10 Reasons Code Duplication Increases Cost

Eliminating duplication is rule #2 of Beck’s Simple Design.

Duplicates “Duplicates,” courtesy Pelle Sten. License.

Here’s a starter list of the costs that duplication creates:

  • increased effort to change all occurrences in the system. Think about 5 lines of logic duplicated 30 times throughout your codebase, and now they need to all be changed.
  • effort to find all occurrences that need to change. This is often compounded by small changes (e.g. renaming) made over time to the duplicated code.
  • risk of not finding all occurrences in the system. Imagine you need to change the 5 lines of logic; you locate 29 occurrences but miss the 30th. You’ve now shipped a defect.
  • risk of making an incorrect change in one of those places. 30x increases chances of screwing up by 30 times… or more. Tedium induces sleepiness.
  • increased effort to understand variances. Is that small change to one of the occurrences intentional or accidental?
  • increased effort to test each duplicate occurrence in its context. And more time to maintain all these additional tests.
  • increase in impact of a defect in the duplicated logic. “Not only is module A failing, but so are modules B through Z and AA through DD.”
  • increased effort to understand the codebase overall. More code, more time, less fun.
  • minimized potential to re-use code. Often the 5 duplicated lines are smack-dab in the middle of other methods, minimizing your potential for some form of algorithmic substitution.
  • self-perpetuation. A codebase and culture that doesn’t promote code sharing just makes it that much harder to do anything about it.

No doubt some of you can add additional costs associated with duplicate code in a system. Please do (in the comments).

The Compulsive Coder, Episode 6: this Duplication is Killing Me

A few months ago, I got caught up in a series of contentious debates about duplication in test code. I’m the sort who believes that most of our design heuristics–simple design in this case–fall victim to the reality of the pirate’s code: “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Which is OK by me; rules are made to be broken.

Image courtesy drivethrucafe; license

Unit tests are different beasts than production code. They serve a different purpose. For the most part, they can and should follow the same standards as production code. But since one of their primary purposes is to provide summary documentation, there are good reasons to adopt differing standards. (I solicited some important distinctions on Twitter a few months ago; this will be fodder for an upcoming post.)

With respect to Beck’s four rules of simple design, many have contended that expressiveness slightly outweighs elimination of duplication, irrespective of being production code or tests. With production code, I’m on the fence.

But for tests? The documentation aspect of tests is more relevant than their adherence to OO design concepts. Yes, duplication across tests can cause some future headaches, but the converse–tests that read poorly–is a more typical and bigger time-waster. Yes, get rid of duplication, absolutely, but not if it causes the readability of the tests to suffer.

My dissenting converser was adamant that eliminating duplication was king, citing Beck himself in Test Driven Development by Example (2002), on page one, no doubt: Step four in the rhythm of TDD says you run all the tests, and step five, “Refactor to remove duplication.” In that summary of steps, Beck suggests no other reasons to refactor! I can understand how a literalist-slash-originalist might be content with putting their foot down on this definition, never mind that “refactoring” has a broader definition anyway, never mind Beck’s simple design to the contrary, and never mind 14 years passage in which we’ve discussed, reflected, and refined our understanding of TDD.

Why a contentious debate? The dissenter was promoting a framework; they had created some hooks designed to simplify the creation tests for that framework. A laudable goal, except for the fact that I had no clue what the tests were actually proving. That just wads my undies.

Where am I going with all this? Oh yeah. So as I watched the dissenter scroll through some of their tests & prod code onscreen, I noted this repeated throughout:

public void doSomeStuff() {
   this.someField = someMethod();
   int x = this.someField + 42;
   // etc.

Apparently their standard is to always identify field usage by scoping it with this. (I bit my lip, because at that point I was weary of the protracted debate, and figured I could write about it later. Here I am.)

“Hey, over-using this might be a good idea, because we can more easily identify where fields are used, which is important information!”

