The Undervaluation of Code Quality and its Impact on Business Success

Sven-Torben Janus
12 min readNov 1, 2023

Unlocking the True Potential of Code Quality in a Fast-Paced World

Fresh from restorative holidays, this article delves into my personal reflections on the pivotal role of code quality in the fast-paced world of software development. It is not a scholarly thesis, but rather an exploration of often overlooked aspects of code quality and its impact on our ever-evolving industry. While some sections reference scientific research, my primary aim is to share the thoughts that emerged during my short break.

In the first section, we will unravel the intricate world of code quality and its profound influence on business success.

Speed vs. Quality — The Conundrum

The Need for Speed

In today’s fast-paced business environment, speed is often considered the holy grail of success. Organizations strive to bring products and services to market as quickly as possible to gain a competitive advantage. The logic is simple: the faster you release, the faster you can iterate, adapt to customer feedback, and outmaneuver your competitors.

While speed is undeniably important, there is a persistent misconception that prioritizing speed requires a trade-off with code quality. This fallacy often leads businesses to compromise on code quality in the pursuit of rapid development. In reality, this trade-off is not as necessary as it might seem.

The Fallacy of Trade-Offs

The “speed vs. quality” conundrum is deeply rooted in many business cultures. The prevailing belief is that to deliver faster, corners must be cut, and code quality sacrificed. However, this view is a simplified and outdated understanding of software engineering.

Empirical data challenges this perspective. Studies have shown that a myopic focus on speed at the expense of code quality can lead to a host of problems:

  1. Increased Technical Debt: Rushing through development without considering code quality can result in what is known as “technical debt.” Technical debt represents the compromises made during development, such as taking shortcuts or forgoing best practices, which accumulate over time. Just as financial debt accrues interest, technical debt accrues “interest” in the form of increased maintenance costs and reduced development speed.
  2. Higher Defect Rates: Poor code quality leads to more defects. These defects can have cascading effects on development, leading to delayed releases, increased customer support efforts, and up to potential damage to your brand’s reputation.
  3. Stifled Innovation: A focus on speed at the cost of code quality can stifle innovation within your development teams. When engineers are constantly dealing with technical debt and firefighting, they have less time and energy for creative problem-solving and innovation.
  4. Higher Long-Term Costs: Short-term gains in speed can result in higher long-term costs. The technical debt accrued during rapid development can make future changes and enhancements more time-consuming and expensive.

Data Challenges Conventional Wisdom

What makes this trade-off between speed and quality so problematic is that it is based on an outdated understanding of software engineering. Modern development practices, such as Agility and DevOps, emphasize the need for both — speed and quality. In fact, data consistently demonstrates that organizations that prioritize code quality not only experience fewer defects but also enjoy faster, more efficient development processes in the long run.

Empirical evidence shows that code quality is not a hindrance to speed, but rather a catalyst for it. Quality code streamlines development, reduces defects, and enhances team productivity, all of which contribute to faster product delivery.

Navigating the Speed-Quality Conundrum

Subsequently, we will delve deeper into the empirical data that challenges conventional wisdom. We will explore the social and psychological aspects of code quality, its impact on team dynamics, and the practical tools and methods available for managing technical debt effectively.

It is time to debunk the myth of the “speed vs. quality” trade-off!
By the end of this article, you will have a comprehensive understanding of how to prioritize code quality without sacrificing speed, unlocking the true potential of your software engineering process.

The Empirical Data

In an era where data-driven decision-making reigns supreme, it is imperative to ground our understanding of code quality in empirical data. It is this data that validates the importance of high code quality, especially in a world where businesses are sprinting towards digital transformation.

One of the most significant research contributions to the field of code quality is the work of Adam Tornhill, which challenges the notion that high-quality code is merely a matter of craftsmanship. Adam Tornhill’s research provides critical insights into the measurable business impact of code quality.

The Measurable Business Impact of Code Quality

Adam Tornhill’s and Markus Borg’s research, notably the “Code Red” paper, delves into the profound effects of code quality on various aspects of software engineering and, consequently, business outcomes. It shatters the myth that code quality is merely a technical concern.

According to their research:

  • Red Code vs. Healthy Code: The research found that code quality has a dramatic impact on the number of defects. On average, “red code” (poor-quality code) has 15 times more defects than a healthy codebase. This high defect density can lead to a substandard product experience.
  • Waste in Red Code: Implementing changes in red code takes more than twice as long as making corresponding changes in green code (healthy code). This substantial waste in time and resources is a clear indication that code quality directly affects the speed of development.
  • Unpredictability in Low-Quality Code: Perhaps the most crucial finding is the unpredictability associated with low-quality code. Adding a feature to healthy code appears to be a predictable process, whereas unhealthy red code exhibits significant variation. Work in such code can take up to nine times longer, creating uncertainty for the organization.

The implications are profound. Uncertainty in development timelines, coupled with increased defect rates, can impact not only project delivery but also customer satisfaction and ultimately the bottom line.

Code Quality and Speed are Related

Contrary to a common misconception in the software industry that speed and quality are mutually exclusive, Adam Tornhill’s research underscores the idea that there is no such trade-off. Instead, the data reveals that high code quality is a prerequisite for achieving speed.

