The Noble Art of Maintenance Programming

Mention the words "maintenance programming" to a group of developers and they'll, to a man (or woman), recoil in horror. Maintenance programming is widely viewed as janitorial work.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

While I agree that maintenance coding is a great way to hone programming skills, as well as familiarising oneself with a given software system, it can be heavyweight and spirit-crushing at times.

Of course, whether it is unpleasant very much depends on the quality of the code you are maintaining, and the scope of your work.

As such, I very much agree with your points about the balacing act of maintenance work; the need to assign good coders to such work, and the importance of being able to decide that, if necessary, a ground-up re-write is appropriate.

Two personal examples spirng to mind; my first ‘heavy’ maintenance work, and my most recent.

The first time, I had to make substantial changes to a script that was years old, had been updated dozens of times, by many different developers, all with their own unique styles. The code quality was horrendous; dozens of functions that mediated 80% of their activity using global variables, and which imported many modules, all of which exported all their symbols by default. Reams of redundant code that had never been removed, no formal documentation, and entirely out-of-date code comments. I wasn’t allowed to re-write the script from the ground up.

It took a couple of days of doing nothing but reading and re-reading the code (while drawing insane diagrams and flow-charts) before I felt confident enough to be able to change anything without breaking it in hard-to-debug ways.

It seemed, at the time, to be a soul-destroying activity. After many days I felt I’d done as much as I could. The code was in much better shape, but it all felt somewhat unrewarding at the time.

More recently, things were in my favour. Once more, major changes to some fairly old scripts that had gone through many revisions. The scripts were infamous for being hard to work with (a ‘well’ deserved reputation - its amazing what a few hundred ‘I’ll just bang it in quickly’ changes can do to code clarity); but this time, I was authorised to re-write if necessary. While you are spending most of your time replacing extant functionality, it still seems to carry some of the ‘buzz’ you get when you are working on actual new stuff.

Ultimately, if I were ‘breaking in’ a new member of the team I’d give them a supervised mix of maintenance and new-build. That is, some maintenance work to really excercise their skills and get them familiar with the systems, and other new-build work to keep them enthusiastic and energised.

The crux of the problem, it seems to me, can be seen by how little shows up when you search for “software archeology”.

Given that these languages are “simple” enough for computers to “understand”, one might expect more tools to extract information, structure, internal relationships from the code itself, but this is clearly not so. Some languages support refactoring tools better than others. It seems to be easier to automate reasoning about statically typed languages, but easier for programmers to be creative with dynamically typed languages. Combine this with people’s (I include myself here) ability to write badly in any language, and it is rather tricky to solve.

Given the costs of maintenance programming, why isn’t there more work on moving from “computer literacy” to “appreciation of computer literary criticism”?

What I don’t like is hiring a group of people to develop the application and then when it is completed, a different group of people to maintain it.

Excellent point.

I enjoy maintaining code I’ve built. It’s my personal responsibility to my users. On the other hand, maintaining code I didn’t build-- and living with the consequences of decisions I had no hand in making-- is very painful for me.

Make people live with the consequences of their decisions by supporting and maintaining the app they built, at least through version .1. It’s irresponsible not to!

This is also why I’m a big fan of developers handling tech support calls for their software, at least a part of the time. It really motivates them to address the pain points users are experiencing, because they become shared pain points. :wink:

I think that the biggest problem with a lot of existing systems is that they don’t have extensive tests. When you have tests that tell you when a change is bad, you can step out of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mode and rejuvenate sections of your code. That’s when maintenance can start to become fun. You can refactor and make the code/design better for the next guy (or yourself).

Re finding material on this, yes, it’s hard. I wrote the book ‘Working Effectively with Legacy Code’ and I considered using the words ‘archeology’ or ‘maintenance’ in the title, but I figured I that they wouldn’t be any less of a turnoff than the word ‘legacy’ :slight_smile:

Halfway through writing, I discovered ‘Object Oriented Reengineering Patterns’ by Serge Demeyer, Stphane Ducasse, and Oscar Nierstrasz. It’s a great book and its targeted toward issues of understanding code. I just never thought to search for ‘reengineering.’