OK, I’m offended that duplication-monists don’t view the use of this in this case (i.e. not to disambiguate) as unnecessary duplication. It is. Squash it. Instead, use the power of your sophisticated IDEA or Eclipse IDEA, and colorize fields appropriately. (I like orange.) They’ll stand out like sore thumbs.

Previous Compulsive Coder blog entry: Extract Method Flow
Next Compulsive Coder blog entry: Please AAA

A TDD Bag of Tricks

Over the many years I’ve been practicing TDD, I’ve sought to incorporate new learning about what appears to work best. If you were to look at my tests and code from 1999, you’d note dramatic differences in their structure. You might glean that my underlying philosophy had changed.

Yet my TDD practice in 2012 is still TDD. I write a test first, I get it to pass, I clean up the code. The core goal of sustaining low-cost maintenance over time remains, and I still attain this goal by crafting high quality code–TDD gives me that opportunity.

TDD is the same, but I believe that new techniques and concepts I’ve learned in the interim are helping me get better. My bag of TDD “tricks” acquired over a dozen years includes:

There is of course no hard data to back up the claims that any of these slightly-more-modern approaches to TDD are better. Don’t let that stop you–if you waited for studies and research to proceed, you’d never code much of anything. The beauty of TDD is that its rapid cycles afford many opportunities to see what works best for you and your team.

(But remember: You only really know how good your tests and code are when others must maintain them down the road.)

Should you push more in the direction of one assert per test? Is Given-When-Then superior to Arrange-Act-Assert? Those are entertaining things to debate, but you’re better off finding out for yourself what works best for your team. Also, be willing to accept that others might have an even better approach.

I recommend investigating all of the above ideas and more–keep your eyes open! Just don’t get hung up on any one or assume it’s the One True Way. The practice of TDD is a continual voyage of exploration, discovery, and adaptation.

TDD: A Minority Report

Tim, a modern urbane developer (i.e., he willingly practices TDD), talks about the reality of living in his team, circa 2008, where his organization was attempting to grow TDD.

The Minority Report LexusI am not gonna lie, this place is crazy with buzz words and terms.  They use words like Agile and Scrum as adjectives as opposed to ways of thinking and common sense still.  I hear, “Well, we are doing Agile, so we don’t have time for design.”  My jaw hits the floor… and then I start drinking heavily.

The team I am on currently, is a “center of excellence,” so to speak. We consult development teams within the organization (along with owning development projects, components, and standards). I feel pretty confident in my abilities to help teams out. I have no problem saying that I do not think of myself as an expert or perfect (yet). I have always been of the opinion that this should be a constant learning experience. I find it difficult to relay my thoughts, though, to the rest of the guys on my team. It is basically the three of them attacking me. It’s not totally me vs. the world, but it turns into a joke. I hear:

“…so basically you want me to double my development…”
“…there is no design in TDD…”
“…there is no empirical evidence that says TDD improves code…”
“…I have beens in shops before where the test cases were bogus…”

So…I think I know how you must feel sometimes 🙂 I never once say that it is a silver bullet. What I tell them is I didn’t realize how little I knew until I started using it as an approach. Primarily from a design and coding point of view. Don’t get me wrong, I have some smart-ass retorts, but I am just outnumbered 🙂 It’s a tad difficult for me to try and persuade them, because we all are strong developers (I think) on the same hierarchy, and everyone has their own opinions.

Fortunately or unfortunately, they will have to come on board though, because this is coming from the top down. The quality of code, and overall abilities of the development teams here is borderline atrocious for most projects. At least the ones we see on a regular basis. The good teams obviously don’t need our help. To put it bluntly, I have seen one too many 5000 line classes than I care to ever see again.

I think they (my teammates) have just had either bad personal experiences with TDD/Agile/etc., or bad education on it.

A commenter on last week’s post indicated that he viewed being the minority as an opportunity to show how much better things can go with TDD–fewer defects and getting code done sooner. That’s true, and it can feel gratifying, but you’re not likely to gain new converts by effectively showing them up–at least not immediately.

