The Broken Window in Software Projects

19 May 2024
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Software Engineering Reflections (2 Part Series)
Delve into a series of insightful articles where we explore common challenges and practices in software engineering. Join us as we navigate the complexities of software development, sharing personal experiences and thoughts.

In software development, the Broken Window theory suggests that small issues, if left unfixed, can lead to bigger problems. Imagine a codebase where minor bugs or style inconsistencies are ignored. Over time, these small problems accumulate, making the code harder to maintain and increasing the likelihood of critical errors. However, this theory extends beyond just code issues. It also encompasses bad design choices, poor architectural decisions, and ineffective processes, all of which can degrade the overall quality and maintainability of a software project.

What is the Broken Window Theory? The Broken Window Theory originates from criminology and urban studies, suggesting that visible signs of disorder and neglect (like broken windows) lead to more disorder and crime. Applied to software engineering, it means that neglecting small issues in the codebase can lead to a general decline in code quality and discipline, inviting more significant problems.

Technical Debt

When broken windows are left unattended, they accumulate as technical debt. This debt represents the future cost of rework and refactoring required to address these issues. Just like financial debt, technical debt accrues interest, making the codebase more difficult to work with over time. High technical debt can slow down development, introduce more bugs, and increase the cost of implementing new features.

Simple Example Scenarios

Hacky Solutions for Deadlines

When a project deadline is close, you might implement a hacky solution just to get things working, promising to revisit and fix it later. This often doesn’t happen, and the quick fix becomes part of the codebase, increasing technical debt.

How many times have you been in this situation or made that promise and never looked at that code again? You eventually accept it as part of the program, forgetting the commitment to review and improve it.

Inconsistent Coding Practices

You notice that the code you're writing doesn't fit well with the existing code style or architecture, but you leave it as is, thinking you'll revisit it later. This inconsistency can lead to confusion and errors for future developers working on the code.

You're not a team of one, and even if you are now, it won't always be that way. You must advocate for the practices and standards defined as a team. Everyone should be rowing in the same direction; after all, you're all in the same boat.

Beyond Code: Design and Decision-Making

Design Flaws and Poor Decisions: Broken windows are not limited to just code. They can also appear as bad design choices, poor architectural decisions, or ineffective processes. For example, an ill-thought-out system architecture that doesn't scale well or a design that doesn't consider user experience can be just as detrimental as poor code quality.

Poor Implementation Practices: Even if the design is solid, poor implementation can introduce broken windows. Rushed or sloppy coding, lack of adherence to best practices, or insufficient testing can all contribute to technical debt and a deteriorating codebase.

The Cost of Broken Windows

A few years ago, I joined a small team of engineers working on a project where the initial team had chosen a programming language that no one was proficient in. The decision to use this language was driven by its popularity at the time, not by the team's expertise. This poor decision led to many broken windows in the project. The team rushed through development, leaving many issues unresolved. While the project technically worked, taking it to the next level required a lot of effort. By systematically addressing these broken windows and pushing best practices, we managed to improve the project. However, the time and effort spent fixing these issues were significantly higher than if they had been addressed from the beginning.

Key Takeaway

Regularly address small issues to maintain code quality and prevent larger problems from developing. Keep your codebase clean and organized to minimize technical debt and ensure long-term project success. Create tickets for these issues and enforce you and your team to solve them. Give priority to these tickets to ensure that small problems do not accumulate and become more significant obstacles.


Maintaining a clean and organized codebase is crucial for long-term project success. The Broken Window theory teaches us that small issues, if left unaddressed, can lead to significant problems, including increased technical debt. By understanding and addressing both code-level and design-level broken windows, you can prevent the accumulation of technical debt and ensure a more reliable, maintainable, and scalable software project. Prioritize these issues, create actionable tickets, and foster a culture of continuous improvement within your team. This proactive approach will lead to more efficient development and higher-quality software.

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