Software Structural Quality, or Lessons from Open Source Projects

Software quality is important. Very important. Not a lot of people will argue with this. That’s why we have “tools” like QA and TDD – to ensure that we deliver a high quality software. But most of these “tools” address functional quality of the software. But what about the structural quality? Isn’t it important as well? How often will you see a bug like this: “Method xxxxx is difficult to read and it’s too complex”? Maybe structural quality is not that important and is primarily a topic of software craftsmanship?
 
Software structural quality refers to how it meets non-functional requirements that support the delivery of the functional requirements, such as robustness or maintainability, the degree to which the software was produced correctly.” If the software has 0 bugs (what a noble goal), but is neither easily readable nor maintainable, is it good? “Hey, man, it works”. Yes, no doubt about that. How does that help when new features should be added or existing code should be changed? Unless code has a high structural quality it cannot be easily changed and it will take more and more time to deliver new features. Also, eventually it will effect functional quality, because changing something, even something very small in a very bad code can lead to an unpredictable behavior (read: bugs).
 
So, if a company would like to stay in a business and release new versions of their software, then sooner or later they should take care about “internal” quality. The sooner the better, before it’s too late. How may times have you heard something like this “I’m not touching that code – nobody knows what will happen”.
 
Then why do so many companies produce software that works, but is ugly inside? One of my ex colleagues once said: “If our customers could see our code, they would never buy our application”.
 
Hey, it works. Don’t you get it?”. Yeah, I get it.
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I’ve been in many companies, but I have not seen high structural quality in code very often. That’s why it’s even more surprising when you look at the quality of the popular open source projects. Most of them are very good – easy to read & understand, nicely structured and covered with multiple unit tests. Shouldn’t it be an opposite – as my job I’ll write a high quality code, but I can be easy on myself with this for-fun projects? Funny, but it doesn’t work this way, because it’s impossible to add crap to an open source project without it being seen and accepted by everybody. But it’s absolutely possible at work – as long as I have 0 bugs, I can put whatever crap I want, nobody will see it anyway. “Don’t you have a code review process?”. Yeah, right – if I contribute crap, why would I reject your bad code.
 
So, what can open source projects teach us the about structural quality of software? 
 
First of all, there should be somebody who cares. Who cares about good code. Who will be a pioneer of “let’s be proud of what we write”.
 
Second, create a culture of good code. Yes, it’s possible to setup a process, but unless the team believes in good code, there is always a way to cheat the process.
 
Have you ever tried to open a PC for upgrade? Yeah. You know what I’m talking about. Have you tried open Mac? Mac Pro is beautiful inside. That was the way Steve Jobs wanted it – the product should be beautiful even inside.
 
And BTW, writing good code is much more fun. So, have fun 🙂 and be proud of what you write.
 
Update: Chris Hume volunteered to edit this post and make it better. Thanks, Chris.
 
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