In a den of dogs with old tricks, some of the smart ones eventually come around, but in the short term they’re unlikely to admit that the new tricks might be better. Tim himself was sure his old way of coding (no TDD) was better until well after I’d left his scene.

In any case, from Tim we once again hear how bad experiences with TDD and agile can sour people. (Remember, this is four years ago.) What can we do to help? Here are a couple thoughts:

  1. Don’t do agile or TDD unless you’re willing to invest in its core notion of continual, honest retrospection and adaptation. You will not succeed with it over time otherwise.
  2. Relay more stories. Is your company succeeding with TDD, or do you know of one that is? Please tell your success story, or help your buddy write a blog post telling theirs. (And hope they’re not at a place where they view TDD as a competitive advantage to be kept hush-hush.)

Related posts:


Framing Your Design

A while back, I worked with a team in a cube bullpen to help mentor them primarily in test-driven development (TDD). Their goal was to deliver a decent-sized web product–not huge, not trivial.

The first time I paired with the programmer nearest the bullpen opening, I noticed a large framed document on a nearby cube wall, outside the bullpen, and asked what it was. All I could tell from that distance was that it was a highly detailed diagram of some sort.

I asked my pair about the document.
“It’s our class model.”
“How do you use it?”
“We don’t. It’s out of date.”
Of course it was. We went back to building code.

When we took a break, I walked to the diagram. Sure enough, it was a UML class model–with gobs of detail. Public methods, attributes, private methods, annotations on the associations, attribute types, return types, and so on, all specified in what looked like a couple hundred classes. Arrows all over the place. As I previously mentioned, the document was framed (albeit cheaply), which meant that the model itself was enshrined in a protective layer of glass (plastic?).

The framed model sure looked pretty! And it no doubt looked quite impressive to any non-technical observer (such as a vice president): “They built all that!”

Of course, the team that actually produced the detailed model no longer found it useful. During the remainder of my engagement, I never once saw a developer look at the diagram. And most amusing, when I took my one visit to inspect the model, a closer look revealed that the programmers had briefly attempted to keep the model up to date. On the surface of the glass, there were various scribbles and attempted modifications, all written directly on the glass.

Your software is special, but your design models are not, and they change rapidly. Don’t enshrine your design.


Trailing the Way in 2009

I started reading a very recently published book. I don’t want to mention the name of the book, but it is a tome targeted at “application developers.” After reading a small number of paragraphs from the book, I had to check my calendar to see whether this was 2009 or 1995.

Some choice sentences from the book that just grabbed me right off the bat:

  • “Software applications should simulate (model) the real world with close affinity to the problem domain.”
  • “…the average developer should spend 40 to 50 percent of his or her time in design and not writing code.”
  • “Similar to comments and just as important [emphasis added], the design documents a program.”
  • “An artist does not start with a paintbrush and a canvas. There is considerable preparation before painting can begin. … Similarly, developers do not simply start writing code. The requirements analysis must be undertaken, a design drafted, the prototyping [emphasis added] of class operations, and only then, finally, the implementation.”
  • “The goal of TDD is simply to be a framework for addressing customer requirements with software through an iterative approach to testing and coding.”

[ All told, the author uses around 10 paragraphs in the book to describe TDD, not providing a single example. ]

For me, one of the most illuminating benefits of all this up-front emphasis on design seemed to be realized in the brilliant class diagram for a simple retail banking system. It looks something like:

  Employee <|---- Teller  <------  Customer
              |-- Manager

The power of the “real world” comes alive! This ingenious class diagram existed to support building the following code:

static void Main(string[] args)
    Customer cust = new Customer();
    cust.Teller = new Teller();

Per the author, this code “validates” the design.

I’m speechless. (Well, no, I’m fingerless, or something. There must be a better word for being so flabbergasted that you can’t start to type a response.) I could rail on this book to no end, but it would only draw attention to the book (and you’ll note that I’m not providing a link to it either).

