User stories or use cases?

Alistair Cockburn says “A user story is to a use case as a gazelle is to a gazebo“.

If you are extremely familiar with both techniques then this makes sense.  If you are not familiar with both then suffice it to say that you can put a gazelle in a gazebo but not vice versa.

A user story is of the form As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason> (see here).  

A use case for withdraw money has many more components to it, and a skeleton of such a use case can be found here.  I develop this skeleton use case in a four part tutorial:

  • Part 1: Use case as a dialog
  • Part 2: What is an actor?
  • Part 3: Adding interface details
  • Part 4: Adding application context

The above user story is only a part of the entire use case.  For an ATM, a user story might be As a user, I want to withdraw money so that I can have physical cash.  This user story is only the summary of the withdraw money use case without the details.

User stories come from the Extreme Programming methodology where the assumption was that there will be a high degree of interaction between the developers and the end customer and that QA will largely be done through test driven development.  It is important to realize that Extreme Programming does not scale.

Once your development team gets large, i.e. you have 3+ agile teams and your code base gets large enough to warrant a formal testing environment, then you will outgrow user stories as your only method of capturing requirements.  You can still use user stories for new modules
developed with an end customer to take advantage of the light weight and rapid nature of user stories, but at some point those user stories should transition to use cases.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few ways to build use cases and not all of them are effective.  Alistair Cockburn’s method (found here) is an excellent way to capture use cases for more sophisticated systems.  There is no doubt that a full use cases is heavier weight than a user story, but consider this:

  • Use cases can more easily be turned into test cases by QA
  • With use cases you more easily prove that you have all the requirements
  • Use cases annotated with screens and reports can be used to collaborate with remote off site customers
  • Well written use cases can easily be broken up into a sprint back log
  • Use cases will work if you are not using Agile development methods

So don’t forgo the speed and dynamic nature of user stories, just recognize that there are limits to user stories and that you will need to transition to use cases when your project team or application grows.

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The Documentation Dilemma

Virtually everyone complains that there is poor documentation for software systems. However, if you ask the same people during a project to document what they are doing then they will tell you that they are too busy and that they will document things later.  The reality is that the documentation rarely gets done, and when it does, it is often useless or too high level.

What is going on here?

This is like when Alice in Wonderland visits the White Queen who offers her jam tomorrow.  But of course, tomorrow never comes.  So when someone says that the documentation will be done later, they are telling you that the documentation will never be done.

Claims that documentation will eventually be done are lies

So the first point to clarify is that just because documentation is done does not mean that documentation exists. For the purposes of this article, the documentation exists if:

The documentation actually helps to understand the program

Let’s motivate the discussion of why documentation is often poor or missing with a common situation. Let start with low level code comments, quite often you run across such code comments:

// Convert float to string
$value = float_to_string( $value );

This is not documentation.  This kind of comment can often be found in code for organizations that insist that a certain number of comments be created.  This comment is worse than useless because it takes up space for no reason whatsoever.  For other reasons why code comments are problematic see Comments are for Losers.

Code comments should not tell us why the code is doing something but rather why the code is doing it.  If other developers can’t read your code and understand what it is doing then that is a different problem.

Similarly at a high level, documentation should explain why something is being done, not how it is being done.  For example, writing down directions to get to a friend’s house does not explain why you are going to your friends house.  Yet most of the documentation that we produce resembles this, it is a documentation of the obvious.

Good documentation focuses on what is being done, not how it is being done

The interesting thing is that developers are fairly disciplined about using version control systems, yet there is a complete lack of discipline (in general) when it comes to documentation.

Of course I expect documentation to be done if the project is poorly planned and there is not enough time to even implement the code.  Projects that are doomed to failure before they start have much bigger problems than documentation to solve.  Projects that are properly planned but are executed with organizations with common bad practices will also likely have a failed project (see Stop It! No… really stop it).

So it stands to reason that only the 30% of successful projects out there should be concerned about documentation.  The other 70% have many other issues to figure out first, like for example, how to execute a successful project (see Failed? You get what you deserve!).

