Maintaining Software

Attempts to manage maintenance using formal governance models based on ITIL service management or structured software lifecycle standards like IEE-STD-1219 (ISO/IEC 14764) or applying the CMMi maturity model to software maintenance are hopelessly expensive, bureaucratic and impractical.

In most organizations, maintenance is handled reactively, as an unavoidably necessary part of business-as-usual operational support. What management cares most about is minimizing cost and hassle. What is the least that we have to do to keep users from complaining, and how can we get this done in the cheapest and fastest way possible? If we can’t avoid doing it, can we outsource it, maybe save some money, and make it somebody else’s problem, so we can focus on other “more important” things?

This short-term thinking is continued year after year, until the investment that the organization made in building the system, and in the people who built it, has been completely exhausted. The smart people who once cared about doing a good job left years ago. The technology has fallen behind to the point that it has become another “legacy system” that will need to be replaced. Only a handful of people understand the code and the technology, and each change takes longer and costs more than it’s worth. Technical risks and business risks keep piling up. Your customers are tired of putting up with bugs and waiting for things that they need. At some point there’s no choice but to throw it out and start over again. What a sad, sick waste of time and money.

Online, software-driven businesses like Facebook and Twitter and Netflix keep growing and innovating by building on what they already have, by investing in their people and in the software base that they have already written. A lot of the work that people are doing at these companies today is maintenance: adding another feature to code that is already there, fixing bugs, making the system more secure, scaling to handle increased load, analyzing feedback data, integrating with new partners, maybe rewriting a mobile app to be faster and simpler to use.

This is the same kind of maintenance work that other people are doing at other companies, and at the heart of it, the technology isn’t that much more exciting. What’s different is how their work is done, how it is managed, and how people approach their jobs. For them, it isn’t “maintenance” – it’s engineering. Developers are valued and trusted and respected, whether they are building something new or supporting what’s already there. They are given the responsibility and the opportunity to solve interesting problems, to experiment and try out new ideas with customers and to see if their ideas make a difference. They work in small teams following lightweight incremental development methods and Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery and Continuous Deployment, and other ideas and self-service tools coming out of Devops to get things done quickly and efficiently, with minimal paperwork and other bullshit.

These organizations show how software development and maintenance should be managed: hire the best people you can find; grant them agency and the opportunity to work with customers and make a meaningful difference; provide them with constant feedback so that they can keep learning and making the product better; give them the tools they need and encourage them to keep improving the software and how they build it; and hold them accountable for the system’s (and the company’s) success.

This works. What other organizations are doing doesn’t. It’s not maintenance that sucks. It’s how we think about it and how we manage it that sucks. And this is something that we can fix.

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