Does an IDE improve software quality?

Modern Integrated development environments (IDEs) are equipped with more and more tools to help developers code faster and better. Among these are plug-ins that allow developers to scan the source code for error-prone constructs, dangerous or deprecated statements, or practices that should be avoided. IDEs come in a variety of flavors — both free and commercial — but in all cases, developers can install them to improve the quality of the code they produce.

Some organizations encourage their developers to explore and deploy such tools, but as any good app developer knows, there is a difference between installing an app and using it consistently.

Installing a tool is one thing, using it is another

Even if an organization deploys an IDE, the results really depend on how the developers utilize their new tool. They can use it frequently and optimally; they can use it sometimes, when they don’t have anything else to do; they can never use it; or they can use it without taking results into account.

Each developer will have his own reasons for not adopting a new tool, but these are a few that I have seen in my experience:

  1. The management team forces him to use it but without explaining why and how it can improve the development team by decreasing the number of errors. As a consequence, the tool may be rejected by the developer who is under pressure by the business and decides he does not need to lose time playing with a new toy.
  2. He installs some tools, just to try them out, but with no clear objective to improve the quality of the code he produces. The tool might be fun, but when the real work starts, it’s less exciting.
  3. He is not concerned by software quality and considers results that are delivered as a source of additional work. In this case, he deactivates rules, either to reduce the number of violations or because he thinks they are not relevant.

The more you know

When a developer is convinced of the benefit, the analysis tool will be used regularly and the results will be studied and followed attentively. As a result, the application quality will improve, the list of problems will decrease, and the quality of the work will become finer.

Moreover, if the tool provides a developer with documentation explaining why a best practice should be respected, what problem exists behind a quality rule, and how to fix it, then it is going to enrich his knowledge and competency regarding the technology he is working with. This aspect will also contribute to decrease the number of risky situations in the code base.

I’ve experienced this situation several times, but it’s always surprising to hear a developer say he was not aware of some very specific or tricky behavior available in the technology he’d been using for a long time. It is never too late to learn!

Keep your team focused on system-level violations

Let me take a step back and say that an IDE is not a turn-key solution for perfect software quality. However, it does allow your developers to keep a closer eye on the quality of their code, which in turn decreases the number of violations detected when analyzing the whole application (and the number can be huge!). Now your development team is free to focus on architectural problems caused by components, layers, and other interacting technologies it might have missed during development. This will allow your individual developers to contribute to your business objectives as best they can.

Choice for developers: be active or not

Despite such great tools, to err is human, and problems found in the code will still fall in the lap of developers. They have a simple choice to make: either actively contribute to the quality of the app, or hope any problems fall on the desk of other developers. One way this choice could be influenced is by properly introducing and explaining software quality to development teams.

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