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Future-proof software engineering: what to know

Future-proof software engineering: what to know

When working on software, whether for an internal or customer-facing application, it’s natural to think about the future. How will the solution fare in the years to come? Will the program be able to stay relevant as times and user needs change? Will it be costly to modify, or will the process be simple and natural?

Future-proofing is the process of preparing software for the years ahead, allowing it to adapt to the times rather than requiring replacement or an expensive overhaul. Businesses that don’t give much consideration to future-proofing will have to make difficult decisions when their software ages out. Therefore, every business that architects software should spend at least some time on future-proofing.

While future-proofing is an important part of any company’s strategy, it’s far from an automatic process. The same factor that’s making future-proofing so vital—the accelerating pace of technological change—also makes it difficult. The best software design and development teams will rise to this challenge.

What does future-proofing really mean?

Defining terms is a good way to start any dive into future-proofing. Most vitally, it’s worth noting that future-proofing does not mean creating software that will never have to change. Users’ needs today are very different today than they were even five years ago, and such shifts will keep occurring. There is no such thing as a software program that can remain the same indefinitely and still be relevant.

So, if future-proofing isn’t the process of creating software that never has to change, what is it? In short, future-proofing means creating software that can evolve elegantly over time, shifting to meet users’ new needs and wants without requiring a heavy budgetary investment or needing hours of work from software engineers.

Sometimes, leaders assume that the best way to create future-proofed software is to simplify as much as possible, adopting low-code or no-code models that enable drag-and-drop changes in the future. There is a major drawback to this approach, however. Namely, low-code and no-code development introduce hard limits on software functionality and scope. While small changes become easy, big structural changes become impossible.

Rather than radically simplifying apps, developers interested in true future-proofing can opt for more elegant designs. This means creating solutions that won’t break even as the ecosystems around them change and evolve. Undertaking this process in the present is the ideal way to make engineers’ work easier in the years to come.

The state of future-proofing today

While future-proofing is an important concept to discuss and apply, it is not being applied at high enough rates today. This deficit is especially visible at large, legacy organizations that rely on internally developed software tools.

The applications powering these slow-to-change organizations have become complex over the course of years. Since the apps were not initially developed with future-proofing in mind, adding functionality has involved creating complex, unplanned code.

Legacy software tools are often defined by webs of dependencies that can lead to surprising failures. A change to an external application can have unexpected effects on an overcomplicated application, all caused by a dependency that current users are unaware of, introduced by previous engineers who are no longer with the company.

Overcomplicated applications are especially important within sectors such as local government, energy, finance and more. Software engineers may feel locked into their legacy applications by limited budgets in the public sector, or by the need to obey regulations and prevent exposure of sensitive information in fields such as finance. Feeling unable to create more advanced, future-proof solutions, engineers could end up with difficult-to-manage legacy software that has evolved in unpredictable ways.

Weaknesses in future-proofing are clearest when they occur in customer-facing corporate applications or those that power businesses’ everyday operations. For example, airlines that run on software that has grown complex and unreliable over time may end up suffering major service blackouts due to computer downtime. Travelers may not realize exactly why these delays are occurring, but the companies’ customer experience takes a major hit every time.

Future-proofing methods, standards and philosophies

Inertia breeds further inertia. Companies that feel trapped making unplanned and poorly documented code changes to legacy applications will find it increasingly difficult to make additional changes in the future, as the web of dependencies and hastily applied patches can cause problems when engineers attempt to further update the apps’ functionality.

The best way to move forward is to think in terms of future-proofing from the very beginning. There are a few concepts to keep in mind when developing future-proof software, each of which can help companies achieve results that match their ambitions.

These philosophies and techniques include:

Clean Architecture

The Clean Architecture methodology, as developed by Robert C. “Uncle Bob” Martin, provides a helpful guide for software engineers hoping to build future-proofing into their development processes.

This philosophy is based on reducing software’s external dependencies. Capsulization is a key concept here, with discrete units of code being largely closed off from one another. Using an architecture model such as Hexagonal Architecture, software engineers create layers of dependencies. The business rules within the innermost layer do not have any dependencies on any external influences, from databases to user interfaces and beyond.

Software engineers aiming to achieve Clean Architecture objectives should harness concepts such as a heavy application of automation and the use of API-based architecture. Creating software that operates independently of external influences is an important concept where future-proofing is concerned, because it acknowledges that the world outside will change, and seeks to ensure the application will not break when this occurs.

Open-source development and the cloud

The use of open-source elements and cloud computing in future-proof software development are two different concepts that help engineers achieve similar objectives. Namely, they make development faster, more flexible, less costly and more stable.

Some engineers may be skeptical of open-source development at first, due to concerns that using public code will make their software less stable or secure. However, the opposite is often true. Having many eyes on code often leads to solid development fundamentals. With that said, there should be a plan to replace open source components if they end up changing in ways that conflict with developers’ intended use for them.

The cloud has become a dominant model of software development and distribution. It gives engineers the ability to work with processes and frameworks that enable a high degree of automation in continuous integration and deployment pipelines, which makes it a key enabler for future-proof development. Creating cloud-distributed software with open-source components is a way to produce well-architected software that can evolve effectively over time. This is the very definition of future-proofing.

Best practices for future-proofing software

When making future-proofing a core competency of their software development pipelines, software engineering teams have to consider how they will implement the tenets of future-proof technology. These choices can represent the difference between a successful program and one that fails to make an impact.

Avoid long-term predictions

Today’s software development market moves too quickly and unpredictably for long-term prognostications to have much strategic value. The chances of making an accurate prediction about the direction of user needs and software’s role are low, meaning companies that focus on development years in advance may end up wasting budget and effort on trends that don’t come to pass.

No matter what type of software a company focuses on, the market will make its needs clear over time. Tracking these movements as they occur and reacting to them is a better strategy than thinking too far in advance. This model focuses less on the “future” in future-proofing, and suits modern development patterns.

Make small, frequent iterations

Focusing on continuous integration practices—rolling out small changes to software—is the ideal approach to future-proof development. Compared to large-scale changes, these minor updates are less likely to cause unforeseen issues, and are easy to test and revert, thereby creating a suitable cadence to keep up with users’ demands and the state of the market.

As for gauging user demand, it’s usually unwise to think too far ahead and try to guess at future requirements. Rolling out a feature for which users don’t yet see the need may end up causing dissatisfaction in the near term and offsetting any prospective benefits.

Get started developing future-proof software

Without adequate future-proofing, companies’ software may fail to meet its potential, whether the solutions are designed for internal usage or as products for consumers. Inertia in adding new features, frequent downtime incidents, or both, can be the outcomes of holding onto software created without future-proofing.

Considering how many organizations today include software engineering as part of their portfolio, future-proofing has now become a universal value for companies of all kinds. If your business fits into this category, it’s imperative that you make future-proof engineering part of your processes.

Partnering with Transcenda is a way to bring best practices into your organization’s software pipeline. Whether for consulting or a more hands-on engagement, Transcenda’s professionals bring a high level of performance that matches your organization’s needs.

Contact us to learn more or get started.

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