Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Not using UML on Projects is Fatal

The Unified Modeling Language (UML) was adopted as a standard by the OMG in 1997, almost 20 years ago.  But despite its longevity, I'm continually surprised at few organizations actually use it.

Code is the ultimate model for software, but it is like the trees of a forest.  You can see a couple, but only few people can see the entire forest by just looking at the code.  For the rest of us, diagrams are the way to see the forest, and UML is the standard for diagrams.

They say, "A picture is worth a thousand words", and this is true for code; even on a large monitor you can only see so many lines of code.  Every other engineering discipline has diagrams for complex systems, e.g. design diagrams for airplanes, blueprints for buildings.  In fact, the diagrams need to be created and approved  BEFORE the airplane or building is created.

Contrast that with software where UML diagrams are rarely produced, or if they are produced, they are produced as an after thought.  The irony is that the people pushing to build the architecture quickly say that there is no time to make diagrams, but they are the first people to complain when the architecture sucks.  UML is key to planning (see Not planning is for losers)

I think this happens because developers, like all people, are focused on what they can see and touch right now.  It is easier to try to code a GUI interaction or tackle database update problems than it is to work at an abstract level through the interactions that are taking place from GUI to database

Yet this is where all the architecture is.  Good architecture makes all the difference in medium and large systems.  Architecture is the glue that holds the software components in place and defines communication through the structure.  If you don't plan the layers and modules of the system then you will continually be making compromises later on.

In particular, medium to large projects (>10,000 function points) are at a very high risk of failure if you don't consider the architectural issues.  Considering only 3 out of 10 software projects are successful only a fool would skip planning the architecture (see Failed? You get what you deserve!)

Good diagrams, in particular UML, allow you to abstract away all the low level details of an implementation and let you focus on planning the architecture.  This higher level planning leads to better architecture and therefore better extensibility and maintainability of software.

If you are a good coder then you will make a quantum leap in your ability to tackle large problems by being able to work through abstractions at a higher level.  How often do we find ourselves unable to implement simple features simply because the architecture doesn't support it?

Well the architecture doesn't support it because we spend very little time developing the blueprint for the architecture of the system.

UML diagrams need to be produced at two levels:
  • the analysis or 'what' level
  • the design or 'how' level
Analysis UML diagrams (class, sequence, collaboration) should be produced early in the project and support all the requirements.  Ideally you use a requirements methodology that allows you to trace easily from the requirements onto the diagrams.

Analysis diagrams do not have implementation classes on them, i.e. no vendor specific classes.  The goal is to identify how the high level concepts (user, warehouse, product, etc) relate to each other.

These analysis level UML diagrams will help you to identify gaps in the requirements before moving to design.  This way you can send your BAs and product managers back to collect missing requirements when you identify missing elements before you get too far down the road.

Once the analysis diagrams validate that the requirements are relatively complete and consistent, then you can create design diagrams with the implementation classes.  In general the analysis diagrams are one to many to the design diagrams.

Since you have validated the architecture at the analysis level, you can now do the design level without worrying about compromising the architectural integrity.  Once the design level is complete you can code without compromising the design level.

When well done the analysis UML, design UML, and code are all in sync.  Good software is properly planned and executed from the top down.  It is mentally tougher to create software this way, but the alternative is continuous patches and never ending bug-fix cycles.

So remember the following example from Covey's The 7 Principles of Highly Effective People:
You enter a clearing where a man is furiously sawing at a large log, but he is not making any progress.  You notice that the saw is dull and is unable to cut the wood, so you say, "Hey, if you sharpen the saw then you will saw the log faster".  To which the man replies, "I don't have time, I'm too busy sawing the log".

Don't be the guy sawing 
with a dull saw

UML is the tool to sharpen the saw, it does take time to learn and apply, but you will save yourself much more time and be much more successful.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Pair Programming for Team Building

Extreme programming (XP) introduced most people to pair programming.

The theory was that the sooner that code was reviewed, the more effective the review -- so how much more effective can you be if you do that review right away?

Pair programming increases productivity by 3% and quality by 5%

The reason it isn't a better practice is that two people are being used to produce a single result and so it is not very efficient.  For more information about the marginal productivity see Capers Jones1.