Test Abstraction

I’m staring at a single CppUnit test function spanning hundreds of source lines. The test developer inserted visual indicators to help me pick out the eight test cases it covers:


Each of these cases is brief: four to eight lines of data setup, followed by a execution statement enclosed in a CPPUNIT_ASSERT. Of course they could be broken up into eight separate test functions, but otherwise they are reasonable.

Prior to the eight tests there are two hundred lines of setup code. Most of the initialization sets data to reasonable default values so that the application code won’t crash and burn while being exercised.

I don’t know enough about the test to judge it in terms of its appropriateness as a “unit” test. It seems more integration test than anything. But perhaps all I would need to do is cleverly divorce the target function from all of those data setup dependencies, and break it up into eight separate test functions.

The aggregation of tests is typical, and no doubt comes from a compulsion to not waste all those 200 lines of work! The bigger problem I have is the function’s lack of abstraction. Uncle Bob always says, “abstraction is elimination of the irrelevant and amplification of the essential.” When it comes down to understanding tests, it is usually a matter of how good a job the developer was at abstracting intent. Two hundreds of lines of detailed setup does not exhibit abstraction!

For a given unit test, I always want to know why a given assertion should hold true, based on the setup context. The lengthy object construction and initialization should be encapsulated in another method, perhaps createDefaultMarket(). Relevant pieces of data can be layered atop the Market object: applyGroupDiscountRate(0.10), applyRestrictionCode(), etc. Not only does it help explain the data differences and correlate the setup with the result, it makes it easier to read the test, and easier to write new tests (reuse!).

I often get blank stares when I ask developers to make their tests more readable. Would they respond better to requests to improve their use of abstraction?

Patterns and Alexander

The architect Christopher Alexander wrote a handful of books in the late 1970s on architecture. These books, among them The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, have a very spiritual and poetic quality to them. Alexander strived for a classic sense of building, something that he described as the “quality without a name.” Alexander could be construed as an architectural philosopher.

More relevant today is the influence these books have had on modern software development. One of the notions Alexander had was that he could express an architectural ideal in terms of a somewhat structured form he called a pattern. A pattern is simply a recommended approach to a solution, given a certain context. For example, one of Alexander’s pattern is known as “six foot balcony.” The pattern expresses the conflict: no one uses balconies or porches that are less than six feet in depth. Alexander then provides the resolution: make the balcony more than six feet, and recess it into the building if you have to. Pretty simple stuff.

Kent Beck and Ward Cunningham in the late 1980s expressed a series of Smalltalk GUI idioms in a similar pattern fashion. The 1995 book Design Patterns formalized this concept further. It contained 23 software design patterns that the four authors (Gamma, Helm, Vlissides, and Johnson, aka the Gang of Four) had recognized from commonly occurring software design solutions. Now the software community had common names for these solutions as well as a de facto standard pattern form.

Since then, patterns have been all the rage. Publishers have released gobs of books on patterns. Conferences and web sites are devoted to patterns. It’s rare to go on an interview anymore and not be asked about patterns.

The best thing patterns do is provide everyone with a common means to communicate problems and solutions. The fact that interviewing almost universally includes pattern discussions is a testament to the success of the patterns movement.

Like all movements, the patterns movement went a bit overboard. Novice developers demonstrated that it’s easy to learn one hammer-like pattern and then wedge it into every possible space in software. Worse, people seemed to get the idea that by having patterns in your system, you automatically had a good design. Sure, most patterns espouse good design, but stuffing a few patterns into code doesn’t impart good design to the rest of the system. You have to understand what good design is all about to end up with it.

Ultimately, it is a good thing to learn about software design patterns. Agile development teaches you to let the pattern emerge, not force it where it might not fit. While there is still a bit of art to software development, it is more a craft. Patterns provide a craft-oriented, structured tool that can provide a growing foundation for the art.

Odder, some software developers began to worship Christopher Alexander. Patterns became gospel, and Alexander become God-like. Discussions about Alexander include glowing terms, and I suspect some software developers read his material more than they read software books.

