First off, go watch this excellent video from Ken Duda of Arista at Networking Field Day 28. It’s the second time he’s knocked it out of the park when it comes to talking about code quality:
One of the things that Ken brings up in this video that I thought would be good to cover in a bit more depth is the idea of what happens to the culture of your organization, specifically code quality, when you acquire a new company. Every team goes through stages of development from formation through disagreement and finally to success and performance. One of the factors that can cause a high-performing team to regress back to a state of challenges is adding new team members to the group.
Let’s apply this lesson to your existing code infrastructure. Let’s say you’ve spent a lot of time building the best organization that has figured out and your dev teams are running like a well-oiled machine. You’re pushing out updates left and right and your users are happy. Then, you buy a company to get a new feature or add some new blood to the team. What happens when that new team comes on-board? Are they going to integrate into what you’ve been doing all this time? Do they have their own method for doing development? Are they even using the same tools that you have used? How much upheaval are you in for?
Buying Your Way To Consistency
Over a decade ago, United Airlines bought Continental Airlines. Two years later, the companies finally merged their ticketing systems. Well, merged might be a bit of a stretch. United effectively moved all their reservations to the Continental system and named the whole thing United. There are always challenges with these kinds of integrations but one might think that part of the reason for the acquisition was to move to a more modern reservation system.
United’s system was called Apollo and built in the 1970s. How could they move to a more modern system? Was the reason for the huge purchase of another airline directly related to their desire to adopt a newer, more flexible reservation system? There have certainly been suggestions of that for a number of years. But, more importantly, they also saw the challenges faced by one of their Star Alliance partner US Airways in 2007 when they tried a different approach to merging booking systems. The two radically different code bases clashed and created issues. And that’s for something as simple as an airline reservation system!
In the modern day we have much more control over the way that code is developed. We know the process behind what we do and what we write. When we build something we control it the entire way. However, that is true of everyone that writes code. And even with a large number of “best practices” out there no two developers are going to approach the problem the same way unless they work for the same company. So when you bring someone on board to your team through acquisition you’re also bringing in their processes, procedures, and habits. You have to own what they do because now their development quirks are part of your culture.
Bracing For the Impact
There’s a lot of due diligence that happens when companies are purchased. There’s an army of accountants that pore over the books and find all the potential issues. I’d argue that any successful merger in today’s world also needs to include a complete and thorough code review as well. You need to know how their culture is going to integrate into what you’re doing. Never mind the intellectual property issues. How do they name variables? Do they call the same memory allocation routines? Do they use floats instead of integers because that’s how they were taught? What development tools do they use and can those tools adapt to your workflow?
It may sound like I’m being a bit pedantic when I talk about variable naming being a potential issue but when it comes to code that is not the case. You’re going to have to train someone in procedure and you need to know who that is before they start committing code to your codebase. Those little differences are going to create bugs. Those bugs are going to creep into what you’re working on and create even more problems. Pretty soon something as simple as trying to translate from one IDE to another is going to create a code quality problem. That means your team is going to spend hours solving an issue that could have been addressed up front by figuring out how things were done in two different places. If you think that’s crazy, remember NASA lost a satellite over a unit conversion problem.
You may never find yourself in the shoes of someone like Ken Duda. He’s committed to quality software and also in charge of trying to integrate acquisitions with his existing culture. However, you can contribute to a better software culture by paying attention to how things are done. If you do things a certain way you need to document everything. You need to ensure that if someone new comes into the team that they can understand your processes quickly. That way they don’t spend needless hours troubleshooting problems that were lost in translation at the start of the process. Do the hard work up front so you aren’t calling people names later.