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Quality: Program vs Product

syndicated from on September 26, 2017


Why it is that programmers and their employers have different attitudes toward the quality of a project? Thinking of myself as a programmer, I have sometimes formulated it like this:

  • The programmers who do the work are usually the ones who care more about “quality.” Why?

    • They have a reputation to maintain. Low quality for their kind of work is bad for reputation among their peers. (Note that their peers are not necessarily their employers.)

    • They understand they may be working on the same project later; higher quality means easier work later, although at the expense of (harder? more?) work now.

  • The employers who are paying for the work care much less about “quality.” Why?

    • The reputation of the payer is not dependent on how the work is done, only that the work is done, and in a way that can be presented to customers. Note that the customers are mostly not the programmer’s peers.

    • They have a desire to pay as little as possible in return for as much as possible. “Quality” generally is more costly (both in time and in finances) in earlier stages, when resources are generally lowest or least certain to be forthcoming.

    • As a corollary, since the people paying for the work are not doing the work, it is easier to dismiss concerns about “quality”. Resources conserved earlier (both in time and money) means greater resources available later.

These points are summed up well by Redditor JamesTheHaxor, who says: “Truth is, nobody cares except for us passionate programmers. We can judge a persons skill level based on their code quality. Most clients can’t. They judge a persons skill level by how fast they can get something done for the cheapest price that works to spec. There’s plenty of shoddy coders to fill that market. They always undercut me on freelance sites.”


The problem is that the term “quality” means different things to different people. The in the programmer/employer situation, there are two different definitions of “quality” at play (or two different things that are being paid attention to).

  • The programmer’s “quality” relates to the what he sees and works with regularly and is responsible for over time (i.e., the code itself: the “program”).

  • The employer’s “quality” relates to what he and the customers see and work with regularly and are responsible for over time (i.e., what is produced by running the code: the “product”).

“Quality of program” is not the same thing as “quality of product.” They have different impacts at different times in the project, and have different levels of visibility to different people involved in the project. They do not exist independently of each other, and feed back on each other; change one kind of quality, and the other kind will likewise change.

I think this disconnect also applies to various non-software crafts and trades. You hear about carpenters, plumbers, painters, etc. complaining that they get undercut on prices by low-cost labor who don’t have the same level of quality. And yet the customers who choose the lower-cost option are satisfied with the quality level, given their resource constraints. The programmer-craftsman laments the low quality of the work, but the payer-customer just wants something fixed quickly at a low cost.

Dismissing quality concerns of either kind early on may cause breaks and stoppage when the product is more visible or closer to deadline, thus leading to greater stress and strain to get work done under increasing public scrutiny. The programmer blames the lack of code quality for the troubles, and the employer laments the programmer’s inability to work as quickly as he did earlier in the project.

What’s interesting to me is that the programmer has some idea about the product quality (he has to use the product in some fashion while building it), but the manager/employer/payer has almost no idea about the code quality (they are probably not writing any code). So it’s probably up to the programmer to understand the consequences of program quality in terms of product quality.