If you don’t have repeatable and reliable processes for successful projects, then documentation is not your biggest problem

One of the reasons that documentation is so poor is that we tend to write it after we have gotten the code working.  Once the code is working, our minds are focused on what it did to get the code working and we then document what we consider to be the difficult part of the implementation.

The only time that you are thinking about what you are trying to do is before you have written the code.  This is clearly the best time to write the documentation.  The problem is that developers move from thinking about how to solve a problem to getting their hands on the keyboard to write code to solve the problem.  In the blink of an eye the programmer switches modes and gets caught up in trying to solve the problem.

So if you seriously want your projects to be documented, then you must document the ‘what’ before your hands hit the keyboard and you are caught up in solving the problem.

Also, documentation is something that needs to be done every day. Waiting until the end of the project and assuming that you will remember what you were thinking about how to achieve the various project goals is virtually impossible.

Good documentation requires just as much (if not more) thinking than what is required to solve the problem.  Much of the time people don’t have a good idea of what problem they are solving.  By truly spending time on figuring out what you have to solve, then documenting it, sounds like it would take longer — but you will be surprised to find out that this actually saves time.

Note, if you don’t produce good documentation then you shouldn’t expect anyone else to either.

Note, this is not associative, i.e. just because you produce good documentation will not entitle you to expect that anyone else does 🙂

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Not using UML on Projects is Fatal

UMLThe Unified Modeling Language (UML) was adopted as a standard by the OMG in 1997, almost 20 years ago.  But despite its longevity, I’m continually surprised at few organizations actually use it.

Code is the ultimate model for software, but it is like the trees of a forest.  You can see a couple, but only few people can see the entire forest by just looking at the code.  For the rest of us, diagrams are the way to see the forest, and UML is the standard for diagrams.

They say, “A picture is worth a thousand words“, and this is true for code; even on a large monitor you can only see so many lines of code.  Every other engineering discipline has diagrams for complex systems, e.g. design diagrams for airplanes, blueprints for buildings.  In fact, the diagrams need to be created and approved  BEFORE the airplane or building is created.

Contrast that with software where UML diagrams are rarely produced, or if they are produced, they are produced as an after thought.  The irony is that the people pushing to build the architecture quickly say that there is no time to make diagrams, but they are the first people to complain when the architecture sucks.  UML is key to planning (see Not planning is for losers)

I think this happens because developers, like all people, are focused on what they can see and touch right now.  It is easier to try to code a GUI interaction or tackle database update problems than it is to work at an abstract level through the interactions that are taking place from GUI to database.

Yet this is where all the architecture is.  Good architecture makes all the difference in medium and large systems.  Architecture is the glue that holds the software components in place and defines communication through the structure.  If you don’t plan the layers and modules of the system then you will continually be making compromises later on.

In particular, medium to large projects (>10,000 function points) are at a very high risk of failure if you don’t consider the architectural issues.  Considering only 3 out of 10 software projects are successful only a fool would skip planning the architecture (see Failed? You get what you deserve!)

Good diagrams, in particular UML, allow you to abstract away all the low level details of an implementation and let you focus on planning the architecture.  This higher level planning leads to better architecture and therefore better extensibility and maintainability of software.

If you are a good coder then you will make a quantum leap in your ability to tackle large problems by being able to work through abstractions at a higher level.  How often do we find ourselves unable to implement simple features simply because the architecture doesn’t support it?

Well the architecture doesn’t support it because we spend very little time developing the blueprint for the architecture of the system.

UML diagrams need to be produced at two levels:

  • the analysis or ‘what’ level
  • the design or ‘how’ level

Analysis UML diagrams (class, sequence, collaboration) should be produced early in the project and support all the requirements.  Ideally you use a requirements methodology that allows you to trace easily from the requirements onto the diagrams.

Analysis diagrams do not have implementation classes on them, i.e. no vendor specific classes.  The goal is to identify how the high level concepts (user, warehouse, product, etc) relate to each other.

