Give it a name
You know the feeling. You’ve got some kind of medical condition that you can’t pin down. And it’s worrying you. If you’re male, you’ll probably wait for a couple of months before you go to your general practitioner and get it checked. After assessing the symptoms, the GP gives your condition a name. And in so doing, more often than not, most of your concerns evaporate. The act of naming is reassuring.
I hope to provide you with the same kind of reassurance by introducing the term ‘application orphanage’. If you’ve worked in a decent-sized IT department for a while, you probably already know what I’m talking about. I’m referring to the phenomenon of somebody from outside corporate IT acquiring or building an application and either neglecting it or leaving it behind when they leave the enterprise, or move on to another division. Due to neglect, the application goes feral. This is nature’s way, as clearly stated by Lehman in his eight laws of software evolution. Paraphrasing professor Lehman’s first two laws, when software is used it is subject to change, and this change increases the software’s complexity unless work is done to maintain or reduce it. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘software entropy’: the inevitable and steady deterioration of software.
Applications gone wild
Feral applications are domestic applications that have returned to the wild. They have no owners to care for them. They hiss and growl at maintenance programmers as if their intent was spaying or neutering. Yet it has to be done, and it’s usually up to the corporate IT department to do it. To domesticate them again. To find an adoptive owner with a good heart who’ll take on the responsibility for application lifecycle management. Until they have become rehabilitated into society, the application orphanage will care for them without discrimination against programming language, development methodology or user interface.
So the next time you see a down and out application, don’t turn a blind eye. Be a good Samaritan and show some compassion. Even if it’s just a lowly spreadsheet. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s got a name. You’re running an application orphanage.
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