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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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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Size Matters

Some say that software development is challenging because of complexity. This might be true, but this definition does not help us find solutions to reduce complexity. We need a better way to explain complexity to non-technical people.

The reality is that when coding a project size matters.  Size is measured in the number of pathways through a code base, not by the number of lines of code. Size is proportional to the number of function points in a project.

There are many IT people that succeed with programs of a certain size and then fail miserably when taking on programs that are more sophisticated.  Complexity increases with size because the number of pathways increase exponentially in large programs.

Virtually anyone (even CEOs 🙂 ) can build a hello, world! application; an application that only has a single pathway through it and is as simple as you can get.  Some CEOs write the simple hello, world! program and incorrectly convince themselves that development is easy. Hello, world! only has a single pathway through it and virtually anyone can write it.

main() {
printf( “hello, world” );

If you have an executive that can’t even complete hello,world then you should take away his computer 🙂

CallTreeComplexity Defined

As programs get more sophisticated, the number of decisions that have to be made increase and the depth of the call tree increases.  Every non-trivial routine will have multiple pathways through it.

If your average call depth is 10 with an average of 4 pathways through each routine then this represents over 1 million pathways.  If the average call depth is 15 then it represents 107 million pathways.

Increasing sophisticated programs have greater call depth than ever and distributed applications increase the call depth even because the call depth of a system is additive. This is what we mean by complexity; it is impossible for us to test all of the different pathways in a black box fashion.

Now in reality every combination of pathways is not possible, but you only have to leave holes in a few routines and you will have hundreds, if not thousands, of pathways where calculations and decisions can go wrong.

In addition, incorrect calculations or decisions higher up in the call tree can lead to difficult to find defects that may blow up much further away from the source of the problem.

What are Defects?

Software defects occur for very simple reasons, an incorrect calculation is performed that causes an output value to be incorrect.  Sometimes there is no calculation at all because input data is not validated to be consistent and that data is either stored incorrectly or goes on to cause incorrect calculations to be performed.

Call Tree and Defects, discoveredWe only recognize that we have a defect when we see an output value and recognize that it is incorrect. More likely QA sees it and tells us that we are incorrect.

Basically we follow a pathway that is correct through nodes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.  At point 6 we make a miscalculation calculation, and then we have the incorrect values at points 7 and 8 and discover the problem at node 9.

So once we have a miscalculation, we will either continue to make incorrect calculations or make incorrect decisions and go down the wrong pathways (where we will then make incorrect calculations).

Not all Defects are Equal

It is clear that the more distance there is between a miscalculation and its discover will make defects harder to detect.  The longer the call depth the greater the chance that there can be a large distance between the origin and detection, in other words:

Size Matters

Today we build sophisticated systems of many cooperating applications and the call depth is exponential with the size of the system.  This is what we mean by complexity in software.

Reducing Complexity

Complexity is reduced for every function where:

  • You can identify when inconsistent parameters are passed to a function
  • All calculations inside of a function are done correctly
  • All decisions through the code are taken correctly

The best way to solve all 3 issues is through formal  planning and development.Two methodologies that focus directly on planning at the personal and team level are the Personal Software Process (PSP) and the Team Software Process (TSP) invented by Watts Humphrey.

Identifying inconsistent parameters is easiest when you use Design By Contract (DbC) , a technique that was pioneered by the Eiffel programming language. It is important to use DbC on all functions that are in the core pathways of an application.

Using Test Driven Development is a sure way to make sure that all calculations inside of a function are done correctly, but only if you write tests for every pathway through a function.

Making sure that all calculations are done correctly inside a function and that correct decisions are make through the code is best done through through code inspections (see Inspections are not Optional and Software Professionals do Inspections).

All techniques that can be used to reduce complexity and prove the correctness of your program are covered in Debuggers are for Losers.  N.B. Debuggers as the only formalism will only work well for systems with low call depth and low branching.


Therefore, complexity in software development is about making sure that all the code pathways are accounted for.  In increasingly sophisticated software systems the number of code pathways increases exponentially with the call depth. Using formal methods is the only way to account for all the pathways in a sophisticated program; otherwise the number of defects will multiply exponentially and cause your project to fail.

Only projects with low complexity (i.e. small call depth) can afford to be informal and only use debuggers to get control of the system pathways. As a system gets larger only the use of formal mechanisms can reduce complexity and develop sophisticated systems. Those formal mechanisms include:

  • Personal Software Process and Team Software Process
  • Design by Contract (via Aspect Oriented Programming)
  • Test Driven Development
  • Code and Design Inspections
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Testing departments are for Losers

Loser, smallI understand that this is a very strong statement and I’m definitely not trying to insult anyone; so apologies in advance.  I’m trying to challenge the belief that testing is mandatory and that there should be one testing resource for every two developers.  Quality development is about quality assurance and zero defects not about having testing departments.