Recently, I talked with an architect for the first time since I’d heard of Alexander. I mentioned the name. “Never heard of him!” I was dismayed. I surmised one of two things: either Alexander has more sway in the software industry than the architecture industry, or architects today are like any other profession where most of the people in it know nothing beyond their cubicle. I posed this thought on an XP coaches list. The respondents, some of who included well-known names in the software design industry, had all had similar experiences. Either the architect had never heard of Alexander, or scoffed at the mention of the name.

Digging a little, I affirmed that Alexander has indeed fallen out of favor (which he may have never had) in the architectural world. His ideas appeared either threatening or ridiculous to other architects. Threatening, because one of the things Alexander suggested was that people, not architects, are capable of designing their own structures. This idea carries into the software industry with XP, which suggests that programmers are capable of architecting and designing systems on their own. XP believes that a separate non-programming software architect is not necessary. Naturally this threatens non-programming software architects.

In any case, I find it quite amusing that many software developers worship a guy who is scorned by many of his peers. But I still believe that software patterns have added a lot to the knowledge base of software development. You owe it to yourself and your career to understand what software design patterns are all about, if you don’t already. Just don’t turn it into a religion.

Small Methods: Nine Benefits of Making Your Methods Shorter

I’ve espoused, on many occasions, making your methods short. The pattern Composed Method, defined by Kent Beck in Smalltalk Best Practice Patterns, says that methods should do things only at one level of abstraction. Methods should be short; a good size for Smalltalk methods is one to a half-dozen lines. That translates to about one to twelve lines (not counting braces!) for Java methods.

I recently engaged in a discussion at JavaRanch where someone thought “20 to 25 lines” was too short. After being taken aback, my response was that there are many reasons that your average method size should be considerably smaller. Here are nine benefits to short methods:

  1. Maintenance costs. The longer a method, the more it will take you to figure out what it does, and where your modifications need to go. With shorter methods, you can quickly pinpoint where a change needs to go (particularly if you are coding using test-driven development).
  2. Code readability. After the initial learning curve, smaller methods make it far easier to understand what a class does. They can also make it easier to follow code by eliminating the need for scrolling.
  3. Reuse potential. If you break down methods into smaller components, you can start to recognize common abstractions in your code. You can minimize the overall amount of code dramatically by reusing these common methods.
  4. Subclassing potential. The longer a method is, the more difficult it will be to create effective subclasses that use the method.
  5. Naming. It’s easier to come up with appropriate names for smaller methods that do one thing.
  6. Performance profiling. If you have performance issues, a system with composed methods makes it easier to spot the performance bottlenecks.
  7. Flexibility. Smaller methods make it easier to refactor (and to recognize design flaws, such as feature envy).
  8. Coding quality. It’s easier to spot dumb mistakes if you break larger methods into smaller ones.
  9. Comment minimization. While comments can be valuable, most are unnecessary and can be eliminated by prudent renaming and restructuring. Comments that restate what the code says are unnecessary.

You should get the idea that most of the benefits are about improving the design of your system. Breaking methods up into smaller ones obviously leads to lots of smaller methods. You will find that not all of those methods should remain in the same class in which the original method was coded. The small methods will almost always point out to you that you are violating the basic rule of class design: the Single Responsibility Principle (SRP).

The SRP states that a class should have only one reason to change. Put another way, a class should do one thing and one thing only. A class to present a user interface (UI) should do just that. It shouldn’t act as a controller; it shouldn’t retrieve data; it shouldn’t open files; it shouldn’t contain calculations or business logic. A UI class should interact with other small classes that do each of those things separately.

Break a class into small methods, and you will usually find all sorts of violations of the SRP.

Initially, you may find it more difficult to work with code with lots of methods. There is certainly a learning curve associated with doing so. You will find that the smart navigational features of your IDE (for example, Eclipse) can go a long way toward helping you understand how all the little methods fit together. In short time, you will find that well-composed code imparts much greater clarity to your system.

