An aphorism I heard recently seems to be particularly memorable: “there’s nothing so permanent as temporary”. However, it wasn’t originally referring to software — it comes from a builder who is rebuilding the kitchen of friends. He’s from Azerbaijan, and my friends are fond of quoting him in full, to give the words maximum colour: “As we say in Azerbaijan, there’s nothing so permanent as temporary”.
It is, however, as relevant to software as it is to building (and probably to many other areas of life). The constant pressure to deliver means there is very rarely the opportunity to go back and improve a nasty historical workaround which is causing problems today. However, there are some strategies we might consider…
1. Automated testing
If the nasty programmatic stickytape is relatively small then a comprehensive suite of automatic tests should enable you to make the change relatively safely and painlessly. Of course, you need to have built up that suite of tests in the first place. And the “relatively small” caveat is important, because only then can the software people fit the replacement activty into their daily work without disrupting any schedules. If there’s no external change then this is an example of refactoring.
If the nasty workaround isn’t so small, but really does need replacing, then a much more concerted effort is needed. A plan needs to be carefully devised which allows slow piecemeal replacement. The point of the plan should be to take baby steps towards the end goal; each step should also leave the system in a stable state, because you never know when you might have to delay implementing any subsequent step. However, if everyone in the team knows the plan then the end goal can be achieved with minimum disruption to the business’s schedules.
2. Act like a trusted professional
I find trust and transparency is an increasing part of the software projects I’m involved with. Part of this is that the technical people want to give their customers options, and are keen to explain the pros and cons, so an informed decision can be made.
However, while this is usually excellent, there can be times when it is too much or undesirable. Stakeholders don’t necessarily want to be given options for every single thing, and sometimes it’s right for a technologist to make an executive decision without referring back — because they’re a professional, and because they are trusted (and employed) to be professional. In this regard it’s sometimes the responsibility of a technologist not even to entertain the possibility of a temporary workaround knowing it will become permanent.
The decisions I’ve been close to in this regard tend to be architecture or technology decisions. For example, in my current work we have, roughly speaking, legacy technologies and modern technologies. Sometimes a feature requirement would arise which is quicker to implement in the legacy technology — but of course we knew it would be more costly in the long run. If the difference in timescales was not wildly divergent then I’d encourage my team to choose the modern technology and not to offer up a choice. These days I need to do that much less, because by building up that base of modern technology it’s now easier to expand and extend that for future features. By making hard decisions in our professional capacity earlier on we’ve made it easier to make the right decisions in the future.
3. Bite the bullet
A third way to remove the temporary workaround is to just be honest about the work involved and the cost to the business. Easier said than done, but an open and frank discussion followed by adjustment and agreement will ensure the issue is examined properly and supported more widely.
One example I remember is a particularly troublesome database table. Originally conceived as an optimisation with a few hundred rows, it grew over time to be a real albatross, slowing both development and production work, and running to over 19 million rows. However, we couldn’t replace it without a lot of effort, because its tentacles were everywhere; we needed to schedule real time for it, and that would mean less time for other, more visible, work.
But when we presented the plan, two things sugared the pill. First, we had long cited the table as the reason for previous work taking longer than anyone would like, so the cost of its presence was already felt tangibly. Second, we ensured our plan was broken down using the “baby steps” approach outlined above — it would take a long time, but it would take out no more than 10% of our resources at any moment, and we could always suspend work for a period if absolutely necessary. The plan won support, was executed, and after several months our DBA typed the SQL “drop” command and we popped a bottle of champagne.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen…
Of course, all that is assuming the temporary workaround really does need to be replaced. In my friends’ kitchen they are actually quite happy with the drawer dividers they’ve requisitioned as a spicerack. Aside from anything else, it provokes conversation and allows them to talk about their Azerbaijani builder’s many philosophies. He seems to have so many pithy sayings — all of which begin “As we say in Azerbaijan…” — that they’re beginning to suspect he may be making them up as he goes along. Still, if he does have to make a hasty exit from the building trade there may be an opening for him in the software industry.