Sunday, 6 March 2011

Freedom of movement

One of the key disciplines of agile software development is avoiding Big Up Front Design. The conscientious XP developer will resolutely refuse to build anything that isn't required for the current iteration. Speculative code is poison to a project's agility, because it costs effort to build, effort to maintain and obscures the code that is performing useful functions. And often, as Ron Jeffries' adage goes, you ain't gonna need it.

Quality is ensured by a kind of mathematical induction. The original version of the application is small, focused and well-tested, which makes it responsive to change. By writing the minimum of new code every time a new feature is added, developers ensure that the code-base never accrues excess baggage that might impede it in the future.

This approach is counter-intuitive at first, because most people associate planning ahead with saving effort. The idea is that tackling future challenges before they arise can be cheaper. The first catch is that if a developer guesses wrongly they will have spent effort actively contaminating the project with detritus. The second catch is that the first catch happens every time.

However, I do not take this to mean that a developer should never look ahead when making decisions about the present. Simplicity is merely a means to an end, which is the greatest possible flexibility to take the project where it might need to go.

Flexibility must be evaluated relative to the needs of the project in question. If a website is likely to be promoted to a mass audience, then preserving code quality means maintaining the option to introduce caching in a later iteration. It would be a mistake to introduce any caching logic "just in case", because performance optimisations are notoriously hard to second-guess. But it would also be a mistake to take a decision that would make caching hard or impossible to implement.

The minimal solution is not the one with the least files, classes or lines of code. Minimal code makes the least possible number of assumptions about the future. Developers need to interpret what that means for their particular project by maintaining an awareness of upcoming requirements.

Freedom of movement is only meaningful if you know what moves you might need to make.

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