I think that the biggest problem right now is language designers think about features that make it easy to write code but they don’t seem to be thnking about features that make it easy to maintain. If we could start to raise that awareness, we might be able to make life much easier for the people who follow us.

I wrote the book ‘Working Effectively with Legacy Code’ and I considered using the words ‘archeology’ or ‘maintenance’ in the title, but I figured I that they wouldn’t be any less of a turnoff than the word ‘legacy’

Hi Michael, I’m glad you posted a comment – I meant to reference your (excellent) book in this post:

Working Effectively With Legacy Code

And here’s the book you cited. It’s a little pricey, though:

Object Oriented Reengineering Patterns

language designers think about features that make it easy to write code but they don’t seem to be thnking about features that make it easy to maintain

It sounds like what we need most is first-class support for testing integrated in the language and the IDE…

I’m with Andy and Dave. After 16 years programming I know I’ll never write production ready code the first time. Once I’ve written a block of code it’s straight into maintenance mode and I’m testing, reworking, refactoring, tweaking until it operates as expected and reads well. But renovation is part of that process, I wouldn’t distinguish a rewrite from maintenance.

Joel seems to take a rather subjective stance that one developers flower bed is another developers crap heap, but if that were the case as a community we could never agree on acceptable standard approaches to common problems… maybe he’s got a point!

I worked for many years as a consultant wherein we certainly gave maintenance headaches to the junior folks, who often responded in the best way they could - which was hacking the code. Successive waves of hacking “petrified” the architectre further and further until it inevitably became a legacy system; Depetrifying legacy systems turns out to be horrendously difficult (indeed it was the subject of my PhD thesis - and consumed four years of my life). What I know look for is developers who understand the need for evolving architectures to reflect evolving assumptions about points of commonality and variability in requirements. With this frame of mind, “maintenance” becomes ongoing architecural evolution - which seems more “respectable” work to the top flight developers I have working for me.

To manage this balance, one thing I’ve done is to say that if you wrote the code, you maintain it. It’s far to easy to write sloppy if you know someone else is going to have to clean up your mess - same deal with coders throwing buggy code over the wall to Q/A. I like having people incented to write clean and maintainable (for themselves later) from the get-go.

Also, that way everyone writes new code and everyone maintains - so no bickering!

I recently “inherited” a few applications from a coworker who was leaving the company. When I found out that I was going to have to refamiliarize myself with VB6 after a year of steady C#, I immediately recalled a description used by a character in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon: making license plates. Which is exactly what I’m doing now. The work is neither exciting nor innovative. It is, however, necessary. Bummer… :wink:

I have personally adopted the Boy Scout motto of camping with regards to maintenace programming: “Always leave a site better than you found it.”

I agree with you in that best developers should work on Software maintainance. But, since most developers don’t like it, what should Project managers do ? They rotate people - from maintainance to dev and vice versa. This ofcourse has its own advantages and disadvantages.

In my experience, the attributes associated with maintenance programming primarily come from organizational culture and development culture in the organization. In my experience, maintenance programming is significantly less of a core if management and team leads see maintenance programming as a necessary task that helps improve the code base, fosters growth of developers (learning new techniques and learning which techniques to avoid), and improving knowledge of existing code bases.

It is rather unfortunate that management and even too many team leads fail to understand the importance of maintenance programming as a learning and knowledge sharing tool or as a tool to improve the quality of existing code bases. Too many times I have seen developers sacrificed to maintain code bases that are horribly written with severe time restrictions to add functionality.

In my experience, part of the failure comes organizational cultures that fail to understand the need for quality controls through design and code reviews, progress monitoring and review, and peer development. Another factor is excessively strict timelines or poorly estimated timelines that encourage poor programming practices to get the product out the door.

I actually enjoy maintenance programming, sometimes more so than new development, even when the code base is a prime candidate for The Daily WTF. The more challenging the code base, the more satisfaction I derive from pulling out a clean design that is easier to maintain by someone else. I have yet to determine if this is because I want to make the world a better place for my peers or because I’m just weird.

