They say that it takes so long to paint the Forth Bridge in Edinburgh, by the time the painting team have worked their way across the bridge, the paint at the start will need renewing, so they have to start again. This is of course, a myth, but if it were truth the workers painting the bridge would have a job for life.

Sometimes software projects are like this. They are in a state of perpetual rewrite. The rewrite may be needed because the wrong JavaScript framework was selected at the start so the team are moving to framework N which when completed will solve all problems. Or the application is considered a monolith so the team are “doing the right thing” breaking the solution up into Microservices. The “rewrite” is done with the best intentions but the outcome is often the same. The rewrite takes so long, that the IT world has moved on and now the goal the team is working towards is old fashioned and out of date, Fresh thinking is required, which triggers the next big rewrite and so the cycle continues, much like painting the proverbial bridge.

As professional technies, developers like solving the hard problems. They like using new technologies and the latest frameworks. However, it is a fact of life that most development work isn’t sexy or glamourous. Often developers spend a lot of time grinding out “business logic”, or fixing bugs. The work can become repetitive and boring. There is often a tension between the motivation to keep software development simpler and predictable through standardisation vs. a desire from the technical team to keep their skills fresh on the job.

For freelancers or developers working for software consultancies, getting stuck in one technical stack for a single project is not a problem. The next one is never too far away and it is likely to be very different. Change doesn’t come so frequently for those developers working in software houses. Typically they will be working longer terms on a smaller portfolio of projects and products. For software houses the economics are straight forwards, ship more products – make more money! Investing time in rewrites is a big challenge. Redirecting effort is large scale technical changes means they are not fixing bugs nor are they delivering as many features.

But if a product isn’t changing in pace with the technology landscape it is in danger of stagnating and becoming irrelevant. The software used to build it become out of date. The development team start to feel deskilled and may started to leave this business taking critical knowledge with them. It becomes harder to replace them as your technology stack is no longer attractive to the job market. Before you know it all the innovation that took you from a start up to a mature software house in the first place has leaked away.

As with everything there is a balance to be found. The development team need to be able to stay current but the organisation still needs to pay the bills. Here are a few things to look at to ensure that this balance is maintained.

Be aware of technical debt and pay it down frequently. This is simple really. The best way to avoid big changes in the first place is to fix problems soon after they occur. If they are left to mount up over time it become much harder to fix. Therefore, ensure that the team have the opportunity to fix things as part of the development process.

Ensure that the business value of large technical changes is understood. All work the development teams do should have a business value so ensure that this is understood when it comes to technical changes. There are often valid business reasons for changing from framework X to framework Y, but it is often hard to articulate. There is a temptation to avoid identifying the business value because it is hard to do, and instead the change is delivered as a side project or worst as someone’s pet project. Avoid this temptation as the term “side project” implies a lower priority so it is likely to be pushed to the side when your important customers are hammering down your door asking for the next great feature. Technical changes and evolving architecture is just as important as new features and so all the work should be in the same pot. The Product Owner must be given the hard problem of deciding whether to improve the system itself or deliver new features.

Ensure that large technical changes are delivered as a series of steps as part of a roadmap. Agile development is based on short feedback loops. This is no different when it comes to technical changes. Therefore, a big change should be broken into a roadmap. At the end of the roadmap is a goal and a vision, and at the beginning is a next few steps to get there. The idea is that you don’t create a detailed plan. You might only define the next few steps. This approach also allows the goals to change with little impact. It should be easy to get started as there is no long planning exercise which also means there is no temptation to follow through on a now invalid plan simply because too much cost has been sunken into the planning exercise.

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