Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Value of Hardening

In my last post I looked at projects suffering with large amounts of technical debt and ever slowing velocities. One solution that one of these projects put forward was to undertake one (or perhaps more) hardening sprints. In these sprints, all teams would stop development of new functionality and focus on two things:
  • Fixing as many of the outstanding defects as possible
  • Addressing and improving the areas of the code that exhibit the largest clusters of defects
I want to question the validity of this approach as I think it offers very little value and doesn't solve the longer term problems associated with technical debt and reduced productivity.

Firstly, all code will contain some defects. Even the best code created using TDD principles will still have the occasional defect. These sort of defects can be easily addressed in the normal sprint mechanism - just get the business to prioritise them correctly along with the user stories and they will get resolved. No need to a dedicated sprint to fix these.

Secondly, we look at the defect clusters. The problem comes with trying to fix defect clusters and improve the code in a single hardening sprint. My feeling is that this is just a papering over the cracks, which, while perhaps offering some quick wins, fails to address the underlying causes of those cracks.

In most applications, defect clusters occur for one of two key reasons:
  • The product has been crammed with too many features without sufficient refactoring of the architecture and code. The net result is that the code is now too complex, poorly structured and difficult to maintain. Adding new features is significantly more likely to break other features that were working.
  • An initial rough architecture and code base was rushed through to meet a deadline and has not been sufficiently refactored prior to trying to scale it up - resulting in poor performance and reliability.
In the first case, trying to fix defects doesn't resolve the underlying complexity issues. In fact, fixing one defect is significantly likely to introduce other defects - especially if the automated test are lacking (common in projects that have reached this state).

Additionally, trying to make smaller fixes and refactorings to this complex code initially results in less stability and higher defect discovery rates. Given the aim of a hardening sprint is to make the product more stable and bullet-proof, these refactorings and small improvements actually can have a negative effect on quality in the short term.

In the second case, trying to address performance and stability in a single sprint just won't work. Achieving highly reliable and performant code can only be met through an in-grained philosophy in the project. All code must be well written, well tested and proved performant as part of its development. Taking some existing code and trying to tweak it to make it so is largely a futile effort.

Given the above, there seems little value to a hardening sprint (or sprints). A much better approach would be to correctly plan out technical debt into a number of DETAILED stories. These should address reducing the complexity of architecture and code in a structured way, refactoring code in a more structured way, improving the thinking about scalability and improving project focus and processes to increase quality, reliability and performance of architectures and code. The business should then be forced to prioritise these above new functionality for inclusion in the ordinary sprint process.

This approach prevents the short-term, quick fix mentality of hardening sprints. These sprints consume large amounts of resource, produce only surface improvements and leave all the fundamental problems intact, while at the same time fooling the business into thinking that things are improving. Never a good combination.

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