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Technical Debt - No more fluff, how do you pay it down?

posted under category: Software Quality on April 11, 2011 by Nathan

I realize a lot of my technical debt blog writing has been all talk. That's fine, but boring. What actual, practical thing can you do now - today - that pays down your technical debt?

(By the way, I'm talking about this stuff at CF.Objective() 2011, May 12-14 in Minneapolis. It's a month away so right now is the time to book your tickets. Come meet me and see my presentation Holistic Program Quality and Technical Debt!)

Number one, most important and easiest win - make your code readable. It's debatable if ugly code is actually any kind of technical debt. You didn't take out a loan to not indent a javascript file. You just had a sloppy coder who somehow learned to do it wrong. On the other hand, if technical debt is the gap between bad and good, you can put it in the debt pile. The great news is that you can make it readable as you go, and you can even automate code formatting. Easy win.

Going deeper into code readability, you can take it beyond tabs and line breaks. Commenting and naming are as important. Comment strategies can vary per team, but decide on a preference. Components, functions, files and variables should all have obvious names, not too short, always consistent. Again, standardize it with the team. You can alleviate almost all of the stress of working with a complex system simply by making the code readable.

I hate to say this. It's 2011, I shouldn't have to. If you don't have source control, you have done yourself a ginormous disservice. If you are working on your own, you will love what a source control system will do for you. If you work on a team without it, you are handicapping every aspect of the team's ability. If your boss tells you "no," tell your boss "yes."

The next practical thing is to make a build process. You do this because when you document a process, everyone can know how it works, and when you automate a process, you make it work right every time. A build process documents and automates at the same time - big and instant win for quality. You also do this so that you can add unit testing, then eventually continuous integration. I like Ant for my build processes; the great community support makes it worthwhile. Start it off simple and stick to it. There are ways to sell Ant to the team above the intellectual reasons, like the jsMin task that compresses all your javascript when you produce a build. Fancy!

Beyond this lies the territory of refactoring, which encompasses everything larger than changing variable names and line breaks. I'm talking about practical refactoring next time. Stay tuned.

Nathan is a software developer at The Boeing Company in Charleston, SC. He is essentially a big programming nerd. Really, you could say that makes him a nerd among nerds. Aside from making software for the web, he plays with tech toys and likes to think about programming's big picture while speaking at conferences and generally impressing people with massive nerdiness and straight-faced sarcastic humor. Nathan got his programming start writing batch files in DOS. It should go without saying, but these thought and opinions have nothing to do with Boeing in any way.
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