Quality Software

What makes a piece of quality software? Low current defect count is an obvious part of quality software. An intuitive and powerful interface is another obvious part; the interface should be easy for a beginner to start with, yet rich and expressive for an experienced user. These are both important to quality software from a product perspective, but quality on the engineering side is more complex.

On the engineering side, the most important part of quality software is that those who need to make changes can do so confidently. This is a multifaceted goal, with lots of components.

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You can accomplish each of these subgoals through multiple paths of action. You can get a well-tested application by doing TDD, ATDD, BDD, ad-hoc unit testing, or with enough time, just plain old manual testing. Organizations have all picked specific tools or practices to try to accomplish a particular intention and enshrined that particular practice as the right way to do things. The techniques give you practices but it is hard to say if you are achieving what they are designed to do without quantifying them somehow.

Most of these aspects are difficult to quantify if you’re trying to measure “quality.” Code coverage, while a quantifiable metric, isn’t the important part; if you cover 10,000 lines of models but skip 150 lines of serious business logic, the metric will say you’re doing great but you missed the important parts. The important part of code coverage is knowing that you got the important parts of the codebase. There is some interesting research going on into quantifying the readability of source code, but it acknowledges that the humans they used to score the samples did not regularly agree on what was readable. You can use Cyclomatic Complexity as a proxy against modularity, which can tell you that you successfully broke the problem into smaller pieces, but it doesn’t tell you anything about your ability to replace one without impacting others. Easy-to-build and easy-to-start-with can be quantified to a certain degree; if you give a new developer the codebase and related documentation, how long does it take them to get it running on their local machine. The problem with that metric is you don’t often bring in new developers to a project and new developers aren’t all created equal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone actively collect that metric in minutes and hours.

The more time I spend in this industry the more it seems most activity is designed to ensure that the system is functionally correct, since that is the first level of success. This second level of creating truly quality software seems to be underappreciated because it is hard to quantify and unless you spend your days with the code base you can’t appreciate the difference. I think this difference is what can make some tech companies unstoppable juggernauts in the face of competition and everything else. I suspect that a lot of the companies that are putting out new and innovative ideas on the edge of building higher quality systems have found ways to quantify the presence of quality, not just the lack of quality signified by downtime and defect counts.

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