However, as a team building tool, pair programming can be extremely effective used in specific situations where high productivity is maintained:
  • Training new team members in coding conventions
  • Sharing individual productivity techniques
  • Working through complex sections of code

New Team Members

The first issue is self explanatory, pair programming allows you to explain your coding conventions while working on actual projects.

It also gives you a fairly good glimpse into how that team member will work with the group.

The key here is that the new member should pair program with different people every day until they have worked with the entire team.  This will speed up the integration of new members and get everyone familiar with each other.

Sharing Productivity Practices

One of the key benefits of pair programming is that it is an ideal time to share productivity practices.

Surprisingly, it is not just the less experienced programmers that learn from the more experienced ones.  Often, more experienced programmers have picked up habits that they are not even aware of.

Working with newer programmers can expose you to information on IDEs and new productivity tools that you are not aware of.

As much as we do keep up, there is continually new stuff coming out and the newer programmers are aware of it.

In addition, there are sub-optimal habits that we all pick up and no longer notice because we do them all the time.

Working Through Complex Code

Once you have planned a complex section of code, it can be very helpful to build that section of code as a pair. For information on planning complex code see:
Planning is 1/2 the work, making sure that you implement that plan can often require two people to make sure that all loose ends (exceptions, boundary cases, etc) are taken care of.

In particular, these are the sections of code that you want two pairs of eyes on as you are much more likely to recognized a missed alternative or work through weird conditions.


Used appropriately, pair programming can be a great tool for integrating new members into a team, sharing productivity techniques, and reduce defects and improve quality of difficult sections of code.


  1. Jones, Capers and Bonsignour, Olivier.  The Economics of Software Quality.  Addison Wesley.  2011

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Team Conflict is for Losers

It is a guarantee that you don't like someone on your development team and they have behaviors or habits that you might find objectionable:
But as irritating as you find your co-workers, odds are:

You do something that they find annoying...

Annoyances and poor communication can lead to conflicts that range from avoidance to all out war where people get drawn into taking sides.  But consider the cost of team conflict :

Issue Productivity Software Quality
Internal team conflict -10% -15%
Management conflict -14% -19%

The table above is only showing the average result of conflict, some of us have been in situations that get much, much worse.

Software development is not a popularity contest, you don't have to like everyone that you work with.  However, if you allow your feelings of annoyance escalate into conflict then there is a real cost to your project and ultimately in your stress levels.

All conflicts start with disagreements.  The Communications Catalyst2 talks about the following cycle:
  • Disagree
  • Defend
  • Destroy
When you disagree with your coworkers then they don't feel listened to.  They will then defend their position by digging in their heels, then you will dig in your heels and the road to destruction starts. If there are any annoying habits present then the conflict will escalate quickly.

If things get out of hand then people start taking sides and productivity takes a major hit. In the worst conflicts this leads to loss of key personnel, which has been measured to be:

Loss of key personnel, productivity -16%, quality -22%

Losing key personnel who have comprehensive knowledge of business rules and organizational practices tied up in their heads often causes projects to face fault and come to a stand still. You may feel justified in starting a conflict or escalating one, however, as clever as you think you are, conflict hurts everyone -- yourself included.  Just remember:

It is virtually impossible to start/escalate a conflict that doesn't boomerang back and bite you in the @ss!

4 Ways to Avoid or Reduce Conflicts

Things to consider to avoid conflict:
  • Don't disagree first, signal that the other person has been heard
    • You will rarely agree with everything that someone else says, but start by agreeing with the part that you do agree with.1 This will at least signal that you have heard them and reduce their anxiety that you are not listening to them.
    • Even mechanically echoing everything that they just said is a way to signal that you heard what was said.
    • Once this is done, then talk about what you don't agree with.
  • Don't interrupt people.
    • When you are excited and thoughts are springing to mind then you may be tempted to do all the talking and stop listening; get this under control, take a breath, and let others talk.
    • People generally consider it rude when you interrupt and will assume arrogance on your part.  If you are not trying to be arrogant and someone tells you this then wake up -- you need to listen.
  • Don't be frustrated when people don't understand you
    • If you really know something that others don't then simply restating your point of view will not improve their understanding.
    • If your friend is lost in a new shopping mall then describing your location will not be helpful in helping him find you.  You need to find out where he is and walk him through the steps of getting to your location.
    • Be open to the idea that there might be something that you are not seeing.  With additional information you might revise your point of view.
  • Don't automatically assume that someone is insulting you
    • In virtually every case where someone feels insulted this is a knee-jerk reaction to a misunderstanding where no insult was intended.
    • Jumping to conclusions is not good under any circumstance, but is lethal in social interactions.
Managers should be on the lookout for the signs of conflict and clear them up while they are still small.  Most conflicts arise from simple misunderstandings. You will notice that most organizations will promote people based on their ability to work with others and resolve conflicts over competence.

