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What's the color of static analysis?

static-analysis, testing, and quality

TL;DR:

I think it should be red. Static analysis is amazingly useful - a lot of issues that I’m used professionally to see caught in CRs are automatically caught if the build fails with static analysis.

Quick-intro

Last week I was pair-testing with a colleague from another team. During our testing efforts we heard a developer from his team complaining a bit about the fact that everytime he was closing development for an issue, he got frustrated a bit over the fact he had to act on checkstyle warnings. My colleague’s team paid a lot of attention to this aspect and had a few rules in place that actually broke any build with issues raised by checkstyle and findbugs. I got a chance to have a chat with that Developer and he asked me what’s my take on static analysis. My reply was, to his surprise: as strict and “violent” as possible. I’ll elaborate…

What we usually have

From my professional experience projects usually have static analysis in them but in practice it’s not adding much value to the project. It spills out tons of warnings on build time, warnings that are in turn ignored often because we as developers invest our time in making a build green and we usually only care if the tests that run during build or integration break. We never give much appreciation to the warnings yelled out by the static analysis. Worst and typical case-scenario, at some point in time we actually deactivate static analysis and similar automated checks because “we’re not getting anything out of it”.

So in summary, it’s there but it’s the same as if it weren’t. And yes some may say, oh but when we have the time we’ll handle it, sometimes I see the warnings and act on them. Sometimes is not good enough. It’s either part of the development process and is an active and integral part of it, or it’s not really doing anything and it’s there just for show. I’d recommend in the latter case, don’t even bother adding static analysis then. Remove it. You haven’t been using it, and you’re only fooling yourself.

What we should have

Simple: static/code analysis should break a build the same way unit tests do. If you get a code style warning, a static analysis yellow message, a code coverage difference between minimum and actual, your build should break. Will it slow you down? Yes. At first. But the effort to make the development process clear and breaking on analysis warnings bears a lot of fruit on the long run. Read on.

What we get in return

There should be more points, but these are the ones I can relate to at the time of writing.

Oh but “It’s impossible to have that on a real agile super dynamic fast-paced scrum break fast move stuff environment of high concurrent software”

First, not all of the stuff we build will ever be that important that we’ll need to think about shipping fast. I worked at companies with “said” high volume of messages and critical business, and then actual companies with a ton of processing volume, critical, if something goes wrong you’re fired not because your boss has an excuse to do so but you caused the company to lose more than hundreds of thousands.

With that said. We use the velocity and ship-to-market speed as an excuse to ignore or have dummy static analysis that is worthless.. It shouldn’t be the case.

Ship-to-market speed should never be an excuse for poor software. One’s software quality should be decent and maintainable enough. I’m not advocating perfection, but at least some “hygiene”. Not all people floss everyday. Yet it is one of the things dentists keep advocating all the time that actually makes a lot of difference on the long run.

Static analysis being “red and not yellow” gives a project that minimal amount of hygiene on the development process. Same way unit tests and other types of tests do. Different hygiene practices have different granularities and different purposes. You could live your entire life not flossing, or not brushing teeth, or not eating healthy food. That won’t stop you from living a good life on many fronts, but you can do better.

There is an educational aspect to static analysis I haven’t discussed here, but is worth noting, explored in Yegor Bugayenko’s blog post “The Educational Aspect of Static Analysis”. I also use Qulice for personal and opensource projects that allows for a very strict and enriching static analysis step in these projects. You can read more about Qulice in this blog post.