Maintaining Software Sucks – and what we can do about it

If you ask most developers, they will tell you that working in maintenance sucks. Understanding and fixing somebody else’s lousy code is hard. It’s tedious. And it’s frustrating – because you know you would do a better job if you were given the chance to do it over and do it right.

I enjoy maintaining code I’ve built. It’s my personal responsibility to my users. On the other hand, maintaining code I didn’t build – and living with the consequences of decisions I had no hand in making – is very painful for me.

Jeff Atwood,
Programming Horror

Many software developers see maintenance as a prison sentence – or at least a probationary term. They went to school to become a software engineer, and instead they ended up working as a janitor. For “real developers”, maintenance is boring and “spirit-crushing”.

I have done software maintenance in the past and it is honestly the biggest pile of shit I have ever undertaken.

Comment by hotdog, on Jeff Atwood’s blog post
The Noble Art of Maintenance Programming, October 2008

Maintenance is hard work

Robert Glass, in his essay Software Maintenance is a Solution, not a Problem, explains why maintenance is so difficult and unpopular. Maintenance is:

  • Intellectually complex – it requires innovation while placing severe constraints on the innovator. Maintainers have to work within the existing design as well as within regulatory and governance restrictions, they have to be careful to maintain compatibility with other systems, and they can’t afford to make mistakes that could impact customers who are already relying on the system (which is why more than half of maintenance work is testing).
  • Technically difficult – the maintainer must be able to work with a concept and a design and its code all at the same time, and pick it all up quickly.
  • Unfair – the maintainer never gets all the things the maintainer needs. Like good documentation, or good tools, or the time to get work done properly.
  • No-win – the maintainer only deals with users who have problems, instead of hobnobbing with executive sponsors on high-profile strategic projects.
  • Dirty work – the maintainer has to work at the grubby level of detailed coding and debugging, instead of architecture and creative design, worrying about how to build and deploy the code and making sure that it is running correctly.
  • Living in the past – maintainers are always living with somebody’s design and technology choices and mistakes, instead of solving new problems and learning new tools (which means there’s no chance to pad their resumes).
  • Conservative – the going motto for maintenance is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, so maintainers have to put up with shortcomings and shortcuts and compromises, and do the least amount possible to get the job done.

But even though this is hard work, people doing maintenance work are under appreciated – and usually under paid too. The high-profile “software architect” positions with the high salaries go to the flashy stars working on strategic development projects. So why should you – or anyone – care if maintenance work is offshored to India or Romania or somewhere else?

Maintenance is too important to suck

But the truth is that maintenance is too important to be ignored – or offshored. It’s too important to organizations and too important to software developers. Maintenance – not new development – is where most of the money is spent on software,and like it or not, it is where most of us will spend most of our careers, whether we are working on enterprise systems, or building online communities or working at a Cloud vendor or a shrink wrap software publisher, or writing mobile apps or embedded software.

In the US today, 60% of software professionals (1.5 million of an estimated total population of 2.5 million) are working on maintaining software systems (Capers Jones, Software Engineering Best Practices, 2010), and the number of people working on maintenance worldwide will continue to climb because we keep writing more software, and this software all needs to be supported and maintained. We can look forward to a future where almost all of us will spend almost all of our time in maintenance, rather than building something new.

So we have to change the way that people think about software maintenance, how it is done, and especially how it is managed.

It’s not Maintenance that Sucks. What Sucks is how we Manage Maintenance

Attempts to manage maintenance using formal governance models based on ITIL service management or structured software lifecycle standards like IEE-STD-1219 (ISO/IEC 14764) or applying the CMMi maturity model to software maintenance are hopelessly expensive, bureaucratic and impractical.

In most organizations, maintenance is handled reactively, as an unavoidably necessary part of business-as-usual operational support. What management cares most about is minimizing cost and hassle. What is the least that we have to do to keep users from complaining, and how can we get this done in the cheapest and fastest way possible? If we can’t avoid doing it, can we outsource it, maybe save some money, and make it somebody else’s problem, so we can focus on other “more important” things?

This short-term thinking is continued year after year, until the investment that the organization made in building the system, and in the people who built it, has been completely exhausted. The smart people who once cared about doing a good job left years ago. The technology has fallen behind to the point that it has become another “legacy system” that will need to be replaced. Only a handful of people understand the code and the technology, and each change takes longer and costs more than it’s worth. Technical risks and business risks keep piling up. Your customers are tired of putting up with bugs and waiting for things that they need. At some point there’s no choice but to throw it out and start over again. What a sad, sick waste of time and money.

We have to correct the misunderstanding that software maintenance is a drain on an organization, that it takes away from innovation: that innovation can only happen in expensive greenfield development projects, and that money spent working on software that you already have written is money wasted. That it isn’t important to pay attention to what your business is doing today and that you can’t build on this for the future.

Online, software-driven businesses like Facebook and Twitter and Netflix keep growing and innovating by building on what they already have, by investing in their people and in the software base that they have already written. A lot of the work that people are doing at these companies today is maintenance: adding another feature to code that is already there, fixing bugs, making the system more secure, scaling to handle increased load, analyzing feedback data, integrating with new partners, maybe rewriting a mobile app to be faster and simpler to use.

This is the same kind of maintenance work that other people are doing at other companies, and at the heart of it, the technology isn’t that much more exciting. What’s different is how their work is done, how it is managed, and how people approach their jobs. For them, it isn’t “maintenance” – it’s engineering. Developers are valued and trusted and respected, whether they are building something new or supporting what’s already there. They are given the responsibility and the opportunity to solve interesting problems, to experiment and try out new ideas with customers and to see if their ideas make a difference. They work in small teams following lightweight incremental development methods and Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery and Continuous Deployment, and other ideas and self-service tools coming out of Devops to get things done quickly and efficiently, with minimal paperwork and other bullshit.

These organizations show how software development and maintenance should be managed: hire the best people you can find; grant them agency and the opportunity to work with customers and make a meaningful difference; provide them with constant feedback so that they can keep learning and making the product better; give them the tools they need and encourage them to keep improving the software and how they build it; and hold them accountable for the system’s (and the company’s) success.

This works. What other organizations are doing doesn’t. It’s not maintenance that sucks. It’s how we think about it and how we manage it that sucks. And this is something that we can fix.

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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10 years ago

good article

Oddbjørn Lona
Oddbjørn Lona
10 years ago

Very good article and touches on alot of things that I feel are very relevant for developers that reside in the “maintaining software” world as opposed to the “I only create new software” world. Obviously the differences are not always clear cut between them, but Having had most of my career in the “maintaining software” side of things, I would recommend trying out Kanban or Scrum to manage the team. It actually works, and I am a strong believer that this will make the team deliver more business-critical features rather than nice-to-have features. (And of course Twitter/Facebook/google are all doing… Read more »

10 years ago

Good article and informing. It’s fun to read as well.

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