What legacy projects can teach you?

Last week I attended Udi Dahan’s ADSD course. At the moment seems like I need a few years to process and truly understand all the information he packed there. But surprisingly enough a few things sounded familiar. More organized, deeper analyzed, better phrased… Still sounded like he was on my previous projects.

I’ve never worked on a greenfield project (yet?). But I worked on a few that were “new, shiny, better rewrites”. Or at least that was the idea. In most cases people who created them were not available or forgot a lot of stuff. So we were required to do lot of detective work as well as navigate carefully whenever we tried to add a new feature. The challenge was not only figuring out how to get something done. The most fun part was trying to guess what was the most probable reason for why something was done in a specific way. Was it laziness? Unknown requirement? Easiest approach? Personal preference? Great way to learn how humans think and work.

Udi has quite an interesting perspective on “maintenance” work. He disagrees with the popular belief that it’s easy and requires less skills than working on a new project. He says that most likely it originates from the wrong metaphor. Maintenance is indeed less challenging than designing and building a skyscraper or a house. But it’s not true for software.

The most important distinction is that software is never finished. And is not meant to be. It’s finished only if it’s dead. Not only maintenance is not that different from greenfield, extending existing system is even more complex. There are many more things you can break. Users know the system, work with it. Whatever you do, it impacts them. You have to take that into account.

After he said that I’ve realized there are a few things that you are more likely to learn if you work on a legacy system. You might notice them on a greenfield project too, but I bet the lessons are more painful during maintenence. And pain boosts memory and pattern recognition.

Here’s my list:

1. Technology is just a tool. No matter how shiny, new, life-changing… It’s just a tool.

Every now and then people get enthusiastic about yet another fantastic idea. This time it’ll be different. We’ve learned a lot in the previous project. Said somebody on every project. Yet you’re working on third reincarnation of the same system and you hate this codebase. And for good reasons. At some point you realize that it’s more complicated than just picking the right technology.

2. Context and why is more important than what and how.

 Sometimes it’s not that important what exactly you decided on, but why. Best practices are not silver bullets, they need to be applied in a specific context. Domain models are great, but are overkill if simple CRUD would be good enough. In a long-lived project you have many opportunities to see how great ideas work when used (with best intentions) in the wrong  context. You learn to think for yourself, even if you hear recommendation from an expert you deeply respect. They make mistakes too.

3. Simplicity rules.

You can realize how bad humans are in predicting future. System is easy to extend in places that you never touch. Then you waste a week for understanding overcomplicated, overflexible, overgeneralized module to add a mere two lines of code. You might even dare to think that the simplest, least flexible solution would be better than that. It would be easier to replace it all completely if necessary.

4. Consistency is worth more than having “the best” tool/design.

Said a person who’s had 4 different ORMs in one codebase… Just trust me on that one.

5. It’s all about habits.

A fair number of issues we had could and eventually was mitigated by developing good habits. Be a good scout, do a tiny improvement. Every day. It adds up.

The less intuitive part is that big leaps don’t work as well as small, boring changes, applied consistently on a daily basis. If you look carefully enough you might find remnants of a few revolutions in your codebase. And remember, you won’t have more time to fix it later. Either do it now or never. Sticky notes get lost.

6. Bad code is not (only) a technical issue.

Often this is a result of (mis)management, time pressures, bad planning, people not speaking up… Even lack of sufficient technical skills might be tied back to the “soft side of things”. Why can’t you attract and/or keep more experienced people? Do you give them what they need for optimal work? Do you know how to judge people’s skills? Do you keep each other accountable? Do you let the loudest person make significant decisions even if they don’t have anything to back them up? Who deals with their consequences?

The less visible problem is a lack of trust between “business” and “technical” parts of organization. If business believes you know what you’re doing, they’ll give you what you need if you ask for it. If not… Well, life is hard.

7. It’s (almost?) never easier to “just rewrite it”.

You might discover that the “new feature” you’ve just estimated was implemented before you joined the company. For some reason it hasn’t been widely used though. Another day you realize that the bug you’re fixing was in production for the last 5 years. How come nobody noticed? So much for “just make it work as an old system”.

If you have some more lessons to add, please share them!

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