The joel test: 12 steps to better code

Have you ever heard of SEMA? It’s a fairly esoteric system for measuring how good a software team is. No, wait! Don’t follow that link! It will take you about six years just to understand that stuff. So I’ve come up with my own, highly irresponsible, sloppy test to rate the quality of a software team. The great part about it is that it takes about 3 minutes. With all the time you save, you can go to medical school.

The Joel Test

Do you use source control?
Can you make a build in one step?
Do you make daily builds?
Do you have a bug database?
Do you fix bugs before writing new code?
Do you have an up-to-date schedule?
Do you have a spec?
Do programmers have quiet working conditions?
Do you use the best tools money can buy?
Do you have testers?
Do new candidates write code during their interview?
Do you do hallway usability testing?

The neat thing about The Joel Test is that it’s easy to get a quick yes or no to each question. You don’t have to figure out lines-of-code-per-day or average-bugs-per-inflection-point. Give your team 1 point for each “yes” answer. The bummer about The Joel Test is that you really shouldn’t use it to make sure that your nuclear power plant software is safe.

A score of 12 is perfect, 11 is tolerable, but 10 or lower and you’ve got serious problems. The truth is that most software organizations are running with a score of 2 or 3, and they need serious help, because companies like Microsoft run at 12 full-time.

Of course, these are not the only factors that determine success or failure: in particular, if you have a great software team working on a product that nobody wants, well, people aren’t going to want it. And it’s possible to imagine a team of “gunslingers” that doesn’t do any of this stuff that still manages to produce incredible software that changes the world. But, all else being equal, if you get these 12 things right, you’ll have a disciplined team that can consistently deliver.

1. Do you use source control?
I’ve used commercial source control packages, and I’ve used CVS, which is free, and let me tell you, CVS is fine. But if you don’t have source control, you’re going to stress out trying to get programmers to work together. Programmers have no way to know what other people did. Mistakes can’t be rolled back easily. The other neat thing about source control systems is that the source code itself is checked out on every programmer’s hard drive – I’ve never heard of a project using source control that lost a lot of code.

2. Can you make a build in one step?
By this I mean: how many steps does it take to make a shipping build from the latest source snapshot? On good teams, there’s a single script you can run that does a full checkout from scratch, rebuilds every line of code, makes the EXEs, in all their various versions, languages, and #ifdef combinations, creates the installation package, and creates the final media – CDROM layout, download website, whatever.

If the process takes any more than one step, it is prone to errors. And when you get closer to shipping, you want to have a very fast cycle of fixing the “last” bug, making the final EXEs, etc. If it takes 20 steps to compile the code, run the installation builder, etc., you’re going to go crazy and you’re going to make silly mistakes.

The joel test: 12 steps to better code