Trade-off

Another term that is being overused and misused across our industry… Ok, I want to clear its name a little bit and explain how we actually do trade-offs every day.

Consider this scenario: You need to take over a big legacy system. Really poorly written, no tests, coupling everywhere. You are required to add a couple of minor features and fix a few old bugs. You, you’re a professional programmer, with a proven track record. “They” are product owners which would like those features and bug fixes in production ASAP. Users are demanding justice!

You are faced with a dilemma: How can I, THE programmer, deliver this in an impossible time frame? It’s crazy! It’ll never work… I need to isolate the parts where I’ll have to add those features, I need to write tests to make sure I’m not breaking stuff, I need to refactor the code, to understand it better now and later… all these things, the humanity!!! And what the hell is a m_hWnd pointer?!

In the face of this apocalypse, you might crumble and cry, or you might hit “them” hard until they leave you alone and slowly move you to a “green field” project nobody uses, or… you may consider the following aspects to this problem:

1. The application is in production for years and it produces $$$.

2. Users are pushing.

3. The code is shit.

4. The new features and bug fixes are not really that big.

Now, should you hold your own and tell everyone about point 3, crying how this should inevitably be rewritten and that will take months, years, omg, the humanity!!?? (really author… again with this?) Or instead, should you realise that there is no way in hell you can rewrite this in a timely fashion and just slap some more shit on top, to get it over with and crash like a diva ninja-developer on a chaise longue asking for refreshments?

Well… (get ready for it…) it depends! This is it, thank you folks, good bye!

Wouldn’t you really hate my guts if I ended it there (like some professionals often do)? Hahaha. No my friend. I’m here to help. Here’s what’s gonna happen: you’re going to realise that indeed, you don’t have the time to make it all nice and shiny. But! You won’t slap shit on top of it. You’ll make it so that the new stuff you write is nice and tidy, with tests and all that, but linking it to the legacy system will probably be a little shitty, yes. There’s your first trade-off. The bugs? Well, the bugs get sprayed, but the code defects, you’ll track down with the debugger (ooh, watch out TDD purists), understand what’s going on and apply a small local fix. Second trade-off.

Now, will the code be better after this? Mostly no. But the new parts you wrote will be good and overall, the system will satisfy the angry user mob.

What about your previous articles about clean code and refactoring and all that good stuff (a bit of narcissism, I agree)?

Well, they are part of what I described above too (remember? the “new stuff” you added to the legacy crap). Funny thing is, we expect other people to do these kind of trade-offs every day. Imagine the scenario above, but with a little alteration: you take your car to the mechanic for a couple of small tune-ups and some scratch fixes. Of course you want your car back ASAP and with those things done. What do you think the mechanic does in his little magic castle? Why trade-offs, of course. You get your car back, with the stuff you asked for, you use it, there you go…

So back to the term. Trade-off. It’s actually a placeholder for judgement. The more you think about trade-offs, the more judgement you apply to the problem at hand. So there it is, I guess that’s what I was trying to say.

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