How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Live with Defects

July 12, 2011

Defects are forever. No matter how good you are, your code will have defects. Learn to live with them.

Prevent

  • Use code analysis tools: Findbugs, Checkstyle, PMD, whatever. Adopt a zero-noise policy: the only acceptable number of warnings is 0. Suppress warnings not important to you.
  • Perform code and design reviews.
  • Unit test every class and every public method. If you have code that cannot be tested, it is incorrectly designed.
  • Measure unit test code coverage. A test may not test what you believe it tests. 90% statement execution coverage is easily attainable.
  • Automate your tests. If you cannot automate a test, it is incorrectly designed.
  • QA is your friend, not your enemy. Defects are the enemy.

Detect

  • Catch every exception and log it at ERROR/FATAL level. Monitor the logs.
  • Log every successful operation at DEBUG/INFO level. This provides contextual forensic evidence.
  • Implement service health checks. You want to be alerted when the heartbeat stops.

Mitigate

  • Scope your error handling appropriately. You may not want a 1000-document operation to fail because one document is bad.
  • Test your error handling code. You don’t want a minor error to cause a major error because you never tested the catch clause. Error handling code has as many defects as any other kind of code.

If you believe your code has no defects, you are a bozo. Read my upcoming post on the Taxonomy of Bozos to see where you stand.

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Defects Are Forever

July 10, 2011

Software engineering is an interesting field. You start your career with visions of elegant algorithms, adoring groupies and start-up riches but eventually you have to face the brutal reality.

  1. Nothing ever works the first time.
  2. When something finally works, it always breaks later.

There are two broad categories of organizational responses to this grim reality.

  1. Delusional. Keep looking for the magic silver bullet that will make defects vanish: smarter people, better tools, new design methodology, shinier executive hair.
  2. Practical. Acknowledge that defects are ultimately caused by human cognitive frailties and learn to prevent, detect and mitigate them as best as you can.

More about practical defect-busting techniques later because now I need to go to the hardware store to buy plumbing supplies and light bulbs. Because everything always breaks.