These analysis level UML diagrams will help you to identify gaps in the requirements before moving to design.  This way you can send your BAs and product managers back to collect missing requirements when you identify missing elements before you get too far down the road.

Once the analysis diagrams validate that the requirements are relatively complete and consistent, then you can create design diagrams with the implementation classes.  In general the analysis diagrams are one to many to the design diagrams.

Since you have validated the architecture at the analysis level, you can now do the design level without worrying about compromising the architectural integrity.  Once the design level is complete you can code without compromising the design level.

When well done the analysis UML, design UML, and code are all in sync.  Good software is properly planned and executed from the top down.  It is mentally tougher to create software this way, but the alternative is continuous patches and never ending bug-fix cycles.

So remember the following example from Covey’s The 7 Principles of Highly Effective People:

You enter a clearing where a man is furiously sawing at a large log, but he is not making any progress.  You notice that the saw is dull and is unable to cut the wood, so you say, “Hey, if you sharpen the saw then you will saw the log faster”.  To which the man replies, “I don’t have time, I’m too busy sawing the log”.

Don’t be the guy sawing with a dull

UML is the tool to sharpen the saw, it does take time to learn and apply, but you will save yourself much more time and be much more successful.


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Pair Programming for Team Building

Extreme programming (XP) introduced most people to pair programming.

The theory was that the sooner that code was reviewed, the more effective the review — so how much more effective can you be if you do that review right away?

Pair programming increases productivity by 3% and quality by 5%

The reason it isn’t a better practice is that two people are being used to produce a single result and so it is not very efficient.  For more information about the marginal productivity see Capers Jones1.

However, as a team building tool, pair programming can be extremely effective used in specific situations where high productivity is maintained:

  • Training new team members in coding conventions
  • Sharing individual productivity techniques
  • Working through complex sections of code

New Team Members

The first issue is self explanatory, pair programming allows you to explain your coding conventions while working on actual projects.

It also gives you a fairly good glimpse into how that team member will work with the group.

The key here is that the new member should pair program with different people every day until they have worked with the entire team.  This will speed up the integration of new members and get everyone familiar with each other.

Sharing Productivity Practices

One of the key benefits of pair programming is that it is an ideal time to share productivity practices.  Surprisingly, it isn’t just the less experienced programmers that learn from the more experienced ones.  Often, more experienced programmers get surprised by newer programmers that point out habits that they are not even aware of.

Working with newer programmers can expose you to information on IDEs and new productivity tools that you are not aware of.  As much as we do keep up, there is continually new stuff coming out and the newer programmers are aware of it.  In addition, there are sub-optimal habits that we all pick up and no longer notice because we do them all the time.

Working Through Complex CodeObfusticated Code

Once you have planned a complex section of code, it can be very helpful to build that section of code as a pair.

For information on planning complex code see:

Planning is 1/2 the work, making sure that you implement that plan can often require two people to make sure that all loose ends (exceptions, boundary cases, etc) are taken care of.  In particular, these are the sections of code that you want two pairs of eyes on as you are much more likely to recognized a missed alternative or work through weird conditions.


Used appropriately, pair programming can be a great tool for integrating new members into a team, sharing productivity techniques, and reduce defects and improve quality of difficult sections of code.


  1. Jones, Capers and Bonsignour, Olivier.  The Economics of Software Quality.  Addison Wesley.  2011
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Team Conflict is for Losers

Loser, smallIt is a guarantee that don’t like someone on your development team and they have behaviors or habits that you might find objectionable:

But as irritating as you find your co-workers, odds are:

You do something that they find annoying…

Annoyances and poor communication can lead to conflicts that range from avoidance to all out war where people get drawn into taking sides.  But consider the cost of team conflict :

Issue Productivity Software Quality
Internal team conflict -10% -15%
Management conflict -14% -19%

The table above is only showing the average result of conflict, some of us have been in situations that get much, much worse.

Software development is not a popularity contest, you don’t have to like everyone that you work with.  However, if you allow your feelings of annoyance escalate into conflict then there is a real cost to your project and ultimately in your stress levels.

