No Heroes in Tech Debt

Too often when I see a team trying to replace a bad/old/deprecated pattern that is widespread in a codebase, they default to what I call The Hero Solution: One person on the team goes through and fixes every case of it themselves.

This can work for very small efforts, but it's almost always a terrible solution in larger efforts for a few reasons:

Here are a few tips that will see better results:

Track the bad pattern

Find a way to track instances of that bad pattern over time. Often a simple git grep "whatever" | wc -l will tell you how many cases of it you have in the codebase. Check often and record the values. Whatever your strategy is, if it's not trending toward 0 in a reasonable timeframe, your strategy is not good enough. Come up with something else.

I can't tell you how many cases I've seen of efforts trending toward multiple years (sometimes as much as 10 years) as soon as I started measuring over time, determining the rate of change, and extrapolating the completion date.

If you do nothing else, do this. You'll quickly be able to see the cost (in time) and be able to reassess the value propsition.

Stop the spreading!

Agree with the team on a policy that no new instances of the bad pattern will be added without a team-wide discussion. Add pre-commit hooks that look for new cases (git grep is awesome again) and reject the commit. Look for new cases in Pull Requests. Get creative! Without this, you're basically bailing a leaking boat without patching the leak and you will have:

If you can't get your team mates on board, your effort is doomed. I've seen bad patterns actually trend upwards toward infinity when no efforts have been taken to get consensus or stop the bad pattern.

NB: Because of the regular human effort involved in maintaining consensus and educating and re-educating people about the goals, one of the best ways to stop the spreading is to concentrate on faster total conversion to the new pattern. Having bad examples all over your codebase works against you on a daily basis. Bad patterns are contagious.

Get your team mates involved in the conversion!

Here are a few ideas:

Don't do things that don't work.

Stuff that doesn't work:

Big problems need smarter solutions!

Tags: technical debt, refactoring, teamwork

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