Disclaimer: This is not about any specific employer I’ve ever worked for; there have been aspects in all of them.  Any resemblance to past, present, or future employers is purely intentional.

Anyone who’s worked in the industry for more than a year or two has had one.  They’ve had to maintain or enhance a code base that was a heaping stinking pile of, er, sunshine.  The manager is putting lots of pressure to fix it now, there’s a year’s worth of features and enhancements, and only 6 months to do them.  The pressure varies between abuse and outright attacks on your ability and work ethic.

Welcome to the Assignment From Hell.  You’ve probably inherited it from the last person who worked on it, who was fired or left in a hurry.  Now you know why.

The program crashes constantly, to call the code spaghetti code is an offense to spaghetti, and things which could have easily been calculated or put in a database are hardcoded all over the place.  The procedure to add a common feature involves modifying 10 different source files, in 20 different data structures, that hold overlapping but contradictory information.

Your every instinct screams that you need to tear this garbage out and rewrite it, which you could do in half the time it will take to make it work, but there’s never the time or resources to do that, and you can never get buyin from the stakeholders anyway.

Meantime your self-esteem is sub-basement – simple tasks that should take a day are taking you a week, and this is being pointed out to you starting on day 2.  And what about the backlog that’s now 5 days late?

So what to do?

Step 1.  Breathe.  The unreasonable expectations of the powers that be are how this situation got to this point in the first place.  The previous developer or developers who caused this mess probably weren’t given nearly enough time, and just took on technical debt to get paid at all.  Even that obnoxious manager is likely getting pressure from their bosses to get this thing working, and doesn’t want to admit that their inability to push back in the first place is what got them into this mess.

You’re probably someone they see as competent, so they’re really hoping you can fix it.  The hardest challenge for me through my career is not taking the criticism personally.

Step 2.  Communicate.  Don’t point out that the code base is crap – they know it, and are in a level of denial that would give Freud a headache.  Come up with a plan based on reality, and point it out respectfully – respecting past and present management and engineering.  Be prepared to defend the plan and to push back – hard.  Try to find allies from the Old Times who agree with you and have pull with management.

Step 3.  Breathe.  Again.  Like I said, I take this stuff too personally.

Step 4.  Be honest.  Don’t agree to fix anything in a shorter timeframe than your gut tells you, doubled.  It just won’t happen, and you’ll only look worse when you can’t deliver.  Speaking reasonably and respectfully will get you respected in return.  If you need additional resources, say so, and back it up with hard facts.

Step 5.  Be honest with yourself.  You won’t be able to singlehandedly fix an entire organization that has grown up around this method of doing business.  Do your best to get through it alive.

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