Friday, January 20, 2012

The Other Agile Development: AccuRev SCM and Code Refactoring

This blog post highlights a software company and technology that I view as potentially useful to organizations investing in agile development, agile new product development, and business agility over the next few years. Note that, in my opinion, this company and solution are not typically “top of the mind” when we talk about agile development today.

The Importance of Code Refactoring to Agile Development

Ever since agile development first surfaced in the Agile Manifesto, code refactoring has been an under-appreciated and often-ignored part of its value-add. My own fascination with the subject dates back to my Cornell days, when research there in how to find minimal fixes to program compiler errors led inevitably to the question: what is the best code design to allow minimal-effort additions to a program’s features? In the 1980s, research into “structured design” showed that modularized subroutines at the same level were far easier to extend than subroutines in a complex tree structure. When I first became aware of the agile development movement, I immediately saw the benefit of rapid program extension to development agility, and my search for such tools immediately yielded the first code refactoring toolsets.

In the decade since the advent of agile development, however, major development-tool vendors, even those who tout their leadership role in agile development, often ignore or are completely ignorant of the potential usefulness of code refactoring. Until recently, most IBM Rational marketers and some techies had never heard of refactoring, and today a quick Google search on “code refactoring” will turn up not one major vendor on its front page. Even when vendors are taking a longer-term view of agile development projects under the heading of “agile ALM (Application Lifecycle Management),” code refactoring is typically a minor or non-existent part of their “vision.”

The key reason for this neglect, I believe, is a sea-change in development that happened in the late 1990s, in which the up-to-two-year IT development logjam was forever broken by “disposable” software by the likes of Amazon – half of whose code, at one point, was less than six months old. In other words, in parallel with but not related to the rise of agile development, IT and vendors both acquired a belief that long-term “software sclerosis” such as had been happening to mainframe mission-critical apps, in which the app had reached a point where each bug fixed introduced a new one, and lack of documentation and code clarity meant that no one knew any longer what each module really did, no longer mattered – over time, those apps would be superseded by newer ones. And, at the time, this was pretty much true.

However, acceptance of agile development changes that equation yet again. Agile development operates by many, many incremental changes to a base of code, and therefore harder-to-change software accumulates in a version of “software sclerosis” that compresses decades into months – a process sometimes called “going into technical debt.” That technical debt doesn’t disappear once a major rev arrives: new features don’t replace existing user-interface code, and they often depend on past infrastructure code. It’s not as bad as the old days; but technical debt is definitely a boat anchor holding back agile development.

In other words, in the typical use case, a refactoring tool is a major reason for the difference between ongoing average agile development and ongoing superior agile development. Increments are shorter, the code of higher quality, the development more scalable in app size, the testing shorter, and the code itself better able to “turn on a dime” – all at the price of spending a little extra time running a code refactoring tool on your code.

The greatest value of code refactoring, however, imho, is not what Wikipedia notes as improvements in code quality and improvements in coding speed. It is, rather, the implicit training that refactoring tools deliver in improved program design. Just as an agile development methodology improves the agility of the programmer as much as of the program, so code refactoring improves the design skills of the programmer as much as the design of the program. This designing improvement often translates into program designs that lead to apps that are simpler for the end user as well as the programmer, and more apt to deliver value-add that anticipates – rather than simply reflecting – the wishes of the end user.

The Relevance of AccuRev to Agile Development

Originally, I ran across AccuRev in connection with a fascinating white paper on best practices in agile software testing. As I probed deeper, I found that one of AccuRev’s main products is a Software Configuration Management (SCM) tool for agile development, including code refactoring tools. A Google search revealed, as I have noted, little competition from major vendors in this area. And as I thought about it, I realized that SCM is a logical place to apply code refactoring effectively.

This is because a key function of SCM is version management. In any agile development project, multi-person or not, version management is more important than in traditional programming, because the increments are very close together and often involve deployment of added-value software to end users. Establishing that an old version has reached a stopping point and a new version can begin is a logical place to remind one or many programmers to refactor code – either to make sure that the last version has been completely refactored, or to ensure that the upcoming version has refactoring designed in at the start. In a sense, it gives the agile programmer opt-out rather than opt-in code refactoring.

Moreover, as the history of “version control” over the past 25 years has demonstrated, SCM is a relatively small but very stable market. More than one programmer, and you need SCM; and the technology is mostly mature, so once you’ve used a vendor for one project, you’ll use that vendor for the next. PVCS and ClearCase, under different management, continue to be at least as widely used as they were in the early 1990s. To put it another way: AccuRev is very unlikely to collapse tomorrow – no way.

Thus, AccuRev is right in the “sweet spot” of use of code refactoring to give anyone’s agile development a major boost, is more visible than most in supporting code refactoring, and should remain useful over the next few years, both for agile SCM and for code refactoring.

Potential Uses of AccuRev-Type Code Refactoring for IT

If an IT organization has nothing going on in agile development right now, then it probably has major problems that require it to start to tackle agile development before it can even begin to think of code refactoring. Otherwise, it is hard to think of an agile-development situation in which code refactoring in general, and code refactoring via AccuRev-type SCM in particular, will not improve things. Still, there are use cases and use cases.

If you are looking for the biggest initial bang for the buck, agile BI springs to mind immediately – because, right now, it is “top of the mind” for most CEOs and CFOs. Some of that is hype, but enough of it is substance that IT should anticipate doing agile BI app development for at least the next 2-3 years while the fad lasts, and almost certainly beyond that, when it will become an integral part of another fad like “Extreme Analytics” (no, I’m not talking about anything real here – I devoutly hope). Because of this corporate commitment, the amount of technical debt we are going to see embedded in end users’ favorite analytics apps is likely to dwarf anything agile development has seen up to now, and especially because many SMBs are trying to do agile BI on the cheap – unless code refactoring steps in.

A second “bang for the buck” for code refactoring, if IT needs one, is in many-person-team (and especially distributed) agile-development projects. By spreading code refactoring across a team, IT puts them on the same design page in crucial respects, encouraging a more consistent application look and feel. Obviously, AccuRev-type SCM is a good way to introduce code refactoring with minimal disruption – if developers accept any management, it’s version control.

The Bottom Line for IT Buyers

I have been writing about code refactoring for a decade, and it still seems to be the low-hanging fruit that even agile development organizations rarely pluck. Well, let’s try again: code refactoring, like agile development, seems like it wastes time, costs money, and lowers revenues by delaying delivery, and it always does the opposite, over the short and long run. Failure to use it doesn’t spell disaster for the agile development organization; using it spells much greater success, in customer satisfaction, value-delivery speed, and app quality, that in turn (to a lesser degree than agile development itself) significantly affects the agile-development-using enterprise’s top and bottom lines. Buy it. Use it.

There are a fair amount of choices once IT buyers decide to acquire code refactoring capabilities. In my opinion, AccuRev’s approach makes it one of the most attractive vendors in the immediate future. If you want to do a short list, fine. If you don’t, and you don’t have any other ideas, skip the short list and get AccuRev. In any case, don’t waste time; just buy it. Then use it.

Maybe someday soon code refactoring will be fully automated as part of a standardized agile development toolkit, requiring no effort from the programmer, and no need to go out and buy the stuff. Maybe; but since today, after twelve years of availability, we are still nowhere near that day, I wouldn’t hold up improving your agile development because you think it might happen next year. If I were an IT buyer, I wouldn’t waste two seconds on hoping that technology advances will swoop down and save the day; I’d be taking the first steps to acquire a code refactoring solution such as the one included in AccuRev SCM. Just buy something like that. Just use it.


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