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Irresponsible tolerance

Context

@unclebobmartin said:

One of the bad behaviors that destroys projects is “irresponsible tolerance”. Tolerating what you know you should fix.

This triggered a discussion between @phil_nash and myself. As far as this got on the Twitters, we agreed that it’s not necessarily irresponsible to ignore a problem for now as long as what you’re actually doing is deferring the fix until you’ve got time…except that it’s easy for deferral to slip into tacit acceptance as other work comes up. We may even be able to delude ourselves into thinking we still intend to fix that issue “some day”, even though the reality is that will never happen.

My >140char response

Yes, that is easy to do. I’ve done it myself. I’ve even – though not in a number of years – used tolerance of a badly-written component as an excuse to avoid not just cleaning it up, but of doing other useful work on the same component. “Touching that spaghetti code would be too risky, and rewriting it would take too long, so let’s just leave it as it is.”

Since reading the GTD book, I’ve tried a new approach which has, for the most part, been more successful. It’s not exactly a GTD technique, but borrows the spirit. In GTD there’s a two-minute rule: if you think of something you need to do that would take less than two minutes, just do it. If it would take longer, add it to your backlog.

The analogous approach for refusing to tolerate software problems is this: if you see something you think needs fixing, and you have time to fix it now, fix it now. If you do not have time to fix it, write a bug report.

What goes into the bug report?

All of the things a good software architect should be logging as part of their work anyway: a description of the problem, discussion of potential solutions, choice of solution and justification of that solution. So if there’s some ugly class that needs rewriting, explain why it’s ugly. Describe what would be better, and why.

What do I get from this?

In the first instance, the act of describing what it is that you dislike about the current code often makes it easier to see that the fix actually wouldn’t take too long. So that really disgusting class is full of long methods: what’s three minutes with the “extract method” tool between friends?

Oftentimes the solution will still be too big to work on right now. So hit the “report” button, and get the bug report into the tracker (or the backlog, or icebox, or whatever this week’s cool term is. I can no longer keep up; I’m in my thirties now). You know how they say a problem shared is a problem halved? It’s crap. A problem shared is a problem everyone is burdened with, so there are more people to go “oh crap, yeah, I hate that too”. Maybe one (or more) of you has the time to spend a day or two sorting the issue out, or is willing to make time. Maybe someone else knows enough about that code to propose a better alternative.

Even if not, the whole team can no longer ignore the issue: every time someone looks at the outstanding issues, there’s your problem, reminding everyone not to tolerate it. It’s harder to say “oh yeah, I thought about fixing that once but I didn’t have the time” if every time you read the bug list you are forced to think about it again. One of these days you, or someone else, will have time to fix it, and so will have to either do that or think of a convincing excuse to shelve it again. Then explain at the next bug review time why the issue is still there. If you wrote a good justification for why the proposed solution would be better, it looks like you’re actively trying to avoid making a better product.

Depending on how you track bugs, you may have an additional benefit: the ability to link your complaint to other issues. So maybe (and this is a real-world example from my experience), the problem is that a class for reading files has a hard-coded list of search paths. Then a request comes in saying that an extra filesystem has been provided by IT, and they want to put some of the files into a location on this new filesystem. Link them. Someone will be assigned the user request that’s been prioritised as a business issue, and when they do they’ll see your report that a good way to fix the problem would also clean up the product, so they can do both at the same time. If the issue is linked to enough problems in the product, it becomes clear that addressing the underlying issue will benefit the customers and the work will be scheduled. Then you really have no excuse for not finding the time to fix it: it’s your job.

So this is a silver bullet, is it?

No. It’s worked well for me, but it’s not foolproof. Some projects I’ve worked on have suffered from a form of bug tracker malaise, where the backlog is so great that it’s easy to ignore the vast number of open issues—some of which are no longer relevant— meaning that adding another straw to the haystack isn’t going to help anyone. That’s an extreme position for a project to get into, it’s basically a slippery-slope version of Uncle Bob’s “irresponsible tolerance” where even problems being reported by customers can be tolerated. In those cases, a special injection of enthusiasm into the development team is required: the whole product is already on a death march.

For most projects, though, reporting an issue is a good way to avoid ignoring that issue.