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What 108M Lines of Code do not Tell Us

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Source: Nemo

Coming on the heels of Gartner’s research note projecting $1 trillion in IT Debt by 2015, CAST’s study provided a more granular view of the debt, estimating an average of over $1 million in technical debt per application in a sample of 288 applications. Between these two studies, the situation examined at the micro-level seems to be quite consistent with the state of affairs estimated and projected at the macro-level.

My hunch is that the gravity of the situation from a software quality and maintenance perspective is actually masked by efforts of IT staffs to compensate for programming problems through operational excellence. For example, carefully staged deployment and quick rollback often enable coping with defects that could/should have been handled through higher test coverage, lesser complexity or a more acceptable level of code duplication.

Part of the reason that the masking effects of IT staffs are not always fully appreciated is that they are embedded in the business design of IT Outsourcing companies. The company to which you outsourced your IT is ‘making a bet’ it can run your IT better than you can. It often succeeds in so doing. The unresolved defects in your old code plus those that evolved over time through software decay have not necessarily been fixed. Rather, the manifestations of these defects are  handled operationally in a more efficient manner.

Think again if your visceral reaction to the technical debt situation described in the Gartner research note and the CAST study is of the “This can’t possibly be true” variety. It is what it is – just take a quick look at Nemo to see representative technical debt data with your own eyes. And, as indicated in this post, it might even be worse than what it looks. As Gartner puts it:

The results of such [IT Debt] an assessment will be, at best, unsettling and, at worst, truly shocking.


What 108M Lines of Code Tell Us

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Results of the first annual report on application quality have just been released by CAST. The company analyzed 108M lines of code in 288 applications from 75 companies in various industries. In addition to the ‘usual suspects’ –  COBOL, C/C++, Java, .NET – CAST included Oracle 4GL and ABAP in the report.

The CAST report is quite important in shedding light on the code itself. As explained in various posts in this blog, this transition from the process to its output is of paramount importance. Proficiency in the software process is a bit allusive. The ‘proof of the pudding’ is in the output of the software process. The ability to measure code quality enables effective governance of the software process. Moreover, Statistical Process Control methods can be applied to samples of technical debt readings. Such application is most helpful in striking a good balance in ‘stopping the line’ – neither too frequently nor too rarely.

According to CAST’s report, the average technical debt per line of code across all application is $2.82.  This figure, depressing that it might be, is reasonably consistent with quick eyeballing of Nemo. The figure is somewhat lower than the average technical debt figure reported recently by Cutter for a sample of the Cassandra code. (The difference is probably attributable to the differences in sample sizes between the two studies). What the data means is that the average business application in the CAST study is saddled with over $1M in technical debt!

An intriguing finding in the CAST report is the impact of size on the quality of COBOL applications.  This finding is demonstrated in Figure 1. It has been quite a while since I last saw such a dramatic demonstration of the correlation between size and quality (again, for COBOL applications in the CAST study).

Source: First Annual CAST Worldwide Application Software Quality Study – 2010

One other intriguing findings in the CAST study is that “application in government sector show poor changeability.” CAST hypothesizes that the poor changeability might be due to higher level of outsourcing in the government sector compared to the private sector. As pointed out by Amy Thorne in a recent comment posted in The Agile Executive, it might also be attributable to the incentive system:

… since external developers often don’t maintain the code they write, they don’t have incentives to write code that is low in technical debt…

Congratulations to Vincent Delaroche, Dr. Bill Curtis, Lev Lesokhin and the rest of the CAST team. We as an industry need more studies like this!