by Ger Cloudt, author of “What is Software Quality?”
Last Sunday, June-20th 2021, we witnessed maybe one of the most exciting Formula-1 races. A battle between the teams of Mercedes and Red Bull. A race which clearly demonstrated speed versus pace, which can act as a metaphor in software development as management regularly is asking for speed. However, the question should be whether management should ask for speed or pace?
Qualification versus race
In a Formula-1 weekend on Saturday, the qualification is driven to determine the start order of the drivers. The driver who drove the fasted lap in Q3 of the qualification will get the first and best start position; pole-position. Clearly, qualification is about speed, being the fastest over only 1 lap.
However, during the race it is about pace, in the Formula-1 they even call it race-pace. The race last Sunday was run over 53 laps with a total distance of approx. 310 kilometers, taking 1 hour and 27 minutes for the winner Max Verstappen.
The fastest lap during the qualification was driven in 1 minute and 29.99 seconds, the fastest lap during the race was driven in 1 minute and 36.4 seconds, clearly demonstrating the difference between speed and pace.
One of the reasons for the difference in velocity during qualification and the race is tire wear. The condition of the tires is highly determining the grip of the car and therefore highly influences the velocity. With higher velocities the tires will wear out faster, resulting in less grip and a lower velocity. That’s why it is important for the drivers to manage their tires carefully to avoid a strong decline in grip. An additional choice drivers have, is to make a pit-stop and change tires. The time penalty associated is, dependent on the circuit, approx. 25 seconds for each pit-stop.
In last Sundays race, the winner, Max Verstappen, had chosen for a 2-stopper (2 pit-stops) against the 1-stopper of Lewis Hamilton who finished second. When leading the race, closely chased by Hamilton, Verstappen made his second pit-stop to change to a fresh set of tires, giving away the leading position and taking a penalty of approx. 25 seconds. Hamilton continued without additional pit-stop resulting in a slower pace. Verstappen overtook Hamilton 1 lap before the finish.
Let’s see whether we can discover a similarity between Formula-1 and software development. Like the tires in a Formula-1 race wear out, software wears out as well over time. Over time, imperfections will creep into your software, called Technical Debt, by which your software wears out. As a consequence complexity of your software will increase and your development velocity will decline. Internal software quality is like the tires of a Formula-1 race car, both wear out causing a decline in velocity.
In software development there are 2 ways in mitigating Technical Debt. The first one is “doing things as they should be”, meaning, applying good engineering practices like proper and thorough requirements engineering, solid design practices, producing Clean Code and testing efficiently and sufficiently to detect defects as early as possible. This way of mitigating Technical Debt can be compared with “carefully driving” in Formula-1 to limit the wearing out of the tires as much as possible. However, “carefully driving” like “doing things as they should be” will have a lower velocity than speeding as fast as you can. Initially you will be faster when speeding or taking short-cuts, but over time your tires or software will be worn out such you will become slower and slower. The Formula-1 car will become slower simply because the grip of the tires is declining and possibly even resulting into a blowout. The software development will become slower simply because the complexity of your software is increasing and possibly even resulting into a situation in which your engineers do not dare to touch the code anymore because they do not understand it anymore.
The second way of mitigating Technical Debt is “correcting imperfections” in the software, meaning to perform restructuring and/or refactoring of your code, solving open defects or add missing test cases. This way of mitigating Technical Debt can be compared with the pit-stop to change the tires in Formula-1. A penalty is taken, in software development all needed effort to perform this refactoring, in Formula-1 the time needed to make the pit-stop. However the result should be less complexity in your software such development velocity increases, in Formula-1 the pit-stop results in a fresh set of tires with high grip and a resulting higher velocity.
Pace versus speed, a balancing act.
In Formula-1 it is a balancing act between speed and pace during a race. Should the team apply for a 2-stopper or a 1-stopper? How “carefully” should the driver drive to mitigate the wear-out of the tires? The same questions can be asked considering mitigating Technical Debt in software development. How much effort should be invested in performing re-designs or refactoring the code? How much effort should be invested in analyzing the requirements, creating the perfect design, producing perfectly Clean Code and testing the maximum? It depends, it depends on how long your race will take. It depends on how long you will need to develop and maintain your software. What is clear, is that software development in general is a long lasting activity which might take years or even decades. That’s why we should focus on achieving a sustainable pace instead of a high speed.