All conflicts start with disagreements.  The Communications Catalyst2 talks about the following cycle:Disagree, Defend, Destroy

  • Disagree
  • Defend
  • Destroy

When you disagree with your coworkers then they don’t feel listened to.  They will then defend their position by digging in their heels, then you will dig in your heels and the road to destruction starts. If there are any annoying habits present then the conflict will escalate quickly.

If things get out of hand then people start taking sides and productivity takes a major hit. In the worst conflicts this leads to loss of key personnel, which has been measured to be:

Loss of key personnel, productivity -16%, quality -22%

Losing key personnel who have comprehensive knowledge of business rules and organizational practices tied up in their heads often causes projects to face fault and come to a stand still.

You may feel justified in starting a conflict or escalating one, however, as clever as you think you are, conflict hurts everyone — yourself included.  Just remember:

It is virtually impossible to start a conflict that doesn’t boomerang back and bite you in the @ss!

4 Ways to Avoid or Reduce Conflicts

Things to consider to avoid conflict:

  • Don’t disagree first, signal that the other person has been heard
    • You will rarely agree with everything that someone else says, but start by agreeing with the part that you do agree with.1 This will at least signal that you have heard them and reduce their anxiety that you are not listening to them.
    • Even mechanically echoing everything that they just said is a way to signal that you heard what was said.
    • Once this is done, then talk about what you don’t agree with.
  • Don’t interrupt people.
    • When you are excited and thoughts are springing to mind then you may be tempted to do all the talking and stop listening; get this under control, take a breath, and let others talk.
    • People generally consider it rude when you interrupt and will assume arrogance on your part.  If you are not trying to be arrogant and someone tells you this then wake up — you need to listen.
  • Don’t be frustrated when people don’t understand you
    • If you really know something that others don’t then simply restating your point of view will not improve their understanding.
    • If your friend is lost in a new shopping mall then describing your location will not be helpful in helping him find you.  You need to find out where he is and walk him through the steps of getting to your location.
    • Be open to the idea that there might be something that you are not seeing.  With additional information you might revise your point of view.
  • Don’t automatically assume that someone is insulting you
    • In virtually every case where someone feel insulted this is a knee-jerk reaction to a misunderstanding where no insult was intended.
    • Jumping to conclusions is not good under any circumstance, but is lethal in social interactions.

Managers should be on the lookout for the signs of conflict and clear them up while they are still small.  Most conflicts arise from simple misunderstandings.

You will notice that most organizations will promote people based on their ability to work with others and resolve conflicts over competence.

Learning how to resolve conflicts is often your ticket to an overdue promotion…


  1. Carnegie, Dale.  How to Win Friends and Influence People. 1998.
  2. Connolly, Mickey and Rianoshek, Richard.  The Communication Catalyst, 2002.
  3. Jones, Capers and Bonsignour, Olivier.  The Economics of Software Quality.  Addison Wesley.  2011
  4. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. 2011

Side Note

My best friend also works in the tech sector, and despite being friends for almost 25 years we have very few beliefs or habits in common.  There are subjects that we agree on, but then we don’t agree on how they should be handled.  We virtually never take the same action under the same conditions.

Even though we are very different people this has never stood in the way of us being able to do things together.  If you look around you will see radically different people that manage to cooperate and even thrive.

The key to all working relationships especially when the other person is very different from you is respect.

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Infeasible Projects: Executive Ignorance or IT Impotence?

IDohDoh2nfeasible software projects are launched all the time and teams are continually caught up in them, but what is the real source of the problem?

There are 2 year actual projects for which the executives set a 6 month deadline.  The project is guaranteed to fail but isthis due to executive ignorance or IT impotence?

InfeasibleTimelineThere is no schedule risk in an infeasible project because the deadline will be missed.  Schedule risk only exists in the presence of uncertainty (see Schedule Risk is a Red Herring!!!)

