Archives for: "October 2013"

Code Rot

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What is code rot

A.K.A software rot, code decay, code entropy; there are many similar names. 

Code rot: A term used to describe the quality of source code as it changes over time and migrates further away from the orignal design. This may continue until the code is no longer viable. A passive use of the term code rot describes the source code for an aging system that require dependencies or tools that are no longer available. Eventually the hardware fails and there is no way to update or port the software to newer tools.  

This entry will focus on the former variant rather than the latter because it describes active code rot. Each and every change to software can introduce decay. Please recognize that rot, decay, and entropy, these are all just another word for risk, which is the potential for a problem to occur. 

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Controlled Access of Global Data

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Global variables have a way of becoming a binding element that tightly couples modules. Certain desired behaviors may only occur because of side-effects created when the value of the variable is changed. Conversely, undesired features seem to intermittently appear in ways that cannot reliably be reproduced. As more global variables that are added to the source code base, the system seems to become more unstable. At this point, removing or altering set of global variables in the system becomes a monumental risk, rather than a safe and simple task.

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This is a journal for those who feel they have been damned to live in a code base that has no hope. However, there is hope. Hope comes in the form of understanding how entropy enters the source code you work in and using discipline, experience, tools and many other resources to keep the chaos in check. Even software systems that have the most well designed plans, and solid implementations can devolve into a ball of mud as the system is maintained.

Software maintenance is definitely a misnomer. Once the system has been tested and delivered, any further changes are simply another round of design and development. Unfortunately, Software maintenance is typically left to junior level developers in order to free the senior level engineers to move on and make the next shiny object. When in fact, I believe the re-engineering of a software system should be led by the most skilled engineers of the organization.

In my experience, a set of newly developed code tends to hold its original design integrity for about 12-18 months after the original phase of development has completed. After this amount of time, the original vision seems to get lost, schedules become king, the original developers have moved on etc. These are some of the many reason that code seems to rot. There really is no single force to blame, just as there is no single fix to prevent this from occurring either.

I had been a software engineer for more than a decade before I realized that much of the code that I have written was really horrible, at least from a maintenance, or re-engineering point-of-view. Up to that point in my career, I usually found myself working at a new company every two years. This seems to be a common trend in this industry given the high-demand for good talent, volatility of technology startups and the enormous amount of opportunity that exists. The only problem is this never put me in the position to live in the filth that I had just helped create. I actually have found that once I was put in this position, it became a great opportunity for learning and honing my skills for this craft.

I will continue to document various experiences, tips, tricks, practices, tools, mantras and whatever else I have found useful along the way to become a better engineer. Now, with very little extra effort, I write each programming statement as if I will be continuing to re-engineer this same set of source for many years to come. Please continue to visit and learn, as well as share your experiences and practices that you have discovered for software maintenance. I also welcome any questions.

Best Regards,

Paul M. Watt

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