Thursday, October 8, 2009

Responsibility Traps

Over at InfoQ there is a presentation by Eric Evans called Strategic Design - Responsibility Traps. This presentation is full of all sorts of gems like "one irresponsible programmer can keep any 5 top notch programmers busy."

His presentation is all about how to take legacy systems and apply DDD (Domain Driven Design) to them when doing new development. In the process he addresses lots of really important issues like, "the whole system will not be well designed," which I may dedicate a whole post to in the future.

What I want to mention here is what he calls Responsibility Traps. These are traps that responsible programmers (read: good programmers) fall into. In the presentation he mentions two:
  1. Building a platform to make others productive
  2. Cleaning up other people's mess
The reason why these are traps is that "you are not the one who finally delivers the sexy new capability." Instead, what you've done is "made the irresponsible programmers look even better". Ultimately Evans believes this leads to this fact: "Because the best programmers are busy making the platform strong, the actual delivery of the Core Domain is being done by irresponsible programmers."

I had never really thought about this, but I think he's dead on. Your real star players, over time, gravitate to working on more abstract projects like frameworks and platforms and very technology oriented things. This migration makes sense on the surface, because these things are harder, so you want your best people working on them.

The problem with this is that these are not the projects that make the biggest difference to the product as a whole. These things are not part of the Core Domain. They may be important. In fact they may be absolutely essential, but it doesn't change the fact they are not the MOST important. They are not what your application is all about. So what happens is your irresponsible developers end up working on the MOST important parts of the application.

Evans consistently uses the word "irresponsible" instead of "bad" or "weak". I think this is more than a political move on his part. The reason why it's a problem that the irresponsible developers are writing the core domain is that they write it irresponsibly, not that they write it badly. What does that mean?
  • They hack through it
  • They leave it a mess
  • They don't question the design when it stops working well
  • They keep bolting new stuff on top instead of refactoring
  • They introduce performance and maintenance problems
These things are "bad", but for the most part they are not outwardly noticeable. Irresponsible developers may be fully capable of delivering a project with few to no bugs that looks just like what the business people asked for. But because they wrote it irresponsibly it will be a thorn in the side of the project from then on. Unfortunately, the business people wont know that. And if the responsible people tell them, the business people either a) wont believe them or b) wont understand the severity.

There is a certain amount of "the sky is falling!" here. The responsible people say there is a problem in something that has been written. The business people say, ok, go fix it. The responsible people toil away for awhile and return with the issues resolved. The business people don't see a difference, usually there ISN'T an immediate noticeable difference. So it looks like these responsible people keep shouting about the falling sky and then spinning their wheels on nothing for weeks, while the irresponsible people are off getting things done (and creating more problems).

The point Evans is trying to make with this is that the responsible developers are actually being somewhat irresponsible by allowing this to happen. This isn't about being political and trying to make yourself look good. I mean, it's partly about that. But it's really about being truly responsible and embracing the fact that the whole system will not be perfect and focusing on making the most important parts be the parts that are the highest quality. Those are the parts the responsible people should be working on, those are the parts YOU should be working on!

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