Sharks, Debts, Critical Mass and other reasons to Sustain Quality

A while back I tweeted about critical mass of software:

Critical Mass of Code - past which the changeability of the code is infeasible, requiring that it be completely rewritten.

An elaboration of this might be:

Critical Mass of Software: the state of a software system when the cost of changing it (enhancement or correcting defects) is less economical than re-writing it.

This graph illustrates a hypothetical project where the cost of change increases over time (the shape of which reminds me of a thresher shark):

Note:The cost of a rewrite gradually grows at first to account for the delay between starting the re-write and achieving the same amount of functionality in the original version of the software at the same point in time. The gap between the cost-of-change and the cost-of-rewrite begins to decrease as the time it takes to implement each feature of comparable benefit in the original version grows.

It was just one of those thoughts that popped into my head. I soon discovered that critical mass of software is not a new idea.

One opportunity that I feel organisations miss out on is that this can be used as a financial justification for repaying technical debt, thus preventing or delaying the point at which software reaches its Critical Mass, or avoiding it altogether.

Maintaining quality combined with practices that keep the effort involved in completing each feature from growing over time can defer critical mass indefinitely:

Note: The cost of a rewrite is slightly less at first assuming that we are doing a little extra work to ensure that we get the infrastructure we need up and running to support sustainable change (e.g. continuous integration etc.)

This flat cost of change curve is one of the motivations of many agile practices and software craftsmanship techniques, such as continuous integration, test-driven-development, behaviour driven development and the continuous refactoring inherent in the latter two. A flat cost-of-change trend is good for the business, as they have more predictable expenditure.

The behaviour I've noticed with some teams is to knowingly accrue technical debt to shorten time to a near-future delivery in order to capitalise on an opportunity and then pay it back soon after:

This certainly defers reaching critical mass but it doesn't prevent it.

Unfortunately, I see more teams taking on technical debt and not repaying it (for various reasons, often blamed on "the business" putting pressure on delivery dates).

If we had a way of estimating the point at which we'd reach critical mass, we'd be able to compare the benefit of repaying technical debt now in order to avoid or delay the cost of a rewrite... or even better, demonstrate the value of achieving a flatter cost of change.

I'm not sure that we have the data or the means of predicting it, but perhaps these illustrations of a hypothetical scenario will help you explain why sustaining constant quality, automating repeatable tests (or checking as some prefer to call it) wherever technically possible and, on those occasions when we do need to make a conscious choice to compromise quality to capitalise on an opportunity, that the debt is repaid soon after.

One company I know reached this point a couple of years ago and embarked on a department wide transformation to grow their skills in agile methods so that they not only re-wrote the software but could also avoid ever reaching critical mass again. A bold move, but one that paid off within a year. Even for them, they'll need to avoid complacency as time goes on and not forget the lessons of the past. Let's hope they do.