Justin Francis Self-Portrait

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fixing Bugs is not Free

When wandering the halls, I will often hear comments from users about little bugs (usually display bugs) and I tell them straight up that in all likelihood, the bug will never be fixed. The typical response to this is a gasp, followed by a smug look that means something along the lines of "I could write software better than these amateurs."

I have also told developers who report small bugs that "we'll wait for a user to report that," with similar results. I then have a choice to make. Try to convince them I actually know what I am doing, or leave them thinking I'm an buffoon. Here is the argument I make.

Fixing bugs is just like building new features. It is not free. Each bug users desire fixed costs effort (points in our agile methodology) to do so. Bugs are usually much cheaper to fix than new features are to build, but the cost is certainly not insignificant.

If bugs cost effort to fix just like anything else, then they must be estimated and scheduled just like everything else. This is where the key lies. When confronted with the option of refining an existing feature (let alone a bugfix) or the creation of a new feature, stakeholders will almost always opt to implement a new feature (this leads to a kind of functional but rough monolith, but that is another post). This means that bugs, especially ones that don't really hurt anybody, are the least likely items to get scheduled. And so they don't.

I should make a note about critical bugs. If a critical bug (one that has no workaround that prevents an important feature from working) is found, we fix it immediately (forget iterations), but even these are not free. After the fact, we estimate the fix and then push an appropriate number of items from the current iteration to make room for the bugfix, just as if a stakeholder has scheduled it.

Surprisingly, systems I have built using this strategy are not buggy as one would expect, though that probably has more to do with Test Driven Design than anything else. The point is that if you do things properly, this strategy not only works but works well. We hardly ever schedule bug-fixes at work, and when we do, they are usually almost as large as features.

Once this is explained, I wait for a few weeks and then circle back. The person in question is usually impressed with the features we have delivered in that time and is not concerned about that bug that they don't even notice anymore.

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