Learning how to resolve conflicts is likely your ticket to an overdue promotion...

Other articles in the "Loser" series


Want to see more sacred cows get tipped? Check out
Make no mistake, I am the biggest "Loser" of them all.  I believe that I have made every mistake in the book at least once :-)


  1. Carnegie, Dale.  How to Win Friends and Influence People. 1998.
  2. Connolly, Mickey and Rianoshek, Richard.  The Communication Catalyst, 2002.
  3. Jones, Capers and Bonsignour, Olivier.  The Economics of Software Quality.  Addison Wesley.  2011
  4. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. 2011

Side Note

My best friend also works in the tech sector, and despite being friends for almost 25 years we have very few beliefs or habits in common.  There are subjects that we agree on, but then we don't agree on how they should be handled.

Even though we are very different people this has never stood in the way of us being able to do things together.  If you look around you will see radically different people that manage to cooperate and even thrive.

The key to all working relationships especially when the other person is very different from you is respect.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Infeasible Projects: Executive Ignorance or IT Impotence?

DohDoh2Infeasible software projects are launched all the time and teams are continually caught up in them, but what is the real source of the problem?

There are 2 year actual projects for which the executives set a 6 month deadline.

The project is guaranteed to fail but is this due to executive ignorance or IT impotence? InfeasibleTimeline

There is no schedule risk in an infeasible project because the deadline will be missed.  Schedule risk only exists in the presence of uncertainty (see Schedule Risk is a Red Herring!!!)

As you might expect, all executives and IT manager share responsibility for infeasible projects that turn into death marches.  Learn about the nasty side effects Death March Calculus. The primary causes for infeasible projects are:
  • Rejection of formal estimates
  • No estimation or improper estimation methods are used

Rejecting Formal Estimates

This situation occurs frequently; an example would be the Denver Baggage Handling System (see Case Study).

The project was automatically estimated (correctly) to take 2 years; however, executives declared that IT would only have 1 year to deliver.

Of course, they failed1.

The deadline was rejected by executives because it did not fit their desires.  They could not have enjoyed the subsequent software disaster and bad press.

When executives ignore formal estimates they get what they deserve.  Formal estimates are ignored because executives believe through sheer force of will that they can set deadlines.

If IT managed to get the organization to pay for formal tools for estimating then it is not their problem that the executives refuse to go along with it.

Improper Estimation Methods

The next situation that occurs frequently is using estimation processes that have low validity.  Estimation has been extensively studied and documented by Tom DeMarco, Capers Jones, Ed Yourdon, and others.

Improper estimation methods will underestimate a software project every time. Fast estimates will be based on what you can think of, unfortunately, software is not tangible and so what you are aware of is like the tip of an iceberg.

None of this prevents executives demanding fast estimates from development.  Even worse, development managers will cave in to ridiculous demands and actually give fast estimates.

Poor estimates are guaranteed to lead to infeasible projects (see Who needs Formal Measurement?) Poor estimates are delivered by IT managers that:
  • Can't convince executives to use formal tools
  • Give in to extreme pressure for fast estimates
Infeasible projects that result from poor estimates are a matter of IT impotence.


Both executive ignorance and IT impotence lead to infeasible projects on a regular basis because of poor estimates and rejecting estimates; so there is no surprise here.

However, infeasible projects are a failure of executives and IT equally because we are all on the same team. It is not possible for part of the organization to succeed if the other one fails.

Possibly a greater share of problem is with IT management.  After all, whose responsibility is a bad decision -- the guys that know what the issues are or the ones that don't.

If a child wants ice cream before they eat dinner then whose fault is it if you cave in and give them the ice cream?

Unfortunately, even after 60 years of developing software projects, IT managers are either as ignorant as the executives or simply have no intestinal fortitude.

Even when IT managers convince executives of the importance of estimating tools, the estimates are routinely discarded because they do not meet executive expectations.

