An Ounce of Goat is Worth a Pound of Hero
By: Harry Robinson
When do your testers join the software development process? If you're like most teams, testing doesn't start until late in the development cycle. Once testing is engaged, you work around the clock finding the important bugs, fixing those you can fix, and trying to get the code ready to ship. In all, your testers and developers will put in several extremely late nights and probably a few weekends to get the code out the door.
Testing that starts late in the software development cycle gives many bugs that were originally small and simple a chance to become deeply entangled with other bugs in the system. These entrenched bugs are often difficult to find and nearly impossible to fix well.
On the bright side, everyone who survives the dreaded days of debugging will likely be proclaimed a hero. But I wonder if heroism in these situations is as necessary as we are often led to believe.
Let's step back for a moment and look at similar heroics in a totally different context. Smokejumpers are firefighters who parachute into forest fires armed with shovels, picks, and little else. This matches up pretty well with my idea of heroism. Their work is important, exhausting, and dangerous. Fatalities occur on a regular basis.
But an ounce of prevention may really be worth a pound of cure--or hundreds of acres of forest. Some communities have begun using goats to deal with wildfires. Instead of waiting until a fire starts, these communities hire goats to munch away on the underbrush. This starves a potential fire of the fuel that would allow the flames to spread. This is not glamorous work, but the goats effectively clear many acres in a short time.
Goats vs. Smokejumpers
1. Goats work cheap. 650 goats probably cost as much as one firefighter.
2. Goats are not nearly as exciting as smokejumpers. Watching goats munch on underbrush is only marginally more interesting than watching the underbrush grow.
3. Using goats requires planning. Goats are of little use once the fire has started. (Unless you plan to feed them to the firefighters.) To be effective, they must be used before the emergency hits.
4. Goats are not a complete solution. Fires will still happen and you will still need firefighters—hopefully not as many or for as long.
5. Measuring the success of goats is tricky. You can't talk about fires extinguished; you have to talk about fires prevented. Fortunately, if you have some idea of how many fires would usually flare up, you can get an estimate of how helpful the goats have been.
Now, let's return to your team's software development efforts. On your last project, did you get pulled into firefighting mode because your testing found serious bugs only late in the development cycle? Did you repeatedly send in your developers to contain and debug the problems? I'll bet your developers worked mainly in reactive mode, moving from one hot spot to the next since they had no time to create long-lasting solutions. In other words, your people were heroes heading straight into burnout.
But what if your team had taken a more goat-like approach, stopping small, isolated bugs before they could become large, tangled bugs? What if your developers and testers used cheap, simple methods during the development phase to lessen the presence of bugs later in the process?
The truth is we have had such tools and methods around for a long time. We just haven't always used them as well or as often as we could have. For instance, to name just a few:
1. Code reviews and inspections. Code review is probably not on anyone's list of exciting ways to spend a few hours, but its reported 70-80% find rate certainly deserves attention.
2. Automated Inspections. For the lazier among us, there are tools that will automatically inspect code for suspicious constructs.
3. Unit testing. With the emergence of extreme programming, unit testing is now in fashion
Early Detection vs. Late Night Heroism
1. Early detection tools cost much less than finding showstopper bugs at the last minute.
2. Early detection methods find bugs in a simple and boring way, which is good. Software development currently has too many nail-biting moments and death marches.
3. Early detection tools require planning. Once you are in reactive mode, it's too late.
4. These tools do not find all bugs. You still need testers and developers to fix bugs—hopefully not as many since the number of bugs will be smaller.
5. Measuring the impact of these tools can be tricky since their real value is in preventing worse bugs down the line.
Keeping It All Under Control
Being a hero is great, but only if your heroism doesn't involve a situation you could have avoided in the first place. Good engineering doesn't consist of random acts of heroism. Good engineering should celebrate a subtler form of accomplishment.
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