Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Taking a Second Look at Collective Code Ownership

It's common to hear proponents of Agile discussing the benefits of collective code ownership. The benefits can be undeniable. Sharing knowledge ensures at least one other perspective and drastically reduces Bus Risk. However, sharing comes at a cost: time. The ROI of sharing with a few people can be greatly different than the ROI of sharing with 5 or more people.

I do believe in the benefits of collective code ownership. Collective code ownership is a step towards taking an underachieving team and turning them into a good team. However, I'm becoming more and more convinced that it's not the way to take good team and make them great.

(context: I believe these ideas apply to teams larger than 3. Teams of 2-3 should likely be working with everyone on everything.)

If you pair program, you will incur a context switch every time you rotate pairs. Context switches always have a non-zero cost, and the more you work on, the larger the context switch is likely to be. Teams where everyone works on everything are very likely paying for expensive context switches on a regular basis. In fact, the words Context Switch are often used specifically to point out the cost.

Working on everything also ensures a non-trivial amount of time ramping up on whatever code you are about to start working on. Sometimes you work on something you know fairly well. Other times you're working on something you've never seen before. Working on something you've never seen before creates two choices (assuming pair-programming): go along for the ride, understanding little - or - slow your pair down significantly while they explain what's going on.

Let's say you choose to slow your pair down for the full explanation: was it worth it? If you're the only other person that knows the component, it's very likely that it was worth it. What if everyone else on the team already knows that component deeply? Well, if they all die, you can maintain the app, but I don't think that's going to be the largest issue on the team.

(the same ideas apply if you don't pair-program, except you don't have the "go along for the ride" option)

I can hear some of you right now: We rotate enough that the context switch is virtually free and because we rotate so much there's little ramp up time. You might be right. Your problem domain might be so simple that jumping on and off of parts of your system is virtually free. However, if you're domain is complex in anyway, I think you're underestimating the cost of context switches and ramp up time. Also, the devil is traditionally in the details, so you're "simple domain" probably isn't as simple as you think.

Let's assume your domain is that simple: it might be cheaper to rewrite the software than take your Bus Number from 3 to 4.

Another benefit of pair programming combined with collective code ownership is bringing up everyone's skill level to that of the most skilled team member. In my opinion, that's something you need to worry about on an underachieving team, not a good team. If you're on a good team, it's likely that you can learn just as much from any member of your team; therefore, you are not losing anything by sticking to working with just a few of them in specific areas. You really only run into an education problem if you're team has more learners than mentors - and, in that case, you're not ready to worry about going from good to great.

There's also opportunity cost of not sticking to certain areas. Focusing on a problem allows you to create better solutions. Specifically, it allows you to create a vision of what needs to be done, work towards that vision and constantly revise where necessary.

Mark Twain once wrote that his letters would be shorter if he had more time. The same is often true of software. The simplest solution is not always the most obvious. If you're jumping from problem to problem, you're more likely to create an inferior solution. You'll solve problems, but you'll be creating higher maintenance costs for the project in the long term.

Instead, I often find it very helpful to ponder a problem and create a more simple and, very often, a more concise solution. In my experience, the maintenance costs are also greatly reduced by the simplified, condensed solution.

I'd like to repeat for clarity: Collective code ownership has benefits. There's no doubt that it is better to have everyone work on everything than have everyone focused on individual parts of the codebase. However, it's worth considering the cost of complete sharing if you are trying to move from good to great.
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