Rejection of automated estimates: productivity -16%, quality -22%

Until we can get a generation of IT managers that are prepared to educate executives on the necessity of proper estimation and be stubborn about holding to those estimates, we are likely to continue to have an estimated $3 trillion in failures of software projects every year.

End Notes

1For inquiring minds, good automated estimation systems have been shown to be within 5% of time and cost on a regular basis. Contact me for additional information.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Schedule Risk is a Red Herring!!!

We often hear the term schedule risk, however, it is generally a Red Herring. Stating that the schedule might stretch is about as useful as saying that eating can cause you to gain weight.

You may be correct but it gives you no leverage to solve the problem

Schedules slip as a result of a problem, if you want to solve the problem then you must identify the root cause.  Any problem will result in a task taking longer than expected and potentially affecting the schedule.

Risk and uncertainty are two sides of the same coin. Without uncertainty there is no risk.

No Uncertainty = No Risk

A risk is a contingent liability; a risk is a future event that is uncertain that has consequences. The key words are future and uncertain.

If 6 months remain and the deadline is in 2 months then there is no schedule risk because there is no uncertainty.

6 months late means that the earliest that the critical path items can finish is in 6 months. Just because the project has not hit the deadline and senior staff doesn't understand the project is late does not qualify the team to talk as if the outcome is uncertain.

It is disingenuous and cowardly to suggest to senior staff that a deadline is possible when you know that it is not.

When the team knows that they are late, they often talk about tasks as being risky simply because they hope that miracles can happen1.

Hope is not a strategy

In fact, Kahneman points out all of us are wired to bet (pray?) on unlikely outcomes when faced with certain losses, i.e. we double down when faced with a loss.  Team members know about the negative consequences of failure and make projects seem possible simply because they want to delay the pain. Even worse, as the situation gets more desperate people will take bigger and bigger risks.

Using the term schedule risk when a project is not feasible essentially robs the managers of making a course correction until the point where very little can be done.

At a minimum, money can be saved by winding the project down. Few people have the intestinal fortitude to speak out when they know that a project is late. Unfortunately, cowardice is very common.

If you take a paycheck then you have an obligation to your organization to tell them when a project is late.

So it makes no sense to talk about schedule risk when:
  • The project is late and you know it
  • The project is not late but you see schedule items slipping
In the latter case you are much better to talk about why things are slipping rather than using the term schedule risk.  By talking about the root cause of the slippage, especially early in a project, can lead to you either solving the problem or adjusting the project deadline.  Either way, you will have a greater chance of ending up with a feasible project.

Related Articles


Saturday, 12 July 2014

User Stories are Rarely Appropriate

All tools are useful when used appropriately, and User Stories are no different.

User stories are fantastic when used in small teams on small projects where the team is co-located and has easy access to customers.

User stories can quickly fall apart under any of the following situations:
  • the team or project is not small
  • the team is not in a single location
  • customers are hard to access
  • project end date must be relatively fixed
User stories were introduced as a core part of Extreme Programming (XP). Extreme Programming assumes you have small co-located teams; if you relax (or abandon) any of these constraints and you will probably end up with a process out of control.

XP, and hence user stories, works in high intensity environments where there are strong feedback loops inside the team and with customers:
  • Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools
  • Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation

User stories need intense intra-team / customer communication to succeed

User stories are a light-weight methodology that facilitates intense interactions between customers and developers and put the emphasis on the creation of code, not documentation. Their simplicity makes it easy for customers to help write them, but they must be complemented with timely interactions so that issues can be clarified.

Large teams dilute interactions between developers; infrequent communication leads to a lack of team synchronization. Most organizations break larger teams into smaller groups where communication is primarily via email or managers -- this kills communication and interaction.

Larger projects have non-trivial architectures. Building non-trivial architecture by only looking at the end user requirements is impossible. This is like having all the leaves of a tree and thinking you can quickly determine where the branches and the trunk should go.

User stories don't work with teams where intense interaction is not possible. Teams distributed over multiple locations or time zones do not allow intense interaction. You are delusional if you think regular conference calls constitute intense interaction; most stand-up calls done via conference degrade into design or defect sessions.

When emphasis is on the writing of code then it is critical that customers can be accessed in a timely fashion. If your customers are indirectly accessible through product managers or account representatives every few days then you will end up with tremendous latency.

