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Why Should Managers Care About Static Analysis?

I’d like to talk a bit today about how, if you’re a dev manager for a team or teams that are responsible for .NET code bases, NDepend will help you lower your blood pressure and sleep better at night.  But first, bear with me as a I introduce and explain myself a bit.  It’ll be relevant.  I promise.

There’s been a relatively unique fluidity to my career, particularly in recent years.  The first 10 years or so of my professional career featured somewhat of a standard path from developer to management, with milestone stops along the way earning me designations like “senior” developer, team lead, and architect.  At the end of my salaried career, I had earned myself a CIO role, presiding over all development and IT operations for a company.  And, while I enjoyed the leadership responsibilities that came along with that sort of role, I ultimately decided to go off on my own into consulting, where I’d have more variety and a more fluid set of responsibilities.  These days, I do a combination of development coaching, management consulting, and content creation to earn my living.

The reason I mention all of this is that I’ve had success as a developer, architect, manager, and consultant to all of the above, and that multi-disciplined success has given me unique perspective on the interaction among those roles.  It’s shown me that, above all, what you need to be successful is the ability to trust your dev team.  But trust doesn’t come easily.  You didn’t get to where you are by blindly trusting anyone who tell you a pleasant story.

Here’s your essential conundrum as a manager.  You’re managing a team of intelligent humans that are doing things you don’t understand.  You can protest and claim to understand what they’re doing, but you don’t.  I learned this in my travels as a manager, even managing a team of .NET folks who turned to me to answer their toughest technical questions.  I may have had years and years of professional development on them, but I wasn’t there in the weeds with them, dealing with the challenges that they were, day in and day out.  I had to trust them because keeping my nose in their affairs didn’t scale.  So no matter how well you might understand the surrounding technologies and principles, you don’t understand what they’re doing at any given moment.

There’s a tendency toward entropy that kicks in when you’re managing people whose labor you don’t understand.  A lot of managers in this situation have to fight a panicky impulse to regain control via micromanagement.  I can’t really tell if they’re making good decisions in their coding, but I can make sure they’re getting in no later than 9, leaving no earlier than 5, writing at least 100 lines of code per day, and keeping unit test coverage about 90%.  You may laugh, but it’s a natural impulse, particularly in the face of a slipped deadline or low quality release.  The C-suite wants answers, and you’re caught in the middle, scrambling simultaneously to provide them and to figure out how to prevent this in the future.  You didn’t get ahead in your career through passivity, so the impulse is to seize control, even if perhaps you realize it’s a misguided impulse.

NDepend provides help here.  It allows you to keep an eye on metrics that aren’t obtuse if you structure things right.  I cannot overemphasize this caveat.  Renowned systems thinker W. Edwards Deming once explained that, “people with targets and jobs dependent upon meeting them will probably meet the targets – even if they have to destroy the enterprise to do it.”  Translated into our terms for this post, what this means is that if you measure your team’s productivity by them producing 100 lines of code per day, they will produce 100 lines of code per day, even if it means creating unstoppable death stars of terrible code.  So disabuse yourself of the notion that you can use this tool to evaluate your developers’ performance, and understand instead that you can use it to identify potential trouble spots in the code.

Pair with a developer or your team’s architect, and use NDepend’s phenomenal reporting capabilities to create a big, visible report on the state of your team’s code.  Here are some ideas for things that might interest you:

  • Which sections of the code are most heavily depended on, so that I can have a heads up when they are changed?
  • How coupled is a module to the rest of the code base?  So, for instance, if I wanted to swap in a new database solution, how hard would that be?
  • Are the most troublesome areas of the code base getting worse, staying the same, or improving?
  • Is the team’s development practice generally in line with commonly accepted good ideas?
  • What does the architecture of the code actually look like (as opposed to some design document that was written and may be out of date)?
  • Are there currently any code violations that the team has identified as critical mistakes?

When I was managing teams, I certainly would have been interested in the answers to these questions for strategic planning purposes.  How dependent you are on a database or whether a feature implementation has touched a dicey section of the code is valuable information for making important decisions (maybe it’s not worth considering a database switch and maybe we should add in more testing than usual for the upcoming release).

Not only can NDepend give you this information, but it can be integrated with your build to furnish it in a very clear, easy, and visible way.  Picture it integrated with your team’s build and delivered to your inbox in digest format on a daily basis.  This is possible to do with your build tool — you could work with the developers on your team to design a build customization where you can see if an area of the code is getting worse or how much coupling there is among the modules in the code.

Imagine it.  Instead of wondering whether your developers are actually working and whether they’re making good decisions, you can partner with them to keep you in the loop on important characteristics of the code, and also to keep you out of their hair for the details it’s better for them to worry about.  You get your information and early detection scheme, and they benefit from having an informed manager that asks intelligent questions only when it makes sense to do so.  And for you, that all adds up to better sleep and lower blood pressure.

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Erik Dietrich

I'm a passionate software developer and active blogger. Read about me at my site.

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