Apr 072010
 

Either fix it quickly or not at all.

For many, bug tracking software is central to good software practice. It features as number four of the Joel Test and is used extensively in a Lean or Agile context, as well as in more traditional software development approaches.

My company uses bug tracking software, my team used to use bug tracking software, and now we don’t, so what’s going on?

In general, I think we’re doing pretty well, we use a Kanban board to manage our work flow, we safely release to production five or six times a week, use tests to drive our designs, practice pair programming and have an effective Continuous Integration and Black Box testing set up. We definitely still have areas we can improve on but by most people’s standards we’re on the right track.

So why aren’t we using a bug tracker? Well on identifying a bug any team has four choices:-

  1. fix it immediately
  2. fix it in the near future
  3. add it to a list and plan to fix it at some point
  4. ignore it

Some bugs simply have to be fixed immediately, this is a truism wherever you work. If Google’s search functionality stopped searching, or Microsoft’s Excel stopped multiplying then everything would need to stop in order to get a fix out. Hopefully such occurrences are rare and can be considered a special case.

So we’re left with fixing it in the near future, fixing it at some unspecified point in the future or ignoring it entirely. What I noticed about option three is that low priority bugs are simply never looked at, something more important always gets in the way. So we made a decision, that when we find a bug we either fix it promptly, probably in the next week, or decide simply to ignore it.

This took a some time to get used to. Nobody is comfortable with the idea of dropping bugs, but as soon as we realised that ignoring it and adding it to the bug tracker as a low priority item were pretty much the same thing, we started to feel more comfortable. A bug feels most important on discovery and if we decide not to fix a bug when it’s fresh in our minds and we’re ready to go, realistically, it’s never going to get fixed. If the same bug returns at a later date, well in that case it’s not as small a deal as we thought and we’ll reassess it.

If bugs are to be prioritised over scheduled project work, it’s important to track the amount of effort spent on bug fixing. For my team, this isn’t really a problem since in addition to having responsibility for developing software, we are also responsible for much of our own sys admin, operations and support. Therefore we expect a certain amount of time to be spent on unplanned work and we track time spent on bug fixing as part of this. It turns out that the amount of time spent on unplanned work is fairly predictable and can be accounted for in long term project planning. The only exception to this rule is where the bug is sufficiently large that fixing it will require a significant effort, maybe a week or more’s worth of work. In that case we’ll treat it as a project in its own right and record progress as if it were any other standard planned block of work.

How does this work in practice? The key point is that it encourages us to fix bugs as we find them, and places greater emphasis on not introducing them in the first place. The fact that we know that the bug will be dropped if we don’t fix it in the short term means that we take bugs more seriously. Over the past six months we’ve ignored only two issues, both of which were highly unlikely to recur and both of which resided in third party libraries that we intend to upgrade.

The only downside to not recording bug fixes is that there is then no record of previous faults and no bug driven history of why things are as they are. However, so long as the Black Box tests cover all bugs as they are found the chance of regression is nil. Therefore I don’t really see this as a problem at all.

As an aside, I can see the value in tracking bugs over longer periods in situations where QA and development are separate entities that do not interact as part of the same team, or alternatively where a team is so swamped with bugs that they cannot keep up. However, neither case is particularly desirable and the bug tracker merely helps keep things going in the short term rather than addressing the underlying problems.

So in conclusion, by opting to fix bugs quickly or not at all, we force ourselves to fix more bugs and place greater emphasis on not introducing them in the first place. We no longer have to manage a unmaintainable bug list and ensure that our black box test coverage develops over time.

Edit: This post has generated a good deal of debate, in response I have posted a follow up here where I try to address some of the points raised.

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