tl;dr If you want to ship high quality code, you should invest in more than one of formal code review, design inspection, testing, and quality assurance. Testing catches fewer bugs per hour than human inspection of code, but it might be catching different types of bugs.
Everyone wants to find bugs in their programs. But which methods are the most effective for finding bugs? I found this remarkable chart in chapter 20 of Steve McConnell’s Code Complete. Summarized here, the chart shows the typical percentage of bugs found using each bug detection technique. The range shows the high and low percentage across software organizations, with the center dot representing the average percentage of bugs found using that technique.
As McConnell notes, “The most interesting facts … are that the modal rates don’t rise above 75% for any one technique, and that the techniques average about 40 percent.” Especially noteworthy is the poor performance of testing compared to formal design review (human inspection). There are three pages of fascinating discussion that follow; I’ll try to summarize.
What does this mean for me?
No one approach to bug detection is adequate. Capers Jones – the researcher behind two of the papers McConnell cites – divides bug detection into four categories: formal design inspection, formal code inspection, formal quality assurance, and formal testing. The best bug detection rate, if you are only using one of the above four categories, is 68%. The average detection rate if you are using all four is 99%.
But a less-effective method may be worth it, if it’s cheap enough
It’s well known that bugs found early on in program development are cheaper to fix; costs increase as you have to push changes to more users, someone else has to dig through code that they didn’t write to find the bug, etc. So while a high-volume beta test is highly effective at finding bugs, it may be more expensive to implement this (and you may develop a reputation for releasing highly buggy software).
Shull et al (2002) estimate that non-severe defects take approximately 14 hours of debugging effort after release, but only 7.4 hours before release, meaning that non-critical bugs are twice as expensive to fix after release, on average. However, the multiplier becomes much, much larger for severe bugs: according to several estimates severe bugs are 100 times more expensive to fix after shipping than they are to fix before shipping.
More generally, inspections are a cheaper method of finding bugs than testing; according to Basili and Selby (1987), code reading detected 80 percent more faults per hour than testing, even when testing programmers on code that contained zero comments. This went against the intuition of the professional programmers, which was that structural testing would be the most efficient method.
How did the researchers measure efficiency?
In each case the efficiency was calculated by taking the number of bug reports found through a specific bug detection technique, and then dividing by the total number of reported bugs.
The researchers conducted a number of different experiments to try and measure numbers accurately. Here are some examples:
- Giving programmers a program with 15 known bugs, telling them to use a variety of techniques to find bugs, and observing how many they find (no one found more than 9, and the average was 5)
- Giving programmers a specification, measuring how long it took them to write the code, and how many bugs existed in the code base
- Formal inspections of processes at companies that produce millions of lines of code, like NASA.
In our company we have low bug rates, thanks to our adherence to software philosophy X.
Your favorite software philosophy probably advocates using several different methods listed above to help detect bugs. Pivotal Labs is known for pair programming, which some people rave about, and some people hate. Pair programming means that with little effort they’re getting informal code review, informal design review and personal desk-checking of code. Combine that with any kind of testing and they are going to catch a lot of bugs.
Before any code at Google gets checked in, one owner of the code base must review and approve the change (formal code review and design inspection). Google also enforces unit tests, as well as a suite of automated tests, fuzz tests, and end to end tests. In addition, everything gets dogfooded internally before a release to the public (high-volume beta test).
It’s likely that any company with a reputation for shipping high-quality code will have systems in place to test at least three of the categories mentioned above for software quality.
If you want to ship high quality code, you should invest in more than one of formal code review, design inspection, testing, and quality assurance. Testing catches fewer bugs per hour than human inspection of code, but it might be catching different types of bugs. You should definitely try to measure where you are finding bugs in your code and the percentage of bugs you are catching before release – 85% is poor, and 99% is exceptional.
- Steve McConnell’s Code Complete, which I’d recommend for anyone who’s interested in improving the quality of the code they write.
- Capers Jones, “Software defect-removal efficiency”, published in Computer, volume 29, issue 4, unfortunately the paper is gated.
- Forrest Shull et al, “What We Have Learned About Fighting Software Defects,” 2002
- Victor Basili and Richard Selby, “Comparing the Effectiveness of Software Testing Strategies,” IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, volume 13, issue 12.