25 February 2009
I spent some time recently with one of my favorite ever Thoughtworks projects. It's a project that started in 1998, using then new J2EE technology. Over the years it's had a fascinating history: starting with EJBs, ripping them out, going offshore to Bangalore, coming back to Chicago. Many people have moved in and out of the project and the project has varied in head-count between 6 and 60. Overall the project has had over 300 staff-years of effort on it and weighs in at around 100 KLOC.
It's a favorite of mine because it exhibits an important property of my preferred view of software development: a long term support of a business function enabled by a well-designed code-base. The fact that they are still adding useful business value after ten years is an big dollop of kudos. They are able to rapidly add new features when needed so haven't fallen into the typical morass of a legacy app.
On this visit a couple of thoughts grabbed me.
Firstly they've had an interesting evolution in their approach to acceptance tests and how they update them as they add new features. In their original (and common) world view, each time you implement a new UserStory you add one or more tests. This leads you to a simple tracing structure where each story is verified by one or more acceptance tests. But the problem with this approach is that over time the tests grow in complexity with much duplication.
In their new world view there is a suite of acceptance tests that describe the application behavior in SpecificationByExample style. Each time they play a new story, they decide how to update this suite to reflect the new behavior. This breaks the simple story-to-test relationship, but results in a much simpler and coherent suite of tests.
The second interesting aspect of the project is how it continues to work at improving the code base. They came up with a good, if informal, metric for describing this. A few years ago, if they wanted to take on someone new they wanted that person committed for at least a year, so they could get contributions that would be worthwhile after coming up to speed on the code base. Now that time is down to three months. For a ten year old app with that many hands on it, that's quite an achievement.
For me the key purpose of good design is that it allows you to continue working rapidly with the code (the DesignStaminaHypothesis). Assessing how long it takes a developer to be productive with a code base is a good way to sense this design quality. The minimum-commitment length metric is another spin on this same idea. It's not something we can measure objectively, but it is something that a team can consider looking at.
I'm hoping we'll get more people from the project talking about their experiences. They did do a podcast last year (go to thoughtworks podcasts and look for "Keeping Grey Code Fit").