As you might expect, all executives and IT manager share responsibility for infeasible projects that turn into death marches.  Learn about the nasty side effects Death March Calculus.

The primary causes for infeasible projects are:

  • Rejection of formal estimates
  • No estimation or improper estimation methods are used

Rejecting Formal Estimates


This situation occurs frequently; an example would be the Denver Baggage Handling System (see Case Study).

The project was automatically estimated (correctly) to take 2 years; however, executives declared that IT would only have 1 year to deliver.

Of course, they failed1.

The deadline was rejected by executives because it did not fit their desires.  They could not have enjoyed the subsequent software disaster and bad press.

When executives ignore formal estimates they get what they deserve.  Formal estimates are ignored because executives believe through sheer force of will that they can set deadlines.

If IT managed to get the organization to pay for formal tools for estimating then it is not their problem that the executives refuse to go along with it.

Improper Estimation Methods

The next situation that occurs frequently is using estimation processes that have low validity.  Estimation has been extensively studied and documented by Tom DeMarco, Capers Jones, Ed Yourdon, and others.

IceBergImproper estimation methods will underestimate a software project every time. Fast estimates will be based on what you can think of, unfortunately, software is not tangible and so what you are aware of is like the tip of an iceberg.

None of this prevents executives demanding fast estimates from development.  Even worse, development managers will cave in to ridiculous demands and actually give fast estimates.

Poor estimates are guaranteed to lead to infeasible projects (see Who needs Formal Measurement?)

Poor estimates are delivered by IT managers that:

  • Can’t convince executives to use formal tools
  • Give in to extreme pressure for fast estimates

Infeasible projects that result from poor estimates are a matter of IT impotence.


ChildWithIceCreamBoth executive ignorance and IT impotence lead to infeasible projects on a regular basis because of poor estimates and rejecting estimates; so there is no surprise here.

However, infeasible projects are a failure of executives and IT equally because we are all on the same team.  It is not possible for part of the organization to succeed if the other one fails.

IntestinalFortitudePossibly a greater share of problem is with IT management.  After all, whose responsibility is a bad decision — the guys that know what the issues are or the ones that don’t.

If a child wants ice cream before they eat dinner then whose fault is it if you cave in and give them the ice cream?

Unfortunately, even after 60 years of developing software projects, IT managers are either as ignorant as the executives or simply have no intestinal fortitude.

Even when IT managers convince executives of the importance of estimating tools, the estimates are routinely discarded because they do not meet executive expectations.

Rejection of automated estimates: productivity -16%, quality -22%

Until we can get a generation of IT managers that are prepared to educate executives on the necessity of proper estimation and be stubborn about holding to those estimates, we are likely to continue to have an estimated $3 trillion in failures of software projects every year.

End Notes

1For inquiring minds, good automated estimation systems have been shown to be within 5% of time and cost on a regular basis. Contact me for additional information.


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Schedule Risk is a Red Herring!!!

Red HerringWe often hear the term schedule risk, however, it is generally a Red Herring. Stating that the schedule might stretch is about as useful as saying that eating can cause you to gain weight.

You may be correct but it gives you no leverage to solve the problem

Schedules slip as a result of a problem, if you want to solve the problem then you must identify the root cause.  Any problem will result in a task taking longer than expected and potentially affecting the schedule.

TwoSidesSameCoinRisk and uncertainty are two sides of the same coin.  Without uncertainty there is no risk.

No Uncertainty = No Risk

A risk is a contingent liability; a risk is a future event that is uncertain that has consequences.

The key words are future and uncertain.

If 6 months remain and the deadline is in 2 months then there is no schedule risk because there is no uncertainty.

6 months late means that the earliest that the critical path items can finish is in 6 months. Just because the project has not hit the deadline and senior staff doesn’t understand the project is late does not qualify the team to talk as if the outcome is uncertain.

It is disingenuous and cowardly to suggest to senior staff that a deadline is possible when you know that it is not.

When the team knows that they are late, they often talk about tasks as being risky simply because they hope that miracles can happen1.