One oft-repeated resistance to short methods is that it can degrade performance in your system. Indeed, method calls are usually fairly expensive operations. However, you rarely create performance problems with more methods. Poor performance can usually be attributed to other factors, such as IO operations, network latency, poor choice of algorithm, and other inefficient uses of resources.

Even if additional method calls do noticeably impact performance (performance is not an issue until someone recognizes it as one), it’s very easy to inline methods. The rule of performance is always: make it run, make it right (e.g. small methods), make it fast (optimize).

While it’s difficult to do, you can go too far and create too many methods. Make sure each method has a valid reason for existing; otherwise inline it. A method is useless if the name of the method and the body of the method say exactly the same thing.

There are exceptions to every rule. There will always be the need for the rare method larger than 20 lines. One way to look at things, however, is to look at smaller methods as a goal to strive for, not a hard number. Instead of debating whether 25 lines, 12 lines or 200 lines is acceptable, see what you can do to reduce method length in code that you would’ve otherwise not touched. You’ll be surprised at how much code you can eliminate.

Few people promote pushing in the other direction. Increasing the average method size represents sheer carelessness or laziness. Take the time and care to craft your code into a better design. Small methods!

What Can Go Wrong With XP

Extreme programming (XP), on the surface, is a hot, trendy way of developing software. Its name appeals to the reckless and annoys the cautious (“anything extreme can’t be good!”). A recent article in Wired magazine attests to its popularity amongst the cool set, who believe that XP is a silver bullet. The article also talks about some of XP’s severest detractors, who view XP as dangerous hype. The truth lies somewhere between. XP alone will not save your project. Applied properly, XP will allow your team to become very successful at deploying quality software. Applied poorly, XP will allow your team to use a process as an excuse for delivering–or not delivering–low quality software.

Applying XP

XP is a highly disciplined process that requires constant care. It consists of a dozen or so core disciplines that must all be followed in order for XP to work. The practices bolster one another, and each exists for not one but for many reasons. For example, test-driven development and constant code refactoring are critical to ensuring that the system retains a high quality. High code quality is required in order to be able to sustain iterative, incremental development. And without constant peer review, many developers would quickly lapse from doing these critical practices. XP provides this review through the discipline of pair programming.

Yet many shops shun pairing, viewing it unnecessary for developers to pair all the time. Not pairing is not necessarily a bad thing, but in lieu of pairing, some other form of peer review must take place. (Fagan inspections are an OK second choice.) Without the peer review, code quality quickly degrades, and you now may have a huge liability that no one is aware of. The lesson is that if you choose not to do an XP practice, you must understand what you have just taken out. You must then find another way to provide what the practice brought to the table.

Good software development will always require these things:

  • planning
  • requirements gathering and analysis
  • design/coding
  • testing
  • deployment
  • documentation
  • review
  • adherence to standards

Contrary to popular misconception, XP says that you should be doing all of these things, all of the time.

Common Traps

The most common mistakes I’ve seen in the application of XP include: not creating a dedicated customer team, not doing fixed iterations, misunderstanding test-driven development, not refactoring continuously, not doing design, and not pairing properly.

Not Creating a Dedicated Customer Team

If you read earlier literature on XP, you will be told that there is one customer for an XP team. The practice was called “On-site Customer.” Since then, Beck and others have clarified this practice and renamed it “Whole Team.” The whole team aspect is that we (developers and non-developers) are all in this together.

The customer side of the fence has been expanded to include all people responsible for understanding what needs to be built by the developers. In most organizations this includes the following roles.

