Sunday, March 09, 2008

More on Code Debt

I have blogged before on code debt.

I would like to say a bit more about it.

Code is like an onion. Onions have layers.

The outer most layer of the code onion are the public interfaces or the exported functions. This is the layer that external code may hook up to the code.

The inner layers are often made up of the classes and structures imagined and created by the developers to organize their abstraction of the problem. In this inner layer the classes will have methods visible to all of the other classes in the same layer and may have methods that only subclasses can see and finally they may have methods that only themself can see and are private.

Each layer may have its own level of code debt. If the outer layer is well defined and no one ever has to peel into the onion the code debt will never be recognized.

Code debt is not recognized until some activity causes its recognition.

If the code is never modified or extended then no one will ever know that the code was poorly written or poorly designed and will never have to pay the costs for the poor code. I have developed code that has been running for years and never revisited. I do not accept the myth that all code is actively changing. I do feel that all code is actively becoming obsolete or decaying, but the rate of decay varies and his tied to Product Debt and Customer Debt.

Another example that code debt does not exist until someone tries to modify the code is this, code may have a very accurate and understandable model of the domain, with classes and methods that are intuitive and make sense. If the activity is to add new methods and functionality to such a code base it doesn't matter if the code internal to each method is poorly written. If you don't enter that layer of the code you will never know it is poorly written. Each of the existing methods may be filled with duplicate code, multiple returns and go-to statements, use of global variables, poorly named local variables, and a myriad of other things, but the external view of the class may be very accurate and correct. If the class is added upon and the existing methods are not modified then no one will know of the code debt that lives inside the method layer. This is an example of "inner code debt" or "deep layer code debt".

One of the most expensive types of code debt I have seen is where all of the code is not extend-able, modifiable, or maintainable. I have seen this often. It is when the code has to be ported to a new language. The existing system may be the best code ever developed with regression tests galore. But it doesn't matter. The choice to develop the code in a language that did not meet the future needs of the product is costly.

Code debt is subjective. Often I have seen a developer take ownership of existing code and upon examination of the code find it unsavory. Such things as, "This should be an interface instead of an abstract base class". The new owner of the code starts to re-write the code to suit their idea of clean code.

Code debt is relative. Often I have seen a developer take ownership of existing code and upon examination of the code find it too complex for their skill level. An easy example of this is C++ code. I have seen programmers that couldn't read parameterized types (templates). It was so foreign to them they just couldn't read the code.

At the inner most layers of the code onion the code may be written very very well but the users of the objects have used them poorly and now you have a coupling mess. Tightly coupled code is a form of code debt. Often no one recognizes how tightly code is coupled until they try to remove a class from the code and replace it with a new one.

Is there a relationship to source lines of code (SLOC) and code debt? If you have zero lines of code one might argue that you have no code debt. I will argue that zero lines of code is adding to the Product Debt!

Code debt is not recognized until some activity exposes it by entering into its layer of existence. Any layer may be rotten but if that layer doesn't need change it will not matter. Poorly designed and architected code does not mean it has to be buggy code.

Suppose there is a function of a C++ class that has 200 lines of code in it. Suppose it has to be fixed because somewhere in it there is a bug. How much code debt is there? Can you give me a cost to pay this debt?

Let's take two specific scenarios.

First, the 200 lines of code was written by a novice programmer. The programmer assigned to fix the bug is an expert in C++ and all of the C++ libraries. The programmer recognizes that 80% of the functionality of this buggy routine is string manipulation and replaces that code with three calls into the C++ string routines. The programmer runs a test and the bug is fixed and everything is done. Time to fix, let's say it took him two hours. Not very expensive at all.

Second, the 200 lines of code was written by an expert programmer. The programmer assigned to fix the bug is a junior programmer relegated to maintenance because it is felt this is the best way for him to get to know the system. (Yes, I know about pair programming, but I am talking about code debt and how it is relative and subjective). The junior programmer doesn't understand that any operator can be overloaded in C++ and in this particular code the indirection operator has been overloaded. The junior programmer makes changes to the code hoping to fix the bug but the changes doesn't seem to make any difference. (Why? Because the bug is somewhere else, in the overloaded operators code.) The junior developer spends days working on this. At first he thinks he has found a compiler bug! The junior programmer adds a variable to the class for tracking some state he hopes is relative and inserts the saving of this state into the code and does some conditional logic with this new state variable. The bug is fixed! He checks it in. Two weeks of work. What was the cost of paying this code debt? The sad thing is that he did not fix the bug. By adding the variable to the class he changed it's size and thus hid the real bug where part of the memory of the class was being corrupted in the code for the overloaded operator. So, in reality, nothing was fixed and everything was a waste of time and money.

Because of these two examples and my previous statements I do not believe that a large number of SLOC means there is significant code debt.

Some may argue that the number of features has to do with code debt. I ask, "Features at what level?" The external layer of a system may be viewed as its feature set. Thus I refer you back to my statements above about layers. Also, I remind the reader that features that have to be ported to a new programming language have a high code debt regardless of the quality of the existing code.

A large system with millions of lines of code may be maintained inexpensively. One factor that keeps the expense down is that the original developers stay on with the system. They know why and how things were done. Thus code debt is affected by the members of the team. Suppose the team becomes insulted in some manner and all quit. Suddenly the code debt changed from low to extremely high!

Just some of my thoughts on code debt. I hope it causes you to think about code debt in new ways as well. As a final thought I think the best way to address code debt is with the right people. Programmers (which usually are people) are the ones to address the issues with the code and their skill can make a job quick and simple.

Drop me a line. I have no idea if anyone ever reads my blog posts!


Rick said...


I read your post, and the previous one. Good work-- I like the phrase 'Code Debt'. In time, maybe it can become an industry catch-phrase like 'Code Smell' or 'Anti-Pattern'. Please continue to blog your ideas, they have merit.


Anonymous said...

i like your code debt idea and the easy to understand examples you gave to explain your idea. thanks