Johnny 99

Sometimes I write legacy code. There, I’ve said it. The secret’s out, the dirty laundry’s aired and the cat’s out of Pandora’s box.

I don’t think it makes me a bad person. I understand the value of tests, especially in the highly incremental development world I currently inhabit, and I strive to use tests to drive my code. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, for many reasons, none of which I’m proud of, such as my Excel test framework being a little clumsy, there not being anyone around me to nag, the “quick” change that turns into just a little more uncovered code than I expected (but it works and the user needs it Right Now).

I understand that all that code sitting in the wild in an uncovered state is Legacy and represents an accumulation of Technical Debt that will have to be repaid. By me.

It’s not that code without tests is necessarily bad. I mean, heck, even Kent Beck sometimes flies without a safety net. If it’s write-once-and-throw-away code, then there’s an argument for just getting it done. But honestly, how often does that code get resurrected months, maybe years later? It’s when code needs to be changed, often requiring some refactoring in the process, that the absence of that warm, covered-by-tests feeling starts to be felt.

Still there, still doing a job, but just try changing it...

Still there, still doing a job, but just try changing it...

The trouble with beginning to repay technical debt is that interest tends to accrue, compounded, at some arbitrary (but almost always positive) rate. So no matter how trivial the original untest-covered change seems to have been, the longer you leave it, the more unpleasantness tends to have accreted around it by the time you come back to it. I suppose there’s always the possibility that you’ll come back to discover a glistening pearl, but in my programming life I’ve never returned to anything other than a thick coating of rust.

Worse than that, getting the encrusted nodule of code under test usually turns out to be painful: it’s seldom structured as it would have been had tests been used in the first place, so unwanted and hard-to-separate interdependencies are rife and the whole thing becomes, well, a bit tricky.

I’d been meaning to buy Michael Feathers‘ “Working Effectively with Legacy Code” for years and recently got around to buying it. Scott Hanselman’s interview last week with Mr Feathers was a serendipitous bonus. The book, even for non-Java or C++ programmers, is excellent, full of practical advice on how to break things up in a way that can let you get tests around the locus of change. In fact, when you see how just plain nasty working with C++ code can be, working with code in any other language starts to look like a breeze.

I wish I’d read the book earlier.