Live weekly demos with customers are necessary to flush out misunderstandings quickly and keep you on the same page

User stories are virtually impossible to estimate. Often, we use user stories because there is a high degree of requirements uncertainty either because the requirements are unknown or it is difficult to get consistent requirements from customers.

Since user stories are difficult to estimate, especially since you don't know all the requirements, project end dates are impossible to predict with accuracy.

To summarize, intense interactions between customers and developers are critical for user stories to be effective because this does several things:
  • it keeps all the customers and developers on the same page
  • it flushes out misunderstandings as quickly as possible

All of the issues listed initially dilute the intensity of communication either between the team members or the developers and customers. Each issue that increases latency of communication will increase misunderstandings and increase the time it takes to find and remove defects.

So if you have any of the following:
  • Large or distributed teams
  • Project with non-trivial architecture
  • Difficult access to customers, i.e. high latency
  • High requirements uncertainty but you need a fixed project end-date
Then user stories are probably not your best choice of requirements methodology. At best you may be able to complement your user stories with storyboards, at worst you may need some light-weight form of use case.

Light-weight use case tutorial:

Other requirements articles:

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Seriously. The Devil Made me do It!

Just as eternal as the cosmic struggle between good and evil is the challenge between our two natures. Religion aside, we have two natures, the part of us that:
  • thinks things through; makes good or ethical decisions a.k.a. our angelic nature
  • reacts immediately; makes quick but often wrong decisions a.k.a. our devil nature
Guess the powers that be left a bug in our brains so that it emphasizes fast decisions over good / ethical decisions.

Quite often we make sub-optimal or ethically ambiguous decisions under pressure

You decide...

Situation: Your manager comes to you and says that something urgent needs to be fixed right away. Turns out the steaming pile of @#$%$ that you inherited from Bob is malfunctioning again. 

Of course Bob created the mess and then conveniently left the company; in fact, the code is so bad that the work-arounds have work-arounds.

Bite the bullet, start re-factoring the program when things goes wrong.  It will take more time up front, but over time the program will become stable.  Start code inspections on the critical sections to proactively reduce defects (see Inspections are not Optional)

Find another fast workaround and defer the problem to the future.  Find a good reason why the junior member of the team should inherit this problem.

Situation: You've got a challenging section of code to write and not much time to write it.

Get away from the computer, think things through.  Get input from your peers, maybe they have seen this problem before. 

Then plan the pathways out and write the code once cleanly. Taking time to plan seems counter intuitive, but it will save time. (see Not Planning is for Losers)

Naw, just sit at the keyboard and bang it out already.  How difficult can it be?

Situation: The project is late and you know that your piece is behind schedule. However, you also know that several other pieces are late as well.

Admit that you are late and that the project can't finish by the deadline.  Give the project manager and senior managers a chance to make a course correction.

Say that you are on schedule but you are not sure that other people (be vague here) will have their pieces ready on time and it could cause you to become late.

This situation is also known as Schedule Chicken...

Situation: You have been asked to estimate how long a critical project will take. You are only been given a short time to come up with the estimate.

Tell the project manager that getting a proper estimate takes longer than a few hours. Without proper estimates the project is likely to be severely underestimated and this will come back to bite you and the project manager in the @$$.  (See Who needs Formal Measurement?)

Tell the project manager exactly the date that senior management wants the project to be finished by.  You know this is what they want to hear, why deal with the problem now? This will become the project manager's problem when the project is late.

The statistics show that we often don't listen to our better (angelic?) natures very often.

So when push comes to shove and you have to make a sub-optimal or less than ethical decision, just remember:
The devil made you do it!
Run into other common situations? email me

Friday, 27 June 2014

Failed? You get what you deserve!

Consider this, few projects fail because of unusual or unforeseen problems.  If you are trying to go so fast that you don't do your due diligence or decide to skip steps then -- "You get what you deserve!".

Projects succeed because they do not rely on force of personality and luck.

Only 3 of 10 software projects succeed (see Understanding Your Chances). Success happens when you implement best practices and avoid worst practices; not just talk about them and convince yourself that you are doing them.

Therefore 7 out of 10 projects fail, even if you redefine 'challenged projects' as political victories; these projects are often severely over time and budget.

It is estimated that between $3 trillion and $6 trillion dollars are wasted every year in IT; by organizations that "don't know, and don't know that they don't know", i.e. what you don't know can definitely hurt you.

