Are your applications ‘legacy code’ before they even hit production?

When a business has custom software developed, it expects that software to last for a long time. To do this, software must A) continue operating — by adapting to changing technology needs, and B) continue to be useful — by adapting to changing business needs.

Businesses’ needs change all the time, and all but the most trivial of software will require modification beyond its original state at some point in its life, in order to to remain useful. This is sometimes known as brownfield development (as opposed to greenfield), and from my experience, accounts for a good two thirds to three quarters of all enterprise software development.

Anyway, time for a story. A company has a flash new business intelligence system developed (in .NET) to replace an aging mainframe system. Everything goes more-or-less to plan, and the system is delivered complete and on time. It’s robust and works very well — everyone is satisfied.

Now, six months have passed since the original go-live date, and the owners have a list of new new features they want added, plus a few tweaks to existing functionality.

Development begins again. After a few test releases, however, new bugs start to appear in old features that weren’t even part of phase two. Delivery dates slip, and time estimates are thrown out the window as search-and-destroy-style bug fixing takes over. Developers scramble to patch things up, guided only by the most recent round of user testing. Even the simplest of changes take weeks of development, and endless manual testing iterations to get right. The development team looks incompetent, testers are fed up, and stakeholders are left scratching their heads wondering how you could possibly break something that was working fine before. What happened?

The illusion of robustness

The robustness of many systems like this is an illusion — a temporary spike in value that’s only reflective of the fact it has been tested, and is known to work in its current state. Because everything looks fine on the surface, the quality of source code is assumed to be fine as well.

From my experience, a lot of business source code is structured like a house of cards. The software looks good from the outside and works perfectly fine, but if you want to modify or replace a central component — i.e. a card on which other cards depend — you pretty much have to re-build and re-test everything above it from scratch.

Such systems are written as legacy code from the very first day. By legacy, I mean code that is difficult to change without introducing bugs. This is most commonly caused by:

  • Low cohesion – classes and methods with several, unrelated responsibilities
  • High coupling – classes with tight dependencies on each other
  • Lack of unit tests

Low cohesion and high coupling are typical symptoms of code written under time-strapped, feature-by-feature development, where the first version that works is the final version that goes to production.

Once it’s up and running, there’s little motivation for refactoring or improving the design, no matter how ugly the code is — especially if it will require manual re-testing again. This is the value spike trap!

The tragedy of legacy code

Back to the story. If a developer on the project realises the hole they’ve fallen into, they can’t talk about it. This late in the process, such a revelation could only be taken in one of two ways — as an excuse, blaming the original designers of the software for mistakes made today — or as a very serious admission of incompetence in the development team from day one.

The other developers can’t identify any clear problems with the code, and simply assume that all brownfield development must be painful. It’s the classic story — when granted the opportunity to work on a greenfield project, you’re much happier รณ unconstrained by years of cruft, you’re free to write clean, good code. Right? But if you don’t understand what was wrong with the last project you worked on, you’ll be doomed to repeat all of its mistakes. Even with the best of intentions, new legacy code is written, and without knowing it, you’ve created another maintenance nightmare just like the one before it.

Clearly, this is not a good place to be in — an endless cycle of hard-to-maintain software. So how can we break it?

Breaking the cycle

I believe that Test Driven Development (TDD) is the only way to keep your software easy-to-modify over the long-term. Why? Because:

  1. You can’t write unit tests for tightly-coupled, low cohesive code. TDD forces you to break dependencies and improve your design, simply in order to get your code into a test harness.
  2. It establishes a base line of confidence — a quantifiable percentage of code that is known to work. You can then rely on this to assert that new changes haven’t broken any existing functionality. This raises the value of code between ‘human tested’ spikes, and will catch a lot of problems before anyone outside the development team ever sees them.

TDD gives you confidence in your code by proving that it works as intended. But object-oriented languages give you a lot freedom, and if you’re not careful, your code can end up as a huge unreadable mess.

“Any fool can write code that a computer can understand. Good programmers write code that humans can understand.” – Martin Fowler

So how do you write code that humans can understand? Enter TDD’s partner in crime, Domain Driven Design (DDD).

DDD establishes a very clear model of the domain (the subject area that the software was written to address), and puts it above all technological concerns that can put barriers of obfuscation between the business concepts and the code used to implement them (like the limitations of a relational database schema). The end result is very expressive entities, repositories and service classes that are based on real life concepts and can be easily explained to non-technical business stakeholders.

Plus, DDD provides a clear set rules around all the fiddly stuff like relationships and responsibilities between entities. In short, DDD is simply object-oriented code done right.

Putting it to practice

So how do you get on to a point where you can use all this? There’s a lot to learn — an entire universe of information on top of your traditional computer science/software development education. I’ve only scratched the surface here in trying to explain why I think it’s important, but if you want to learn more:

  • Read books. How many books on software development have you read this year? Domain-Driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software by Eric Evans is pretty much the DDD bible, and, just like GoF, should be mandatory reading for any serious developer. If you’re stuck in legacy code hell right now though, have a read of Michael Feathers’ Working Effectively with Legacy Code. It’s all about breaking dependencies and beating existing code into test harnesses so you can get on with improving it without fear of unintended consequences.
  • Read blogs. TDD/DDD is a hot subject right now, and blogs are great for staying on top of all the latest tools and methods. They’re also a good place for learning about TDD/DDD’s support concepts like dependency injection, inversion of control, mocking, object/relational mapping, etc.
  • Join mailing listsDomainDrivenDesign and ALT.NET (if you’re that way inclined) are two good ones with a reasonably high volume of great intellectual discussion. You can gain a lot of insight reading other people’s real-life problems, and watching the discussion evolve as potential solutions are debated.
  • Practise. Grab an ORM, a unit test framework/runner, an IoC container and start playing around.

I believe the only way to make software truly maintainable long-term (without becoming legacy code) is to use TDD and DDD. Together, they’re all about building confidence — confidence that you can make changes to a system without introducing any bugs. Confidence that other people can understand your code and the concepts it represents. And most importantly, confidence that you’re learning, and aren’t making all the same mistakes every time you start a new project.

5 thoughts on “Are your applications ‘legacy code’ before they even hit production?

  1. Well said. It is great to see someone explain why we should move forward with better practices while putting it into a realistic business context.

  2. Thanks for writing, this is a good blog.

    I am amazed at how a simple practice like TDD can help me make the larger architectural changes from new requirements easier to implement. I think TDD is the main thing keeping my code from being Legacy the day it hits production.

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