All developers should be forced to do some maintenance. If only to see how well or badly others code!

I was hired as one of the senior developers in my dept. about 10 months ago. Since then I have primarily only maintaining (others) code. I have complained but it appears to have got me no where. Because of all this I’m now looking for a new (more creative) job else where.

If you force people to maintain others systems for long periods of time I’m sure most will simply leave.

I know of many progams written by a very junior programmers , that just happen to come at the right time, that takes even the most season developer weeks to figure out the basic of what it is doing.

Some of my jobs been exactly that, I will relate this one event in my life. This 19 year old highschool dropout, works at a call center, he writes a basic program in clipper to manage the call records. It gets overly complex for him, and it starts to show its cracks. (This is back when MFC 4.x was just released) What does he do , he goes tells the owner, he should manage and hire “maintance programmers”. As it turned out, they eventually hired the consultanting firm i was working for. I looked at the code, and sat the CEO down and put it to him simple. What do you expect from a guy who first program was this? verus someone who done this 5+ years? This is a rewrite, there is no way this is even maintainable. I got let go :slight_smile: called me back after 4 weeks, and well i was there for a year cleaning up the mess made by some 19 year old :slight_smile:

Maintance programming is harder than new code, mainly due to you are cleaning up someone else crap, and its generally someone that is VERY junior.

“Of course, whether it is unpleasant very much depends on the quality of the code you are maintaining, and the scope of your work.”

All too often it is an experiment in sacrificing an innocent persons reputation by having them take responsibility for code that does not work which they did not create that cannot be declared broken for political reasons (because someone in management has already lied about it working, either to themselves or to others).

I have lost track of the money, health, time and private life I have sacrificed trying to rescue people from incompetantly built systems.

I do not mean “different to how I would have built them”, I mean “random scribble, not working, undocumented, code files scattered to the wind across the network and partially lost, impossible to fix regardless of effort and expense”.

Sadly, this is more common than not from where I’m sitting (10 years in the industry). Perhaps this is why so many IT professionals go overseas.

I totally agree with you on this one Jeff, but there are some issues you need to account for.

If some developer(s) keep doing the same project from development to maintenance, then you have the problem that you depend on the developers because nobody else knows how the project is working. It is especially dangerous in small projects.
I think it is very much a management problem. Developers should not switch when some estimated goal is reached, but instead the new developers should be introduced in the development/maintenance phase. And if a non experienced developer is to take over, then have some other experienced developer or manager closely follow the progress. In any case the developer should be held responsible for his/hers monster creation.

Somebody has to keep things running after others leave. And it’s quite unfair to broadly say it’s their crap that is left behind. For example I’ve had the position of maintaining Jeff’s work for the past year. And I wouldn’t consider it crap at all even when I’ve really wanted to write him up and ask “Now why did you do that?” sometimes.

A head hunter mentioned to me not long ago that COBOL programmers may again be in demand for high dollar soon since so many will be reaching retirement. The systems still rely on it heavily, especially ERP packages and mainframe systems. I ask how many of you would be willing to stoop to that when the pay could be so good? Or are we at the point that we just code for fun and not for a living? I may have to consider it one day; I certainly wouldn’t be above failing back on it.

When I do software maintenance I call myself a software mechanic.

You always end up fixing other people’s crap, (maybe the janitor picture is appropriate, but he should be holding a toilet plunger).

My coworker, Angie, and I started this board where we posted all the examples of shtty code we found. Some of them were real classics.

We used to say wooo hooo, some day we can get promoted to principle or fellow engineer, or even be a software manager – just like these folks did.

a very good article. IMHO, the main fear of maintenance is loss of design specifications. As long as you have papers detailling a system’s architecture, you can at least somehow understand what the guy was thinking.

By the way, I wrote about that a bit of time ago myself, as I had to go over an old project of mine where the documentation had gone astray:

Best regards
Tam Hanna