unless there is a failing test.

One of my exercises for teaching is to have the student write a "prime factors" function, where I supply each test, and the student writes the simplest code to pass the test. The hard part in that lesson is learning to refactor "if" statements away to keep the design good. Remember the XP rule for good design: "no duplicate logic".

Sometimes, at the end of the day, getting the tests passing is such hard work, that we get tired and don't do the refactoring. We check in working code, and then the next day arrives and we forget to do the refactoring, moving onto new tasks instead. Pair programming is tiring enough that the experts don't recommend pairing more than six hours a day. The XP practice of "sustainable pace" is meant to keep you from programming while tired, when your judgment is poor.

An XP team might want to have a practice where developers coming in the next morning review the code that was checked in the previous day, looking for opportunities for refactoring, and doing it first thing, while the energy is available to do it. The next-day perspective could help provide the distance needed to recognize that yesterday's wonderful code isn't as wonderful as we thought.

Refactoring is similar to rewriting, but more disciplined: you can only make small, behavior-preserving changes. This discipline is a new skill.

Brooks said "expect to throw one away", Clarifying later that he meant small modules not entire systems, because throwing away entire systems leads to waterfall.

Cockburn said says it is easier to modify a working system than to write a new system from scratch. I say that it is easier to modify a working system than a non-working system.

Ed Yourdon said that any piece of code needs to be rewritten three or four times to be constituted as an elegant, professional piece of work.

Mary and Tom Poppendieck said that for prose, we take this [rewriting] for granted, why not for code?

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