a place I put stuff

code budget

Posted on August 20, 2013

At almost the moment a new project begins, we start the ritual of estimation. Guess how long this will take. Guess how much this will cost. How about if we change that feature to this feature? The goal of all this prognostication is to try to fit a potentially infinite product within the finite means we have available to us in terms of money, people, and (sometimes overlooked) political will.

These are all precious and limited resources that we must spend; we trade what we can afford for the software we want. Grouped among these precious and limited resources, I think we must include lines of code. As Dijkstra noted, that lines of code added are being recorded in the wrong side of the ledger. This means that as code is added to a codebase the difficulty of making changes or future additions keeps going up. This has a self-limiting effect in the same way that a dollar budget is self-limiting: when you exceed the budget you should examine the goals and outcomes of the project.

That’s my proposal. At the start of a project estimate the quantity of code needed to solve the business problem. This is hard in the same ways that other estimation is hard, but with time and practice, should be doable. When this budget is exceeded it should trigger some tough questions about the state that the project is in. Why have we used more lines of code than we thought? Could this be refactored? A benefit of the code budget is that it will force the team to examine the codebase at exactly the time that projects tend to be in maximum crunch mode. This hard check is a good thing that keeps everyone grounded in quality when all other external signals are screaming everything but.