Agile teams are neglecting design

Agile teams are neglecting design - Creative person review designs on screen

I can already hear your objections. Surely, you will say, many Agile teams these days do test-driven development and TDD is all about design. I absolutely agree, after all, I dare not question Uncle Bob who, in his “Agile Principles, Patterns, and Practices in C#” book clearly says:

“The act of writing a unit test is more an act of design than of verification.”

The problem, however, is not with the latter part of the statement but with the first one. Writing unit tests before production code, watching the tests fail, writing corresponding production code until the test passes and then refactoring requires discipline. Many Agile teams lack that discipline. To gain the full benefits of TDD also requires a lot of practice and teams may simply have not had the time to accrue enough.

These two obstacles aside, I still don’t see the practice of TDD shaping the design of teams’ code in a way that Steve and Nat describe in their excellent “Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests” book. I think among the reasons sits this one: frameworks.

I see this time and time again: a new engaged, eager and energised Agile team sits together to start a new project. They want to break away from the old ways of working. They have already been freed from the heavyweight processes which required lengthy documents, endless approvals and then subjected them to a stream of bugs arriving weeks or months after they last touched the affected code. They also take this as an opportunity to break away from the technical baggage accumulated over the years. Not doing so would be to neglect the Conway’s law.

And then what does a team do? They pick a framework. Chances are, if you are an Agile team writing a website in .Net you will go for the ASP.NET MVC framework. If you are trying to move away from the monstrosities of Java Enterprise framework or got tired of Spring you might be moving to grails. If you are more daring you drop you old technology altogether and pick rails. Add an ORM on top or something from the NoSQL pallet and your fresh new architecture is ready waiting for you.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with these frameworks and technologies, making such choice means you have given up design decisions that you would have otherwise had to think about. You start working within a framework and then your thinking re-focuses to consider how best to fit your problem into the skeleton which is already in place. It might be slightly awkward to write some of the unit tests but you just blame that on your inexperience with the new technique.

Isn’t it ironic, that as we free ourselves from the rigidity of the organisational processes we are willing to subject ourselves to the rigidity of the framework structures.

In the short time, we go astonishingly quickly, new functionality flows into releases, new pages appear, database expands magically and there is none of that old hand-crafted SQL to worry about. Many Agile teams are probably still at this stage. The will go on to neglect design, they won’t question the structure of their code at various levels, they won’t reevaluate their architecture. Then strangely, release by release, they start to slow down. Features become more difficult to implement, changes solidify, codebase stagnates. The old agile team becomes a fragile team and all this because agile teams are neglecting design.

I just hope it’s not your team.