Hope is not a strategy

In fact, Kahneman points out all of us are wired to bet (pray?) on unlikely outcomes when faced with certain losses, i.e. we double down when faced with a loss.  Team members know about the negative consequences of failure and make projects seem possible simply because they want to delay the pain. Even worse, as the situation gets more desperate people will take bigger and bigger risks.

IntestinalFortitudeUsing the term schedule risk when a project is not feasible essentially robs the managers of making a course correction until the point where very little can be done.

At a minimum, money can be saved by winding the project down. Few people have the intestinal fortitude to speak out when they know that a project is late.  Unfortunately, cowardice is very common.

If you take a paycheck then you have an obligation to your organization to tell them when a project is late.

So it makes no sense to talk about schedule risk when:

  • The project is late and you know it
  • The project is not late but you see schedule items slipping

In the latter case you are much better to talk about why things are slipping rather than using the term schedule risk.  By talking about the root cause of the slippage, especially early in a project, can lead to you either solving the problem or adjusting the project deadline.  Either way, you will have a greater chance of ending up with a feasible project.

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Why User Stories Rarely Work

All tools are useful when used appropriately, and User stories are no different.

User stories are fantastic when used in small teams on small projects where the team is co-located and has easy access to customers.

User stories can quickly fall apart under any of the following situations:

  • the team is not small
  • the project is not small
  • the team is not in a single location
  • customers can be accessed in a timely fashion
  • project end date must be computed

AgileManifestoIndividualsUser stories were introduced as a core part of Extreme Programming (XP). Extreme Programming assumes that none of the above are happening; relax any of these constraints and you can end up with a process out of control.  XP, and hence user stories, works in high intensity environments where there are strong feedback loops.

User stories need intense communication 

User stories are a light-weight methodology that facilitates intense interactions between customers and developers and put the emphasis on the creation of code, not documentation.  Their simplicity makes it easy for customers to help write them, but they must be complemented with timely interactions so that issues can be clarified.

Large teams make intense interactions between each pair of developers difficult; intense interactions keep everyone on the same page.  Most organizations break teams into smaller groups where communication is through email or managers — this kills communication and interaction.

Larger projects have non-trivial architectures.  Building non-trivial architecture by only looking at the end user requirements is impossible. This is like only having all the leaves of a tree and thinking you can figure out all the branches and the trunk must be, good luck.

User stories don’t work with teams where intense interaction is not possible.  Teams distributed over multiple locations or time zones do not allow intense interaction.  You are delusional if you think regular conference calls constitute intense interaction.

When emphasis is on the writing of code then it is critical that customers can be accessed in a timely fashion.  If your customers are indirectly accessible through product managers or account representatives every few days then you will end up with tremendous latency.


Live weekly demos with customers are necessary to flush out misunderstandings quickly and keep you on the same page

User stories are virtually impossible to estimate. Often, we use user stories because there is a high degree of requirements uncertainty either because the requirements are unknown or it is difficult to get consistent requirements from customers.

Since user stories are difficult to estimate, especially since you don’t know all the requirements, project end dates are impossible to predict with accuracy.

To summarize, intense interactions between customers and developers are critical for user stories to be effective because this does several things:

  • it keeps all the customers and developers on the same page
  • it flushes out misunderstandings as quickly as possible


All of the issues listed initially dilute the intensity of communication either between the team members or the developers and customers.  Each issue that increases latency of communication will increase misunderstandings and increase the time it takes to find and remove defects.

So if you have any of the following:

  • Large or distributed teams
  • Project with non-trivial architecture
  • Difficult access to customers
  • Projects in new domains
  • Projects where knowing the end-date is necessary
Then user stories are probably not your best choice of requirements methodology.  At best you may be able to complement your user stories with storyboards, at worst you may need some form of use case.
Other requirements articles:
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Seriously. The Devil Made me do It!

good vs evilJust as eternal as the cosmic struggle between good and evil is the challenge between our two natures. Religion aside, we have two natures, the part of us that:

  • thinks things through; make good or ethical decisions a.k.a. our angelic nature
  • react immediately; make quick but often wrong decisions a.k.a. our devil nature

Guess God left a bug in our brains so that it emphasizes fast decisions over good / ethical decisions.