Increased throughput is largely an effect of reduced uncertainty. Clean and well-maintained code has fewer surprises and poses less risk of causing unexpected problems. It also reflects a strong engineering culture, likely supported by other essential practices within the organization.

These findings align with research conducted by the DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) group, which suggests that shorter deployment cycle times lead to fewer production failures. In essence, the relationship between code quality and speed is not a trade-off; it is a symbiotic one.

As we proceed, we will explore the various facets of code quality and its direct impact on business outcomes, from time-to-market and product quality to the competitiveness of your organization.

The Sociotechnical Aspect of Code Quality

Code quality is not just about lines of code or technical best practices; it is fundamentally tied to the people who create, maintain, and use the code. The “sociotechnical” nature of software engineering implies that the human aspect plays a significant role in code quality.

Successful software engineering requires that you keep code and people in balance so that one supports the other. This is a complex challenge, as maintaining a holistic view of a large codebase is virtually impossible. Adding to the complexity, the people side of code is even more opaque; a piece of code does not reveal anything about its socio-technical context.

However, data tells us that code quality has a tangible impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of software engineering. Now, let us delve into the sociotechnical aspects that reveal how the quality of code influences not only the technical aspects but also the social and psychological dynamics within development teams.

Code Health and Team Morale

From my experience, one of the most intriguing aspects of code quality is its impact on team morale and dynamics. Healthy codebases tend to foster a more positive working environment. Developers are more engaged, less stressed, and more satisfied with their work when they are dealing with code that follows best practices and is easy to understand.

In contrast, when developers are constantly grappling with technical debt and poor code quality, it can lead to feelings of frustration and disillusionment. High turnover rates are common in teams dealing with persistent code quality issues, which, in turn, affect the continuity and productivity of development projects.

Collaboration and Innovation

Code quality is not just a matter of producing bug-free software; it also shapes the collaborative culture within your development teams. Healthy codebases encourage collaboration, knowledge sharing, and collective problem-solving. Developers in such environments are more likely to work together, share insights, and collectively drive innovation.

On the flip side, poor code quality can be a barrier to collaboration. It often leads to finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and a lack of trust within teams. When developers spend more time fixing issues and dealing with technical debt, they have less time for creative problem-solving and innovation.

The Sociotechnical Conundrum

The sociotechnical conundrum is that poor code quality not only affects the technical aspects of development but also creates ripple effects throughout the organization. It impacts the morale of your development teams, hinders collaboration, and can stifle innovation.

This is where Adam Tornhill’s research ties into the sociotechnical aspect. Tornhill’s insights remind us that code quality is not just about bug counts and development speed; it is about fostering a work environment that nurtures creativity, encourages collaboration, and sustains a motivated and productive team.

Behavioral Code Analysis: A New Perspective

Fortunately, a set of innovative techniques known as behavioral code analysis has emerged to address this challenge. This approach combines code-level metrics with easily accessible behavioral data on how teams interact within the code. With these techniques, we can unravel the intricate dance between code and people, shedding light on the often opaque social and technical dynamics at play.

Behavioral code analysis empowers organizations to:

  • Identify Architectural Coordination Bottlenecks: By analyzing team interactions within the code, organizations can pinpoint coordination bottlenecks and understand the technical root causes that lead to them. This knowledge helps in optimizing the architectural design and enhancing collaboration among teams.
  • Visualize Implicit Dependencies: The analysis reveals implicit dependencies between teams, often hidden beneath the surface. Armed with this information, organizations can take strategic steps to decouple teams, reducing the risk of interdependence and bottlenecks.
  • Discover Knowledge Risks: Behavioral analysis allows for the measurement of the “Bus Factor/Truck Number” which quantifies the risk associated with key personnel holding unique knowledge. By identifying and mitigating these knowledge risks, organizations can ensure business continuity.
  • Communicate Scaling Risks: By understanding how code quality impacts development speed and team morale, organizations can communicate the inherent risks of scaling, as described in Brooks’s Law. These insights allow for more informed decision-making and risk mitigation strategies.
  • Beyond Technical Impact: Behavioral code analysis goes beyond technical impact to reveal how bad code can cause unhappiness, low morale, and increased attrition among development teams. This understanding underscores the importance of maintaining code quality not just for technical reasons but for the well-being of your teams.

For senior developers, software architects, or technical leads, this perspective can change how you view code quality. The techniques discussed here are available in existing tools, the most famous probably CodeScene, which can be put to use immediately. They emphasize that technical decisions are never merely technical; they have profound socio-technical implications. By remedying and preventing socio-technical “smells,” you can stay a step ahead in your software engineering endeavors.

In the following sections, we will explore methods which can help in managing technical debt and improving code quality. These methods do not just optimize code but also promote a healthier sociotechnical ecosystem within your organization.

Managing Technical Debt — A Holistic Approach

Navigating the Complex Terrain of Technical Debt

As we have learned, technical debt is an unavoidable reality in software development. It involves making trade-offs to meet short-term goals, often at the expense of long-term code quality. The accumulation of technical debt can lead to increased costs, reduced productivity, and delayed project delivery.

