Thursday, June 17, 2010


In late January, 1984, I wrote about a dozen lines of Macintosh Pascal code. It drew series of slightly offset circles, creating what appeared to be a maze of connected pipes. That program, unchanged except for a pretentious and wholly inaccurate name given by a marketroid, went on to be the main demo program (and box artwork) for the product. And, barely a month into my first full-time programming job, I had learned the most important lesson of my career:

There's no such thing as a prototype

That utility that you wrote after having a couple of beers at lunch? It's going to be the “power user's” main tool for accessing your application. Expanded, of course, possibly beyond recognition. But deep within will be your drunken code and off-color variable names. And more important, your name will be on the check-in, so you'll always get the support calls — even for the parts that you didn't write. Worse, this code is a broken window, attracting more bad code until there's nothing left but a mess.

Most programmers learn this lesson at some point in their career. As a result, they either hide their throwaway code or make sure that someone else gets the blame for it. Newbie programmers haven't figured it out yet, and will give you a lot of attitude if you suggest taking care when writing such code. Newbie programmers that get promoted to management are the worst: they're the ones who decide that throwaway code should be part of the product.

All of which contributes to the main reason that I like Agile methodologies: they don't leave much room for second-rate code. For one thing, if you write all code test-first, even “spike solutions,” then you have at least some assurance of quality; less if you write tests just to achieve a set coverage metric, more if you use your tests as an opportunity to think about your design.

But you can write tests in any environment. Where Agile stands out is in its use of a backlog for all work, and its attitude that “tomorrow we ship.”

The former acts as a restraint on management: sure, that utility program would be useful to a large audience, but before it becomes part of the product it has to go into the backlog. And prioritized against all other feature requests. And estimated, because once it becomes a real feature it will have to do more than forble the frobulator.

The second point — that an Agile product should always be ready to ship — acts as a restraint on programmers, albeit in a counter-intuitive way. In my opinion, the root of almost all bad code is the feeling that “we gotta get it done”: there's a deadline, there's no time to do it right, so slap something together and hope it works. Agile would seem to encourage this behavior with its short cycle times, but all Agile methodologies include the fallback of “we mis-estimated, this has to be pushed to the next cycle.” If you can deliver three good features instead of four shoddy ones, that's a Good Thing, and it keeps “prototype” code at bay.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of companies that want to adopt Agile processes but can't let go of their hard deadlines and “required” feature lists. But that's a topic for another post.