Software Development

Source Code is an Asset, Not a Liability

Some people have tried to argue that source code is a liability, not an asset. Apparently this “is now widely accepted

“this is a very strong idea that has a lot of impact across the IT industry and in the way developers view and perform their day-to-day work”.


The argument, as far as I can follow it, is that while engineers are paid to help design and build bridges and power plants, as developers we’re paid to “deliver business value”, and…

“Source code is merely the necessary evil that’s required to create value”

Source code, the software that we create, is only a means to and end. The software itself has no value, or worse it has negative value, because it creates a drag on your ability to innovate and move forward. The more code that you have, the higher your maintenance costs will be, therefore…

“… the best code of all is the code that’s never written.”

Michael Feathers, who has a lot of smart things to say about source code, joined in on this discussion. In The Carrying-Cost of Code he says that

“code is inventory. It is stuff lying around and it has substantial cost of ownership. It might do us good to consider what we can do to minimize it.”

He goes so far as to suggest a goofy thought experiment where “every line of code written disappears exactly three months after it is written”. The point of this would be to get developers and the business to understand that the “costs of carrying code are real, but no one accounts for them”.

Feathers reinforces the valid points about the drag that unmaintained or poorly maintained legacy code has on companies. Writing less code to solve a problem is a good thing – it’s (usually) more efficient and (usually) costs less to maintain a smaller code base. And yes there is a necessary cost to maintaining software and working with existing software and changing it.

But none of this changes the fact that software is an asset

If you build and operate a power plant or a bridge, you have to maintain it – just like software. And like a bridge or a power plant, a newer, more modern, better-designed, more efficient and simpler asset is better than a big, old, complicated, expensive-to-maintain one.

The “software is a liability” argument seems to be that it’s not the software that’s the asset, it’s the “features and options” – the capabilities that the software provides. This is like saying that it’s not the power plant (which a company spent millions of dollars to design and engineer) that’s a valuable asset to a company, it’s the energy that it generates. It’s not the bridge – it’s the ability to drive over water. It’s not the airplane, it’s the ability to fly.

Pretending that software has no value in itself is silly. Try explaining this to accountants (don’t depreciate the airplane, depreciate the ability to fly!) and IP lawyers and to investors who buy software companies for their IP. They all understand that software and the ideas embodied in it are valuable and need to be treated as assets. The ideas themselves are only worth so much, even if they’re patented. But the ideas realized in software, actualized and proven and ready to be used or (better) already being used – that’s where the real value is. And this is the value that needs to be maintained and preserved.

Software is more valuable than other assets

The important difference between software and other assets is that software is much more plastic than other engineering work. Software is “soft” – it can be changed easily and inexpensively and quickly. This makes software more strategically valuable than “hard” assets like a building because software can be continuously adapted and renewed in response to changing situations, and transformed to create new business opportunities.

Software has to be changed to stay useful. The problem is NOT that we HAVE TO maintain software and change it to do things that it was never intended to do, to work in ways that it was never designed to, to do things that we couldn’t imagine a few years ago. This is the opportunity that software gives us – that we CAN do this. This is why Software is Eating the World.

Reference: Source Code is an Asset, Not a Liability from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog.

Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.
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