Quite often we make sub-optimal or ethically ambiguous decisions under pressure

You decide…

SteamingPileSituation: Your manager comes to you and says that something urgent needs to be fixed right away. Turns out the steaming pile of @#$%$ that you inherited from Bob is malfunctioning again.

Of course Bob created the mess and then conveniently left the company; in fact, the code is so bad that the work-arounds have work-arounds.

Bite the bullet, start re-factoring the program when things goes wrong.  It will take more time up front, but over time the program will become stable.

Find another fast workaround and defer the problem to the future.  Find a good reason why the junior member of the team should inherit this problem.

MultiplePathsSituation: You’ve got a challenging section of code to write and not much time to write it.

Get away from the computer, think things through.  Get input from your peers, maybe they have seen this problem before. Then plan the pathways out and write the code once cleanly. Taking time to plan seems counter intuitive, but it will save time.

Naw, just sit at the keyboard and bang it out already.  How difficult can it be?

BlameSituation: The project is late and you know that your piece is behind schedule.  However, you also know that several other pieces are late as well.

Admit that you are late and that the project can’t finish by the deadline.  Give the project manager and senior managers a chance to make a course correction.

Say that you are on schedule but you are not sure that other people (be vague here) will have their pieces ready on time and it could cause you to become late.

Measurement, smallSituation: You have been asked to estimate how long a critical project will take.  You are only been given a short time to come up with the estimate.

Tell the project manager that getting a proper estimate takes longer than a few hours. Without proper estimates the project is likely to be severely underestimated and this will come back to bite you and the project manager in the @$$.

Tell the project manager exactly the date that senior management wants the project to be finished by.  You know this is what they want to hear, why deal with the problem now? This will become the project manager’s problem when the project is late.

The statistics show that we often don’t listen to our better (angelic?) natures very often. So when push comes to shove and you have to make a sub-optimal or less than ethical decision, just remember:

The devil made you do it!

Run into other common situations, email me

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Don’t be a Slave to Your Tools

Abstract SlaveDevelopers attach quickly to tools because they are concrete and have well defined behavior.  It is easier to learn a tool than to learn good practices or methodology.

Tools only assist in solving problems, they can’t solve the problem by themselves. A developer who understands the problem can use tools to increase productivity and quality.

Poor developers don’t invest the time or effort to understand how to code properly and avoid defects.  They spend their time learning how to use tools without understanding the purpose of the tool or how to use it effectively.

To some degree, this is partially the fault of the tool vendors.  The tool vendors perceive an opportunity to make $$$$$ based on providing support for a common problems, such as:

  • defect trackers to help you manage defect tracking
  • version control systems to manage source code changes
  • tools to support Agile development (Version One, JIRA)
  • debuggers to help you find defects

There are many tools out there, but let’s just go through this list and point out where developers and organizations get challenged.  Note, all statistics below are derived from over 15,000 projects over 40 years.1

Defect Trackers

Believe it or not, some organizations still don’t have defect tracking software. I’ve run into a couple of these companies and you would not believe why…

Inadequate defect tracking methods: productivity -15%, quality -21%

So we are pretty much all in agreement that we need to have defect tracking; we all know that the ability to manage more than a handful of defects is impossible without some kind of system.

Automated defect tracking tools: productivity +18%, quality +26%

The problem is that developers fight over which is the best defect tracking system. The real problem is that almost every defect tracking system is poorly set-up, leading to poor results. Virtually every defect tracking system when configured properly will yield tremendous benefits. The most common pitfalls are:

  • Introducing irrelevant attributes into the defect lifecycle status, i.e. creation of statuses like deferred, won’t fix, or functions as designed
  • Not being able to figure out if something is fixed or not
  • Not understanding who is responsible for addressing a defect

The tool vendors are happy to continue to provide new versions of defect trackers. However, using a defect tracker effectively has more to do with how the tool is used rather than which tool is selected.