What is amazing is that failures do not prompt the incompetent to learn why they failed.  After the post-fail finger-pointing ceremony, people just dust themselves off and rinse and repeat.

There is never enough time to do the project correctly, but there is always enough time to do it again.

Ingredients of a Successful Project

Successful software projects have the following characteristics:
  • Effective capital budgeting
  • Proper project sizing
  • Estimate uncertainty
  • A focus on defect removal

Capital Budgeting

Capital budgeting means having business cases for major projects and allocating capital to the most promising projects; a little due diligence prevents bad projects from starting.

For example, RJ Reynolds invested $325 million to develop smokeless cigarettes when they knew in the initial pilot that the cigarette tasted bad and no one would buy them.

Project Sizing

If a project has a good business case, then the next step is to figure out how big the project is.  This requires that you expand  the requirements sufficiently to estimate time and cost.

When it comes to software -- size matters.

Not only does size matter, you need to understand the level of uncertainty (requirements, technical, or skill) tied to your project to understand how much re-work or discovery will be necessary.

  • Re-engineering a product with new technologies?  (high technical uncertainty)
  • Building a new product with existing technologies? (high requirements uncertainty)
  • Building software with a team unfamiliar with the technology? (have high skills uncertainty)

Skipping the time to get estimates is a major cause of project failure

There are still executives that give engineering a few hours or a few days to estimate major projects and wonder why the projects go late or get cancelled.

Estimate Uncertainty

Project methodology needs to take into account expected uncertainty.

Projects with low uncertainty can be handled with a traditional project methodology; these projects can have their work breakdown structures elaborated and dependencies can be worked out ahead of time.

Projects with moderate to high uncertainty will require rework and discovery.  This must be built into the project plan or you need to switch to an Agile methodology.  If you don't then there will be missing tasks on the project plan as well as task duration that is under-estimated.

Project tasks get stuck at 90% complete because the sources of uncertainty are not established a priori

Executing a project with personnel that are not competent with the technologies that you want to use is essentially professional malpractice.  If you must use existing personnel that don't know the technologies you want then you need to build in a large margin for training and rework over the project; these projects will take at least 2x as long as your worst estimate.

Focus on Early Defect Removal

Developer's say: "There is never enough time to write the code".  Statistics say, "There is never enough time to find all the defects" (see The Programmer Productivity Paradox).  To be successful you need to find defects as quickly as possible, especially since:

  • If it costs X to find a defect pre-test 
  • It costs 10X to find it in QA
  • It costs 100X to find it once deployed in the field

You do the math, it costs less to find defects before they get to QA.  You are kidding yourself if you think that it is cost effective to have huge QA departments (see The Cost of Not Doing Quality).


Building software reliably and repeatably is not difficult.  What is difficult is getting organizations to realize that there is a minimum set of processes that must be followed to have a successful project.

Organizations regularly skip one or more steps and wonder projects fail to come together and succeed.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Don't be a Slave to Your Tools

Developers attach quickly to tools because they are concrete and have well defined behavior.  It is easier to learn a tool than to learn best practices or methodology. Tools only assist in solving problems, they can't solve the problem by themselves.

A developer who understands the problem can use tools to increase productivity and quality. Poor developers don't invest the time or effort to understand how to code properly and avoid defects.  They spend their time learning how to use tools without understanding the purpose of the tool or how to use it effectively.

To some degree, this is partially the fault of the tool vendors.  The tool vendors perceive an opportunity to make $$$$$ based on providing support for a common problems, such as:
  • defect trackers to help you manage defect tracking
  • version control systems to manage source code changes
  • tools to support Agile development (Version One, JIRA)
  • debuggers to help you find defects
There are many tools out there, but let's just go through this list and point out where developers and organizations get challenged.  Note, all statistics below are derived from over 15,000 projects over 40 years.1

Defect Trackers

Believe it or not, some organizations still don't have defect tracking software. I've run into a couple of these companies and you would not believe why. The effect of not having a defect tracking system is pretty severe, and there is evidence to prove this.