Customer / Customer Proxy In most cases, the true customer (the person buying and using the system) is not available. Product companies have a marketing representative that understands what the market is looking for. The customer or proxy is the person that understands what the functionality needs to be in the system being built.
Subject Matter Experts Used on an as-needed basis.
Human Factors Experts Developers are good at building GUIs or web applications that look like they were built by… developers. The user experience of a system should be designed and presented to the development team as details to stories presented at iteration planning.
Testers Most customers have neither the background nor the time to define acceptance tests (ATs), which is the responsibility of the customer team. Testers work closely with the customer to build specific test cases that will be presented to the development team.
Project Managers While a well-functioning XP team has little need for hands-on project management, project managers in a larger organization play a key role in coordinating efforts between multiple projects. They can also be responsible for reporting project status to management.
Business/Systems Analysts Customers, given free reign, will throw story after story to the development team that represents addition of new functionality. The development team will respond well and rapidly produce a large amount of functionality. Unfortunately, other facets of requirements will often be missed: usability, reliability, performance, and supportability (the URPS in FURPS).

In an XP project, it is debatable as to whether these types of requirements should be explicitly presented as stories, or should be accommodated by functionality stories. I’ve seen the disastrous results of not ensuring that these requirements were met, so I recommend not trusting that your development team will meet them.

The business or systems analyst in an XP team becomes the person who understands what it takes to build a complete, robust system. The analyst works closely with the customer and/or testers to define acceptance tests, and knows to introduce tests representing the URPS requirements.

Note that these are roles, not necessarily full-time positions. Members of the development team will often be able to provide these skills. Just remember that the related work comes at a cost that must be factored into iteration planning.

Not Doing Fixed Iterations

Part of the value of short-cycle iterative development is the ability to gather feedback on many things, including rate of development, success of development, happiness of the customer, and effectiveness of the process. Without fixed-length iterations (i.e. in an environment where iterations are over when the current batch of stories is completed), there is no basis for consistent measurement of the data produced in a given iteration. This means there is also no basis for comparison of work done between any two iterations.

Most importantly, not having fixed iterations means that estimates will move closer to the meaningless side of the fence. Estimating anything with any real accuracy is extremely difficult. The best way to improve estimates is to make them more frequently, basing them on past work patterns and experiences, and to make them at a smaller, more fixed-size granularity.

Putting short deadlines on developers is painful at first. Without fixed deadlines, though, customers and management are always being told, “we just need another day.” Another day usually turns into another few days, another few weeks. Courage is needed by all parties involved. Yes, it is painful to not finish work by a deadline. But after a few iterations of education, developers learn the right amount of work to target for the next two weeks. I’ll take a few failures in the small over a failed project any day.

Misunderstanding Test-Driven Development

Small steps.
Small steps.
Small steps.

I can’t repeat this enough. Most developers that learn TDD from a book take far larger steps than intended. TDD is about tiny steps. A full cycle of test-code-refactor takes on average a few minutes. If you don’t see a green bar from passing tests within ten minutes, you’re taking too large steps.

When you are stuck on a problem with your code, stand up and take a short break. Then sit down, toss the most recent test and associated code, and start over again with even smaller steps. If you are doing TDD properly, this means you’ve spent up to ten minutes struggling; I guarantee that you’ll save gobs more struggling time by making a fresh attempt.

Tests are specs. If you do test-driven development correctly, there is no code in the system that can’t be traced back to a spec (test). That means that you don’t write any code without a test. Never mind “test everything that can possibly break.” Test everything. It’s much harder to get into trouble.

As an example of a naive misunderstanding of TDD, I’ve seen tests that look like this:

public void testFunction() {
   SomeClass thing = new SomeClass();
   boolean result = thing.doSomething();

In the production class, the method doSomething is long, does lots of things, and ends by returning a boolean result.

class SomeClass {
   boolean doSomething() {
      boolean result = true;
      // lots and lots of functionality
      // in lots and lots of lines of code
      // ...
      return result;

Of course, the test passes just fine. Never mind that it tests none of the functionality in the doSomething method. The most accurate thing you could do with this code is reduce the doSomething method to a single statement:

boolean doSomething() {
   return true;

That’s all the test says it does. Ship it! 😉

Test everything until you can’t stand it. Test getters and setters, constructors, and exceptions. Everything in the code should have a reason for being, and that reason should be documented in the tests.

