Causes of Decay

In order to flesh out another aspect of the presentation I gave on “Remodularization”, I’ll be writing a series of posts discussing the reasons that the quality of software “decays” over its lifetime. This will by no means attempt to be a definitive guide on the subject, since I’m not an academic, but just some reflections on my personal experience and the experience of others in the field.

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this discussion is the taken-as-fact assumption that software naturally decays over time. This is essentially driven by the second law of thermodynamics: entropy increases over time. It seems a stretch to apply this to the evolution of a code base, but I’m sure we have all felt this to be true in one way or another.

Inevitable Decay

Inevitable Decay

Scott Bain in his book “Emergent Design” makes the argument that this doesn’t have to be the case. He argues that by using design practices that permit entension in the future while minimizing the number of places you’ll have to change the code (the Open-Closed principle), a developer is able to add functionality without adding significantly to the complexity of the application. He says that, like doctors, developers should take something akin to the Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm”), committing themselves to always improving the code even as they add new functionality. He also proposes some simple design principles that can make this an almost natural occurrence.

"Emergent Design", Scott Bain, with slight modifications)

Rejecting Decay

He’s not alone in this assertion. Folks from the agile camps often talk about “technical debt” and the need to be courageous to refactor your code as you work. This philosophy recognizes that there is a cost associated with maintaining the quality of the software in the face of changes, but it reflects Bain’s ideal that developers should fight the good fight constantly, rather than leave it for later (when a complete rewrite may be necessary).

Personally, I have to agree that code decay is inevitable. As Neal Ford points out in his axiom “Simplify essential complexity; diminish accidental complexity”, there is such a thing as essential complexity. Even as you work to continuously improve the overall quality of the code, you will be adding essential complexity to the application. I don’t mean to imply that Bain would disagree with this; he is referring to a measure of quality, as opposed to the overall complexity of a growing system. Perhaps there is such a thing as a “maximum quality”, when all complexity is essential.

Whether or not you and your team have chosen to be keyboard medics, the fact is that software decay happens. In the following weeks, I’ll discuss some of the reasons that software complexity increases over time. Hopefully this discussion will provide you with the medicine you need to fight this cancer.

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One Response to Causes of Decay

  1. […] what does all of this have to do with the decay of an application’s code base? Well, let’s say you’ve gone ahead and done your […]

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