Inadequate defect tracking methods: productivity -15%, quality -21%

So we are pretty much all in agreement that we need to have defect tracking; we all know that the ability to manage more than a handful of defects is impossible without some kind of system

Automated defect tracking tools: productivity +18%, quality +26%

The problem is that developers disagree over what might be the best defect tracking system. The real problem is that almost every defect tracking system is poorly set-up, leading to poor results. Virtually every defect tracking system when configured properly will yield tremendous benefits. The most common pitfalls are:
  • Introducing irrelevant attributes into the defect lifecycle status, i.e. creation of statuses like deferred, won't fix, or functions as designed
  • Not being able to figure out if something is fixed or not
  • Not understanding who is responsible for addressing a defect
The tool vendors are happy to continue to provide new versions of defect trackers. However, using a defect tracker effectively has more to do with how the tool is used rather than which tool is selected.

One of the most fundamental issues that organizations wrestle with is what is a defect?  A defect only exists if the code does not behave according to specifications. But what if there are no specifications or the specifications are bad?  See It's not a bug, it's... for more information.

Smart organizations understand that the way in which the defect tracker is used will make the biggest difference.  Discover how to get more out of you defect tracking system in Bug Tracker Hell and How to Get Out.

Another common problem is that organizations try to manage enhancements and requirements in the defect tracking system.  After all whether it is a requirement or a defect it will lead to a code change, so why not put all the information into the defect tracker?  Learn why managing requirements and enhancements in the defect tracking system is foolish in Don't manage enhancements in the bug tracker.

Version Control Systems

Like defect tracking systems most developers have learned that version control is a necessary hygiene procedure.  If you don't have one then you are likely to catch a pretty serious disease (and at the least convenient time)

Inadequate change control: productivity -11%, quality -16%

Virtually all developers dislike version control systems and are quite vocal about what they can't do with their version control system.  If you are the unfortunate person who decided on the version control system,  just understand that there are hordes of developers out their cursing you behind your back.

Version control is simply chapter 1 of the story.  Understanding how to chunk code effectively, integrate with continuous build technology, and making sure that the defects in the defect tracker refers to the correct version are just as important as the choice of version control system.

Tools to support Agile

Sorry Version One and JIRA, the simple truth is that using an Agile tool does not make you agile, see this.

These tools are most effective when you actually understand Agile development.  One of my most effective Agile implementations only used Google docs in the implementation.

Enough said.


I have written extensively about why debuggers are not the best primary tools to track down defects. So I'll try a different approach here. :-)

One of the most enduring sets of ratios in software engineering has been 1:10:100.  That is, if the cost of tracking down a defect pre-test (i.e. before QA) is 1, then it will cost 10x if the defect is found by QA, and 100x if the defect is discovered in deployment by your customers. Most debuggers are invoked when the cost function is in the 10x or 100x part of the process.

It is not that I dislike debuggers -- I simply believe in using pre-test defect removal strategies because they cost less and lead to higher code quality. Pre-test defect removal strategies include:
  • Planning code, i.e. PSP
  • Test driven development, TDD
  • Design by Contract (DbC)
  • Code inspections
  • Pair programming for complex sections of code
You can find more information about this in:

Seldom Used Tools

Tools that can make a big difference but many developers don't use them:

Automated static analysis: productivity +21%, quality +31%

Automated sizing in function points: productivity +17%, quality +24%

Automated quality and risk prediction: productivity +16%, quality +23%

Automated test coverage analysis: productivity +15%, quality +21%

Automated deployment support: productivity +15%, quality +20%

Automated cyclomatic complexity computation: productivity +15%, quality +20%

Important Techniques with No Tools

There are a number of techniques available in software development that tool vendors have not found a way to monetize on. These techniques tend to be overlooked by most developers, even though they can make a huge difference in productivity and quality.

The Personal Software Process (PSP) and Team Software Process (TSP) were developed by Watts Humphrey, one of the pioneers of building quality software.

Personal software process: productivity +21%, quality +31%2

Team software process: productivity +21%, quality +31%3
Code inspections: productivity +21%, quality +31%4

Requirement inspections: productivity +18%, quality +27%4

Formal test plans: productivity +17%, quality +24%

Function point analysis (IFPUG): productivity +16%, quality +22%

The importance of inspections is covered in:


There is definitely a large set of developers that assume that using a tool makes them competent.

 The reality is that learning a tool without learning the principles that underlie the problem you are solving is like assuming you can beat the great Michael Jordan at basketball just because you have great running shoes.

Learning tools is not a substitute for learning how do do something competently.

Competent developers are continually learning about techniques that lead to higher productivity and quality, whether or not that technique is supported by a tool.