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Programmer Values

A question and answer exchange over at programmers.stackexchange.com reveals something interesting about how software is valued. The question asked whether there is any real-world data regarding costs and benefits of test-driven development.[*] One of the answers contained, at time of writing, the anthropologist’s money shot:

The first thing that needs to be stated is that TDD does not necessarily increase the quality of the software (from the user’s point of view). […] TDD is done primarily because it results in better code. More specifically, TDD results in code that is easier to change. [Emphasis original]

Programmers are contracted, via whatever means, by people who see quality in one way: presumably that quality is embodied in software that they can use to do some thing that they wanted to do. Maybe it’s safer to say that the person who provided this answer believes that their customers value quality in software in that way, rather than make an assumption on everybody’s behalf.

This answer demonstrates that (the author believed, and thought it uncontentious enough to post without defence in a popularity-driven forum) programmers value attributes of the code that are orthogonal to the values of the people who pay them. One could imagine programmers making changes to some software that either have no effect or even a negative effect as far as their customers are concerned, because the changes have a positive effect in the minds of the programmers. This issue is also mentioned in one of the other answers to the question:

The problem with developers is they tend to implement even things that are not required to make the software as generic as possible.

The obvious conclusion is that the quality of software is normative. There is no objectively good or bad software, and you cannot discuss quality independent of the value system that you bring to the evaluation.

The less-obvious conclusion is that some form of reconciliation is still necessary: that management has not become redundant despite the discussions of self-organised teams in the Agile development community. Someone needs to mediate between the desire of the people who need the software to get something that satisfies their norms regarding quality software, and the desire of the people who make the software to produce something that satisfies their norms instead. Whether this is by aligning the two value systems, by ignoring one of them or by ensuring that the project enables attributes from both value systems to be satisfied is left as an exercise for the reader.

[*] There is at least one relevant study. No, you might not think it relevant to your work: that’s fine.