Not Refactoring Continuously

Understanding how to approach refactoring and do it properly is probably the most misunderstood aspect of XP. Not refactoring well is also the quickest way to destroy a codebase, XP or not.

Refactoring is best viewed as the practice of being constantly vigilant about your code. It fits best as part of the test-driven development cycle: write a test (spec), write the code, make the code right. Don’t let another minute go by without ensuring you haven’t introduced junk into the system. Done in this fashion, refactoring just becomes an engrained part of your every-minute every-day way of building software.

As soon as you aren’t on top of it, however, code turns to mush, even with a great design.

XP purists will insist that constant, extreme refactoring allows your design to emerge constantly, meaning that the cost of change remains low. This is absolutely true, as long as your system always retains the optimal design for the functionality implemented to date. Getting there and staying there is a daunting task, and it requires everyone to be refactoring zealots.

Many shops experimenting with XP, however, understand neither what it means to be a refactoring Nazi nor what optimal design is. Kent Beck’s concept of simple design can be used as a set of rules. The rules are straightforward; adhering to them takes lots of peer pressure.

Not Doing Design

I’ve heard far too many people saying that “you don’t do design in XP.” Hogwash (and I’m being nice).

As with everything else in XP, the “extreme” means that you do design all the time. You are designing at all sorts of levels. Until you get very good at following all the XP disciplines, the iteration planning meeting should be your primary avenue for design.

Iteration planning consists of task breakdowns. The best way to do task breakdowns is to start by sketching out a design. UML models should come into play here. Class diagrams, sequence diagrams, state models, and whatever other models are needed should be drawn out and debated. The level of detail on these models should be low–the goal is to solve the problem of general direction, not specify all the minute details.

For a typical two-week iteration, a planning session should last no longer than half a day (how much new stuff that needs to be designed can possibly fit into two weeks?). But if you’re just getting started, and the design skills on the team are lacking, there is no reason you can’t spend more time in the iteration planning meeting. The goal should be that you spend less time next iteration.

Design should also be viewed as a minute-to-minute part of development. With each task tackled, a pair should sketch out and agree on general direction. With each new unit test, the pair should review the code produced and determine if the design can be improved. This is the refactoring step. Ideally you’re not seeing large refactorings that significantly alter the design at this point, but things like commonality being factored out into a Template Method design pattern will happen frequently.

At any given time, all members of the development team should have a clear picture of the design of the system. Given today’s tools, there is no reason that a detailed design snapshot can’t be produced at a moment’s notice. In fact, I highly recommend taking a snapshot of the existing system into the iteration planning meeting to be used as a basis for design discussions.

In XP, design is still up-front; it’s just that the increments are much smaller, and less of it is written down. In a classic, more waterfall-oriented process, more design is finalized and written down up front. The downside in XP is that there is some rework based on changing requirements. The downside in the classic process is that there is no such thing as a perfect design, and following an idealistic model results in overdesigned and inflexible systems. There are always new requirements, and a process that teaches how to be prepared to accommodate them is better than one that does not.

Not Pairing Properly

Part of pairing is to ensure knowledge sharing across the team, not just amongst two people. Ensure that your pairs switch frequently–at least once per day if not more often. Otherwise you will get pockets of ability and knowledge. Corners of your system will turn into junk, and you will have dependencies on a small number of knowledgeable people.

Developers will resist switching pairs frequently. It is a context switch, and context switches are expensive. If you are in the middle of a task, and the person you were working with leaves only to be replaced by someone else, you must take the time to get that person up to speed. Frequent pair switching forces you to get good at context switching, which forces you to improve your code maintainability. If your code is poorly written and difficult to understand, the newly arrived pair will waste far more time getting up to speed. Ideally, the new pair should balk and insist upon more code clarity before proceeding.

The ability to quickly understand code and associated unit tests is what makes software maintenance costs cheap and consistent. Maintainable code is what allows you to be able to sustain the quality of your system over time.