Another nail for the coffin of past effort estimation research

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Programs are built from lines of code written by programmers. Lines of code played a starring role in many early effort estimation techniques (section 5.3.1 of my book). Why would anybody think that it was even possible to accurately estimate the number of lines of code needed to implement a library/program, let alone use it for estimating effort?

Until recently, say up to the early 1990s, there were lots of different computer systems, some with multiple (incompatible’ish) operating systems, almost non-existent selection of non-vendor supplied libraries/packages, and programs providing more-or-less the same functionality were written more-or-less from scratch by different people/teams. People knew people who had done it before, or even done it before themselves, so information on lines of code was available.

The numeric values for the parameters appearing in models were obtained by fitting data on recorded effort and lines needed to implement various programs (63 sets of values, one for each of the 63 programs in the case of COCOMO).

How accurate is estimated lines of code likely to be (this estimate will be plugged into a model fitted using actual lines of code)?

I’m not asking about the accuracy of effort estimates calculated using techniques based on lines of code; studies repeatedly show very poor accuracy.

There is data showing that different people implement the same functionality with programs containing a wide range of number of lines of code, e.g., the 3n+1 problem.

I recently discovered, tucked away in a dataset I had previously analyzed, developer estimates of the number of lines of code they expected to add/modify/delete to implement some functionality, along with the actuals.

The following plot shows estimated added+modified lines of code against actual, for 2,692 tasks. The fitted regression line, in red, is: Actual = 5.9Estimated^{0.72} (the standard error on the exponent is pm 0.02), the green line shows Actual==Estimated (code+data):

Estimated and actual lines of code added+modified to implement a task.

The fitted red line, for lines of code, shows the pattern commonly seen with effort estimation, i.e., underestimating small values and over estimating large values; but there is a much wider spread of actuals, and the cross-over point is much further up (if estimates below 50-lines are excluded, the exponent increases to 0.92, and the intercept decreases to 2, and the line shifts a bit.). The vertical river of actuals either side of the 10-LOC estimate looks very odd (estimating such small values happen when people estimate everything).

My article pointing out that software effort estimation is mostly fake research has been widely read (it appears in the first three results returned by a Google search on software fake research). The early researchers did some real research to build these models, but later researchers have been blindly following the early ‘prophets’ (i.e., later research is fake).

Lines of code probably does have an impact on effort, but estimating lines of code is a fool’s errand, and plugging estimates into models built from actuals is just crazy.

Pricing by quantity of source code

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Software tool vendors have traditionally licensed their software on a per-seat basis, e.g., the cost increases with the number of concurrent users. Per-seat licensing works well when there is substantial user interaction, because the usage time is long enough for concurrent usage to build up. When a tool can be run non-interactively in the cloud, its use is effectively instantaneous. For instance, a tool that checks source code for suspicious constructs. Charging by lines of code processed is a pricing model used by some tool vendors.

Charging by lines of code processed creates an incentive to reduce the number of lines. This incentive was once very common, when screens supporting 24 lines of 80 characters were considered a luxury, or the BASIC interpreter limited programs to 1023 lines, or a hobby computer used a TV for its screen (a ‘tiny’ CRT screen, not a big flat one).

It’s easy enough to splice adjacent lines together, and halve the cost. Well, ease of splicing depends on programming language; various edge cases have to be handled (somebody is bound to write a tool that does a good job).

How does the tool vendor respond to a (potential) halving of their revenue?

Blindly splicing pairs of lines creates some easily detectable patterns in the generated source. In fact, some of these patterns are likely to be flagged as suspicious, e.g., if (x) a=1;b=2; (did the developer forget to bracket the two statements with { }).

The plot below shows the number of lines in gcc 2.95 containing a given number of characters (left, including indentation), and the same count after even-numbered lines (with leading whitespace removed) have been appended to odd-numbered lines (code+data, this version of gcc was using in my C book):

North Star Horizon with cover removed.

The obvious change is the introduction of a third straight’ish line segment (the increase in the offset of the sharp decline might be explained away as a consequence of developers using wider windows). By only slicing the ‘right’ pairs of lines together, the obvious patterns won’t be present.

Using lines of codes for pricing has the advantage of being easy to explain to management, the people who sign off the expense, who might not know much about source code. There are other metrics that are much harder for developers to game. Counting tokens is the obvious one, but has developer perception issues: Brackets, both round and curly. In the grand scheme of things, the use/non-use of brackets where they are optional has a minor impact on the token count, but brackets have an oversized presence in developer’s psyche.

Counting identifiers avoids the brackets issue, along with other developer perceptions associated with punctuation tokens, e.g., a null statement in an else arm.

If the amount charged is low enough, social pressure comes into play. Would you want to work for a company that penny pinches to save such a small amount of money?

As a former tool vendor, I’m strongly in favour of tool vendors making a healthy profit.

