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A change in attitude - Legacy code

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.
Winston Churchill

Not long ago, I gave a talk about Software Craftsmanship where I asked who liked to work on greenfield projects. Almost everyone raised their hands. Then I asked who liked to work with legacy code. Besides one or two friends that were there, almost everyone kept their hands down.

It is always nice to start a project from scratch, be able to choose the technology, use the latest frameworks and have a lot of fun writing code without worrying about breaking existing features or having to understand existing code. Working on greenfield is great, mainly with an experienced and disciplined team using TDD since day one. Progress flows naturally and quickly.

But as soon as we are working with code written by people that are long gone, no tests, no documentation, we go mental. We notice we are going mental by the number of WTF we say during the day. We may get moody and start hating to work on a specific system or in parts of it. Frustration becomes a constant.

A change in attitude

If you don't like something change it; if you can't change it, change the way you think about it.
Mary Engelbreit

Although I wrote "we" and "us", that was really how I used to feel when working with legacy code. However, in the past few years, I learned many things. An obvious one is that moaning, complaining and cursing won't make my life easier or better. If I want things to be better I need to do something about it.

Today, when I look at legacy code, instead of moaning and getting frustrated, my attitude is to try to understand it and make it better, constantly applying the Boy Scout Rule.

As my friend David Green said in a twitter conversation, what I agree 100%, improving and understanding legacy code can be massively rewarding. The process of trying to make sense of a big ball of mud seems daunting but if we just focus in small parts of it, one at a time, and start improving them (writing tests, extracting methods and classes, renaming variables, etc), bit by bit, things become much easier and enjoyable.

Working with legacy code is almost like solving a big jigsaw puzzle. We don't do that all at once. We start by separating the pieces into groups, often starting with the edges and corners and then separating other small pieces by colour, pattern, etc. We now have a few (logical) groups and we start to form a higher level model in our head. What before was a bunch of random pieces (or a big ball of mud), now is a bunch of smaller groups of random pieces. Still not very helpful or encouraging, but nonetheless some progress. Bit by bit, we start working on one of these groups (parts of the code) and we start putting some pieces together (writing tests for the existing code, which will help with our understanding of the code, and refactoring it).

Once we start putting some pieces together, we start seeing a small part of our jigsaw puzzle picture. We get excited because now it's getting real. It's starting to make sense and we are happy we are making progress. The more pieces we put together the more excited we are about finishing the jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces we put together, the easier it gets to put more pieces together. And that's exactly the feeling I've got when working with legacy code now. For every piece of code I make better, more I want to make the whole code better. The feeling of achievement is really rewarding. What before was something I could barely read and took ages to understand, now reads like a story and every developer can understand it with no effort at all. Maybe when a good part of the code is stable (covered by tests, loosely coupled, well defined responsibilities, etc), I could even introduce the cool and new frameworks that I always wanted to use. I could upgrade some library versions. I could even throw a lot of code away and replace it with a framework because now my code is clean and modularised and replacing one part of the system will not break another. I don't even need to envy my friends working on greenfield projects any more.

Different challenges

Another cool thing about legacy code is that it forces you to think in a different way. In greenfield projects, when developing a new feature, we write a test and start implementing stuff. In legacy, sometimes you can't even instantiate a class in order to test it due to all its dependencies. A change in one place can cause an impact in obscure parts of the system. We have an option here. We can see these challenges as a pain in the ass or can be see them as very interesting problems to solve. I prefer the latter.

The professional side

Although it is OK to have fun and enjoy what we are doing, we always need to remember that we are professionals and being paid to write software. Software is an asset and a lot of money and time is invested on it. As every investment, clients want to maximize the return of their investment. The more we improve and keep the software clean, the longer the client will be able to benefit from it. Stretching the lifespan of a software also maximizes the client's return of investment.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it does not matter if you are working on a green or brownfield project. It's your attitude towards your job that will make it more or less enjoyable.

About the author

Software craftsman, author, and founder of the London Software Craftsmanship Community (LSCC). Sandro has been coding since a very young age but only started his professional career in 1996. He has worked for startups, software houses, product companies, international consultancy companies, and investment banks.

During his career Sandro had the opportunity to work in a good variety of projects, with different languages, technologies, and across many different industries. Sandro has a lot of experience in bringing the Software Craftsmanship ideology and Extreme Programming practices to organisations of all sizes. Sandro is internationally renowned by his work on evolving and spreading Software Craftsmanship and is frequently invited to speak in many conferences around the world. His professional aspiration is to raise the bar of the software industry by helping developers become better at and care more about their craft.

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