books programming

A review of Dave Farley’s Modern Software Engineering

My colleague Luke Punnett recently recommended Dave Farley’s book ‘Modern Software Engineering’. While it’s not quite a classic, it’s a superb summary of the state of the art in software development. Anyone writing enterprise software should read this, and ideally follow the book’s advice.

Farley attempts to build a foundation for software engineering as a discipline using the scientific method. Writing code is formalised as a series of experiments, set within the process of ‘characterise, hypothesise, predict and experiment’: “Software engineering is the application of an empirical, scientific approach to finding efficient, economic solutions to practical problems in software.

What was most valuable about this book for me was getting a glimpse of how a very good and experienced software engineer approaches his work (Farley mentions a couple of times that he was involved in the LMAX exchange project).

There are several topics on which the book is particularly strong. Farley approaches agile from a fresh angle, renewing my faith in it – a faith that had been ground down by SaFE and ritualised agile processes. Farley is also excellent on test-driven development, arguing that TDD is not about producing code coverage, but a method of working that produces “a pressure … to write code that is more testable“. Farley then argues that testable code has the same attributes as code that is easy to maintain. There is also some excellent discussion of the pros and cons of microservices, arguing that their main strength is in allowing smaller, more focussed teams.

Robert C Martin’s Clean Code feels like it has reached the end of its life. People are less comfortable with what some of the guidelines that it proposes. Farley’s book is, I think, an excellent replacement. It is short and well-argued, and sets out a clear case for its recommendations. Some of the things Farley proposes – TDD, microservices, test automation etc – are still controversial in some companies. Hopefully this book will help towards their wider adoption.