One of the most fundamental issues that organizations wrestle with is what is a defect?  A defect only exists if the code does not behave according to specifications. But what if there are no specifications or the specifications are bad?  See It’s not a bug, it’s… for more information.

Smart organizations understand that the way in which the defect tracker is used will make the biggest difference.  Discover how to get more out of you defect tracking system in Bug Tracker Hell and How to Get Out.

Another common problem is that organizations try to manage enhancements and requirements in the defect tracking system.  After all whether it is a requirement or a defect it will lead to a code change, so why not put all the information into the defect tracker?  Learn why managing requirements and enhancements in the defect tracking system is foolish in Don’t manage enhancements in the bug tracker.

Version Control Systems

Like defect tracking systems most developers have learned that version control is a necessary hygiene procedure.  If you don’t have one then you are likely to catch a pretty serious disease (and at the least convenient time)

Inadequate change control: productivity -11%, quality -16%

Virtually all developers dislike version control systems and are quite vocal about what they can’t do with their version control system.  If you are the unfortunate person who made the final decision on which version control system is used just understand that their are hordes of developers out their cursing you behind your back.

Version control is simply chapter 1 of the story.  Understanding how to chunk code effectively, integrate with continuous build technology, and making sure that the defects in the defect tracker refers to the correct version are just as important as the choice of version control system.

Tools to support Agile

Sorry Version One and JIRA, the simple truth is that using an Agile tool does not make you agile, see this.

These tools are most effective when you actually understand Agile development. Enough said.


I have written extensively about why debuggers are not the best tools to track down defects.  So I’ll try a different approach here.

One of the most enduring sets of ratios in software engineering has been 1:10:100.  That is, if the cost of tracking down a defect pre-test (i.e. before QA) is 1, then it will cost 10x if the defect is found by QA, and 100x if the defect is discovered in deployment by your customers.

Most debuggers are invoked when the cost function is in the 10x or 100x part of the process.  As stated before, it is not that I do not believe in debuggers — I simply believe in using pre-test defect removal strategies because they cost less and lead to higher code quality.

Pre-test defect removal strategies include:

  • Planning code, i.e. PSP
  • Test driven development, TDD
  • Design by Contract (DbC)
  • Code inspections
  • Pair programming for complex sections of code

You can find more information about this in:

Seldom Used Tools

Tools that can make a big difference but many developers don’t use them:

Automated static analysis: productivity +21%, quality +31%

Automated unit testing: productivity +17%, quality +24%

Automated unit testing generally involves using test driven development (TDD) or data driven development together with continual build technology.

Automated sizing in function points: productivity +17%, quality +24%

Automated quality and risk prediction: productivity +16%, quality +23%

Automated test coverage analysis: productivity +15%, quality +21%

Automated deployment support: productivity +15%, quality +20%

Automated cyclomatic complexity computation: productivity +15%, quality +20%

Important Techniques with No Tools

There are a number of techniques available in software development that tool vendors have not found a way to monetize on. These techniques tend to be overlooked by most developers, even though they can make a huge difference in productivity and quality.

The Personal Software Process and Team Software Process were developed by Watts Humphrey, one of the pioneers of building quality software.

Personal software process: productivity +21%, quality +31%2

Team software process: productivity +21%, quality +31%3

The importance of inspections is covered in:

Code inspections: productivity +21%, quality +31%4

Requirement inspections: productivity +18%, quality +27%4

Formal test plans: productivity +17%, quality +24%

Function point analysis (IFPUG): productivity +16%, quality +22%


There is definitely a large set of developers that assume that using a tool makes them competent.

The reality is that learning a tool without learning the principles that underly the problem you are solving is like assuming you can beat Michael Jordan at basketball just because you have great running shoes.

Learning tools is not a substitute for learning how do do something competently. Competent developers are continually learning about techniques that lead to higher productivity and quality, whether or not that technique is supported by a tool.


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