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Pitfall: Allowing new features to creep (or pour) in

June 3, 2008 0 Comments

[From Pitfalls of Modern Software Engineering by Bruce F. Webster (forthcoming)]

Categories: managerial

The impulse to constantly add new and incremental features to a software program certainly isn’t unique to modern software develoment, or to a particular technology or methodology. It derives largely from three sources. Upper management and marketing want, and sometimes need, those additional features to win a customer, to better position the product against a competitor, or to better justify the expense of an in-house project. Engineers often find it far more fun, more interesting, and more rewarding to add or extend features than to make existing features work completely and perfectly. And customers supply a constant flow of demand for new and improved functionality.

The problem is that many modern technologies and methodologies intensify all these tendencies. With a decent software design and implementation, based on current technology, it can take literally only a few minutes to add or extend features. Frankly, that’s the payoff that lures many engineers to modern technologies in the first place: They get to do really neat stuff, do it quickly, and impress the boss while they’re at it. The boss, having seen how quickly engineers can extend or create functionality, doubles or trebles the list of must-have features. The technical manager, caught in the middle, wonders how to deal with all this.

Symptoms

Engineers focusing on adding new features instead of getting old ones working completely. Upper management passing down long (or even short) lists of additional features when the engineering schedule will be hard-pressed to accommodate the current ones. Customers failing to distinguish between what they’d like and what they’re willing to live with.

Consequences

Features that don’t work as completely or well as they were intended. Missed milestones and schedule slippage.

Detection

Review all existing features with the engineering team and get an honest assessment of where each feature is and what it will take to complete it. If necessary, do a design and code review for each feature. Compare the documented “essential features” list—and the schedule required to complete them—with the current feature set as well as those proposed by engineers and upper management, and find where the differences are coming in.

Extraction

Nothing fancy here: Get the absolute “drop dead” release date for the software and work backward from there, allocating time to design, implement, debug, and test each feature that is not yet completed. Show everyone (especially customers) the gap between the time and resources allocated those required for just the currently planned and requested features. Use whatever process works in your company for performing feature triage: keeping those that are absolutely essential, dropping those that can wait for the next release, and negotiating on the others.

Prevention

Use the process given in Extraction before a line of code is ever written. As features are proposed, collect them in a list, but do not allow any work on them. At intervals, repeat the process: You might have time (or need) to schedule some of the proposed features, but you may well have to drop previously required ones.

As with a prior pitfall on features, this pitfall is so an obvious and well-known that I’m almost embarrassed to include it here. Again, it is still so common that I must.

References

Webster, from Pitfalls of Object-Oriented Development (1995).

About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 720.895.1405 or at bwebster@bfwa.com.

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