Saturday, October 08, 2005

When to Commit: Perishable Value and Durable Value

We had a recent (and interesting) discussion on the scm-patterns YahooGroup about the notion of "value" and Frank Schophuizen got me thinking about what is the "value" associated with a configuration or a codeline: how does value increase or decrease when a configuration is "promoted" or when/if the codeline is branched/split?

Agile methods often talk about business value. They work on features in order of the most business-value. They eschew activities and artifacts that don't directly contribute to delivery business value. etc...

David Anderson, in several of his articles and blogs at, notes that the value of a feature (or other "piece" of functionality) is not dependent upon the cost to produce it, but upon what a customer is willing to pay for it. Therefore the value of a feature is perishable and depreciates over time:
  • The longer it takes to receive delivery of a feature, the less a customer may begin to value it.

  • If it doesn't get shipped in the appropriate market-window of opportunity, the value may be significantly lost.

  • If the lead-time to market for the feature is too long, then competitive advantage may be lost and your competitor may be able to offer it to them sooner than you can, resulting in possible price competition, loss of sale or business
So business value is depreciable; and the value of a feature is a perishable commodity.

Might there be certain aspects to business value that are not perishable? Might there be certain aspects that are of durable value? Is it only the functionality associated with the feature that is of perishable value? Might the associated "quality" be of more durable value?

I've seen the argument arise in Agile/XP forums about whether or not one should "commit" one's changes every time the code passes the tests, or if one should wait until after refactoring, or even until more functionality is implemented (to make it "worth" the time/effort to update/rebase, reconcile merge conflicts and then commit).

Granted, I can always use the Private Versions pattern to checkin my changes at any time (certainly any time they are correct+consistent) without also committing them to the codeline for the rest of the team to see and use. So, assuming that the issue is not merely having it secured in the repository (private versions), when is it appropriate to commit my changes to the codeline for the rest of the team to (re)use?

If refactoring is a "behavior preserving transformation" of the structure of the code, and if it improves the design and makes it "simpler", then is "good design" or "simplicity" something that adds durable value to the implementation of a running, tested feature? Kent Beck's initial criteria for "simple code" (and how to know when you are done refactoring your latest change) was described in an XPMagazine article by Ron Jeffries as the following, in order of importance:
  1. it passes all the tests (correctly :-)

  2. it contains no redundancy (the DRY principle: Don't Repeat Yourself)

  3. it expresses every thought we intended it to convey about the program (i.e. reveals all our intent, and intends all that it reveals)

  4. it minimizes the size and number of classes and methods
If I squint a little when I read thru the above, it almost looks like it's saying the same thing that writing-instructors and editor's say about good writing! It should be: correct, consistent, complete, clear and concise!

I have often heard "correct, consistent and complete" used as a definition of product integrity. So maybe integrity is an aspect of durable value! And I have sometimes heard simplicity defined as "clear and concise" or "clear, concise and coherent/cohesive" (where "concise" would be interpreted as having very ruthlessly rooted out all unnecessary/extraneous or repeated verbage and thoughts). So maybe simplicity is another aspect of durable value.

And maybe integrity is not enough, and simplicity is needed too! That could possibly explain why it might make more sense to wait until after a small change has been refactored (simplified) before committing it instead of waiting only until it is correct+consistent+complete.

Perhaps the question "when should I commit my changes?" might be answered by saying "whenever I can assure that I am adding more value than I might otherwise be subtracting by introducing a change into a 'stable' configuration/codeline!"
  • If my functionality isn't even working, then it's subtracting a lot of value, even if did get it into the customer's hands sooner. It causes problems (and costs) for my organization and team to fix it, has less value to the customer if it doesn't work, and can damage the trust I've built (or am attempting to build) in my relationship with that customer

  • if my functionality is working, but the code isn't sufficiently simple, the resulting lack of clarity, presence of redundancy or unnecessary dependency can make it a lot harder (and more costly) for my teammates to add their changes on top of mine

  • if I wait too long, and/or don't decompose my features into small enough working, testable increments of change, then the business value of the functionality I am waiting to commit is depreciating!
Now I just have to figure out some easy and objective means of figuring out the "amount" of value I have added or subtracted :-)

So are "integrity" (correct + consistent + complete) and "simplicity" (clear + concise + coherent/cohesive) components of durable value? Is functionality the only form of perishable value?

What about "form, fit and function"? Are "form" and "fit" also components of perishable value? Am I onto something or just spinning around in circles?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's certainly an intriguing idea, and it sort of clicked nicely in my brain.

If I rephrase you a bit, then the features are of perishable value, while the internal quality (esp. the aspects related to ease of maintenance) is of durable value.

Put this way, it makes sense to "spend" time on quality issues (esp. refactoring). Of course, agilists have always known this, but I've been on many projects where the focus is on finishing the features and get the product out - we'll fix the quality later (which, of course, rarely happens when you view quality as a cost).

I think I'll use this line of reasoning with my clients. Thanks!