Recognizing the existence of technical debt is the first step. However, effectively managing it is essential for maintaining code quality and ensuring the sustainability of your software projects. Let us explore a holistic approach to managing technical debt, irrespective of the specific tools or techniques used.

The Power of Holistic Technical Debt Management

Effective technical debt management involves considering both the technical and sociotechnical aspects of software development. It acknowledges that code quality is not solely a technical endeavor but a multifaceted challenge that impacts both the code itself and the people who create and interact with it.

Technical Debt Metrics

To manage technical debt effectively, start with an assessment of your codebase’s health. Look beyond traditional code quality measurements and delve into metrics that encompass behavioral patterns and team interactions. By examining these metrics, you can gain a deep understanding of the health of your code and identify areas that need improvement.

Identifying Critical Areas

Every codebase has hotspots — sections of code that accumulate a significant amount of technical debt and are subject to frequent modifications. Identifying these hotspots is crucial. They represent areas where the code’s quality may be compromised, and the potential for defects and development challenges is high.

Prioritizing Technical Debt Reduction

Quantifying technical debt is essential, but equally important is understanding where to focus your efforts. Prioritize areas that will yield the most significant improvements in code quality and development speed. Allocate resources efficiently to address these high-impact areas and reduce the associated technical debt.

Mitigating Risk

Effective technical debt management is also about mitigating risks associated with knowledge concentration and potential attrition. When critical knowledge about specific parts of your codebase is held by only a few individuals, the organization is at risk if they leave. By identifying and addressing these knowledge risks, you can ensure business continuity.

Code Quality Improvement

Holistic technical debt management does not stop at identifying issues; it also provides actionable insights and recommendations for improving code quality. These may include refactoring suggestions and best practices to enhance code maintainability.

The Sociotechnical Perspective

Remember, the management of technical debt is a sociotechnical endeavor. It involves understanding how the quality of your code influences your development teams’ morale and collaboration. Neglecting the sociotechnical aspects can lead to high turnover rates and strained development teams, ultimately impacting your projects and people.

In Summary

Navigating the complex terrain of technical debt, it is important to embrace a holistic approach to management. The specific tools and techniques may vary, but the principles remain the same: prioritize code quality, balance the technical and sociotechnical aspects, and make informed decisions to reduce technical debt’s impact on your software projects.

By adopting a holistic perspective, you will be better equipped to enhance code quality, drive project success, and foster a culture of continuous improvement within your organization.

Code Quality as a Competitive Advantage

Code Quality: A Catalyst for Success

So far, we have embarked on a journey to explore the undervaluation of code quality in many modern businesses. We have navigated through the trade-off myth between speed and quality, studied empirical data, uncovered the sociotechnical aspects of code quality, and discussed effective methods for managing technical debt, irrespective of specific tools or techniques.

The central message that has emerged from our exploration is clear: code quality is not just a matter of pride in craftsmanship but a strategic business decision. It is not speed vs. quality; it is speed with quality.

Code Quality’s Tangible Business Impact

Empirical data, as presented before, illustrates the measurable business impact of code quality. High-quality code reduces defects, lowers maintenance costs, and results in faster development in the long run. It translates into improved customer satisfaction and a stronger competitive position. Code quality is not merely an abstract concept; it is a powerful driver of business success.

The Sociotechnical Perspective

We illuminated the sociotechnical dimension of code quality. It is not just about the technical aspect; it is about the people side of code. Healthy codebases foster a positive working environment, enhance collaboration, and promote innovation. Neglecting the sociotechnical aspects can lead to high turnover rates and strained development teams, which ultimately hinders your projects and your people.

Holistic Technical Debt Management

We detailed the value of holistic technical debt management. This approach encompasses technical and sociotechnical considerations and enables organizations to identify, prioritize, and mitigate technical debt. Effective management of technical debt is about more than tools; it is about optimizing the entire development process.

Final Thoughts: Code Quality as a Competitive Advantage

In conclusion, code quality is not a choice between speed and quality; it is a strategic partnership that unlocks the true potential of your software development. High-quality code is not just a technical achievement; it is a competitive advantage that propels your business forward.

As you reflect on the insights presented in this article, consider how you can implement these concepts in your organization. Recognize that code quality is not just a concern for developers but a vital aspect of your business strategy. Prioritizing code quality does not just lead to better code; it leads to a more efficient, agile, and ultimately, faster development process. It ensures that your teams are motivated, your customers are satisfied, and your organization remains competitive.

As you move forward, embrace the mantra: “Speed with Quality.” Embrace the principles that uphold this notion, and you will be on a path to not just meeting but exceeding your business objectives.

I hope this article has shed light on the undervaluation of code quality and has provided you with actionable insights on how to harness it for business success. Together, let us foster a culture of continuous improvement and set new standards for success in the ever-evolving world of technology. Your commitment to code quality will undoubtedly be a driving force behind your organization’s success.

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Sven-Torben Janus

Partner @ conciso.de | Views are my own. | sventorben.de | #SoftwareArchitecture #SociotechnicalArchitecture #DDDesign