Steven E. Newton
Crater Moon Development
In The Refactoring Factor Esther Schindler wonders about the reasons behind a study that shows only 22% of developers consider refactoring important. Before writing the article she asked some questions on the agile-testing list and her article includes some of the points in the responses.
I want to focus a bit on her primary conclusion, that programmers can’t get resources or buy-in to do refactoring.
Because the programmer’s managers won’t allow it
Somewhere I think I have the email directive that a project manager sent out at one job I was on that said, to paraphrase, that anything beyond the specific changes requested was a “refactoring effort” and therefore out of scope.
There is a simple explanation and a not-so-simple one for this. The simple one is the spread of what Martin Fowler wrote about in Refactoring Malapropism I must confess I probably contributed to it in the above mentioned situation, and I was still paying penance for it.
Now the complex explanation. Project management can be seen as the task of maximizing the completed features in the available time within the budget of money and people. In too many situations, the estimates of time required are abbreviated. This happens stereotypically by management, as Phillip Su writes in Broken Windows Theory , but it also happens because many programmers lack sophistication estimating. The programmers typically consider the time only to write the code and get it to compile and running, leaving out the other tasks that get the code from “done” to “shippable”. One reason I’ve come to favor agile development styles is that they reduce the time and disconnect between those two states. Anyway, the result is that the schedules are wrong, the projects get behind, and the solution adopted by teams is typically to cut everything else except the promised features. Short term gain, for long term loss, because the technical debt builds up.
Management can have a time seeing the effects of technical debt. They see that as a project goes along and a product grows, adding new features and fixing existing code that doesn’t work as desired takes more time and becomes increasingly more likely to introduce new problems. But by the time these manifest as the level of most projects, the technical debt has built up to dangerous levels. The typical example I give is what if a 5-star restaurant were to hire a lot of chefs and not enough dishwashers, and decreed that the chefs must ONLY cook, never clean up. Initially they’d be able to feed a lot of people, but as the dirty utensils and pots and pans build up, the chefs increasingly have to hunt for clean ones and a place to work. Gunk builds up on the grill. After a certain point, if we followed the typical IT shop solution, the restaurant would throw out all the dirty stuff, replaces the appliances that can’t be salvaged, and if necessary hire new chefs.
Of course great restaurants don’t work like that. They and their chefs are cleaning as they go, so that pan or knife that was used for the happy hour buffet prep gets returned to use for the dinner entree and then dessert.
Refactoring is cleaning the kitchen while you cook. It’s not sexy, it doesn’t make the souffle fluffier or the piecrust flakier, but it’s a given that if it’s not done, there won’t be any souffle or pie at all.