One testing resource for every two developers is not a good solution

Quality Assurance (QA) is about making a positive statement about product quality.  QA is about positive assurance, which is stating,  “We are certain that there are few, if any, defects in this product.”  Airplanes are a product with quality assured, the manufacturers will stand by their quality and the statistics back them up.  Contrast this with this article or this article which wonders what would happen if Microsoft made airplanes — would you fly in them?

The reality is that most testing departments simply discover defects and forward them back to the engineering department to fix.  By the time the software product gets released we are basically saying, “We got rid of as many defects as we could find before management forced us to release this product, however, we really have no idea how many other defects are in the code”.  This is not assuring quality; at best you get negative assurance out of this.

Everyone understand that buggy software kills sales (and start-ups :-)), however, testing is often an after thought in many organizations.  When software products take longer than expected they are  forwarded to the testing department.  The testing department is often expected to test and bless code in less time than allocated.

To compound problems, many testing departments don’t even receive proper requirements against which to test the code and/or sufficient tools to work with. Large testing departments and/or large amounts of manual testing are not healthy or efficient.

Humphrey Watts was emphatic that calling defects “bugs” trivializes the issue and downplays the negative impact that defects cause on a development organization.

Calling defects “bugs” trivializes an important issue

Goblins and Elves

Defects are not introduced into software by goblins and elves.  Defects are injected into the code by developers that:

  • don’t understand the requirements or architecture
  • misunderstand how to use their peer’s components
  • misunderstand 3rd party libraries
  • having a bad day because of home troubles or work environment
  • are careless because someone else will test their code

Defects are injected by the team

No one is more aware of how code can break down than the developer who writes it.   Any line of code that is written without concentration and planning becomes a potential defect.  It is impossible for testers to understand every pathway through the code and make sure that every possible combination of variables is properly taken care of.

There are many techniques that can increase code quality and dramatically reduce the amount of testing that is necessary:

Test Driven Development

Properly written tests require a developer not only to think about what a code section is supposed to do but also plan how the code will be structured.  If you know that there are  five pathways through the code then you will write five tests ahead of time.  A common problem is that you have coded n paths through the code when there are n+1 conditions.

TDD is white box testing and can reach every pathway that the developer codes.  TDD is proactive and can test pathways from end to end, it does not just have to be used for unit testing.  When TDD is hooked up to a continuous integration engine then defects are located and fixed before they make it to testing.

Database Driven Testing

Using actual test data to test existing routines during development is an excellent way to make sure that there are fewer production problems.  The test data needs to be a copy (or subset) of production data.

Database driven testing can also be hooked up to a continuous integration engine and prevent defects from getting to testing.

Design By Contract

The Eiffel programming language introduced design by contract (DbC).  DbC isDbC orthogonal to TDD because its goal is to ensure that the contract defined by the preconditions and postconditions for each function call is not violated.  DbC can be used in virtually any language for with their is an Aspect Oriented Programming (AOP) solution.

During development, the minute a developer violates the expected contract of any function (his or a peers) then the developer will get feedback to fix the problem before it gets to testing.


Since the 1970s we have statistical evidence that one of the best ways to eliminate defects from code is through inspections.  Inspections can be applied to the requirements, design, and code artifacts and projects that use inspections can eliminate 99% of the defects injected into the code.  Se Inspections are not Optional and Software Professionals do Inspections.

Each hour of inspections will save you 4 hours of testing

Pair Programming

Pair programming can be selectively used to prevent and eliminate defects from code.   When developers work in pairs they not only review code as quickly as possible but also learn productivity techniques from each other.  Pair programming should only be done on complex sections of code.

Pair programming not only eliminates defects but allows developers to get enough feedback that they can prevent defects in the future.

Minimizing Cyclomatic Complexity

There is evidence that routines with high cyclomatic complexity will have more latent defects than other routines.   This makes sense because the number of code pathways goes up dramatically as cyclomatic complexity increases and increases the chance that the developer does not handle all of them.   In most cases, testing departments can not reproduce all of the pathways in routines of high cyclomatic complexity.

Use Dynamic and Static Code Checking

There are many code problems caused by a careless use of pointers and other powerful language constructs.  Many of these problems can be detected by having the development team use dynamic and static code checking problems.

Proper Code Planning Techniques

There are developers that try to write code at the keyboard without planning, which is neither efficient nor effective.  This is like having to do errands in 5 locations and driving to the locations randomly — you might get your errands done, but odds are it won’t be efficient.

Watts Humphrey talks directly to the idea of planning in the Personal Software Process.  In addition techniques like diagramming with UML or using decision tables can go a long way to thinking through code structure before it is implemented.


Developers are the ones who inject defects into the code and therefore they are the best line of defense to remove them.  The developer has the best information on what needs to be tested in his code at the time that he writes it.  The longer it takes for testing or a customer to discover a code defect the longer the developer will spend in a debugger chasing down the problem.

PreventEliminateDefectsDevelopers need to be trained in preventing and eliminating defects.  Developers who learn to get the code correct the first time will reduce and eliminate effort in testing.

The goal of development should be to catch defects early; this is the only way to assure quality.  Hence quality assurance starts and finishes in the development department, not the testing department.

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