Creating an effective static analysis requires paying lots of attention to lots of details, which is very time-consuming. There are lots of not particularly good Open source tools out there; the implementers did all the interesting stuff, and then moved on. I know of several groups who got together to build tools for Java when it started to take-off in the mid-90s. When they went to market, they quickly found out that Java developers expected their tools to be free, and would not pay for claimed better versions. By making good enough Java tools freely available, Sun killed the commercial market for sales of Java tools (some companies used their own tools as a unique component of their consulting or service offerings).

Could vendors charge by the number of problems found in the code? This would create an incentive for them to report trivial issues, or be overly pessimistic about flagging issues that could occur (rather than will occur).

Why try selling a tool, why not offer a service selling issues found in code?

Back in the day a living could be made by offering a go-faster service, i.e., turn up at a company and reduce the usage cost of a company’s applications, or reducing the turn-around time (e.g., getting the daily management numbers to appear in less than 24-hours). This was back when mainframes ruled the computing world, and usage costs could be eye-watering.

Some companies offer bug-bounties to the first person reporting a serious vulnerability. These public offers are only viable when the source is publicly available.

There are companies who offer a code review service. Having people review code is very expensive; tools are good at finding certain kinds of problem, and investing in tools makes sense for companies looking to reduce review turn-around time, along with checking for more issues.

Impact of function size on number of reported faults

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Are longer functions more likely to contain more coding mistakes than shorter functions?

Well, yes. Longer functions contain more code, and the more code developers write the more mistakes they are likely to make.

But wait, the evidence shows that most reported faults occur in short functions.

This is true, at least in Java. It is also true that most of a Java program’s code appears in short methods (in C 50% of the code is contained in functions containing 114 or fewer lines, while in Java 50% of code is contained in methods containing 4 or fewer lines). It is to be expected that most reported faults appear in short functions. The plot below shows, left: the percentage of code contained in functions/methods containing a given number of lines, and right: the cumulative percentage of lines contained in functions/methods containing less than a given number of lines (code+data):

left: the percentage of code contained in functions/methods containing a given number of lines, and right: the cumulative percentage of lines contained in functions/methods containing less than a given number of lines.

Does percentage of program source really explain all those reported faults in short methods/functions? Or are shorter functions more likely to contain more coding mistakes per line of code, than longer functions?

Reported faults per line of code is often referred to as: defect density.

If defect density was independent of function length, the plot of reported faults against function length (in lines of code) would be horizontal; red line below. If every function contained the same number of reported faults, the plotted line would have the form of the blue line below.

Number of reported faults in C++ classes (not methods) containing a given number of lines.

Two things need to occur for a fault to be experienced. A mistake has to appear in the code, and the code has to be executed with the ‘right’ input values.

Code that is never executed will never result in any fault reports.

In a function containing 100 lines of executable source code, say, 30 lines are rarely executed, they will not contribute as much to the final total number of reported faults as the other 70 lines.

How does the average percentage of executed LOC, in a function, vary with its length? I have been rummaging around looking for data to help answer this question, but so far without any luck (the llvm code coverage report is over all tests, rather than per test case). Pointers to such data very welcome.

Statement execution is controlled by if-statements, and around 17% of C source statements are if-statements. For functions containing between 1 and 10 executable statements, the percentage that don’t contain an if-statement is expected to be, respectively: 83, 69, 57, 47, 39, 33, 27, 23, 19, 16. Statements contained in shorter functions are more likely to be executed, providing more opportunities for any mistakes they contain to be triggered, generating a fault experience.

Longer functions contain more dependencies between the statements within the body, than shorter functions (I don’t have any data showing how much more). Dependencies create opportunities for making mistakes (there is data showing dependencies between files and classes is a source of mistakes).

The previous analysis makes a large assumption, that the mistake generating a fault experience is contained in one function. This is true for 70% of reported faults (in AspectJ).

What is the distribution of reported faults against function/method size? I don’t have this data (pointers to such data very welcome).

The plot below shows number of reported faults in C++ classes (not methods) containing a given number of lines (from a paper by Koru, Eman and Mathew; code+data):

Number of reported faults in C++ classes (not methods) containing a given number of lines.

It’s tempting to think that those three curved lines are each classes containing the same number of methods.

What is the conclusion? There is one good reason why shorter functions should have more reported faults, and another good’ish reason why longer functions should have more reported faults. Perhaps length is not important. We need more data before an answer is possible.

How are C functions different from Java methods?

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

According to the right plot below, most of the code in a C program resides in functions containing between 5-25 lines, while most of the code in Java programs resides in methods containing one line (code+data; data kindly supplied by Davy Landman):

Number of C/Java functions of a given length and percentage of code in these functions.

The left plot shows the number of functions/methods containing a given number of lines, the right plot shows the total number of lines (as a percentage of all lines measured) contained in functions/methods of a given length (6.3 million functions and 17.6 million methods).

Perhaps all those 1-line Java methods are really complicated. In C, most lines contain a few tokens, as seen below (code+data):

Number of lines containing a given number of C tokens.

I don’t have any characters/tokens per line data for Java.

Is Java code mostly getters and setters?

I wonder what pattern C++ will follow, i.e., C-like, Java-like, or something else? If you have data for other languages, please send me a copy.

Plotting artifacts when the axis involves lines of code

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

While reading a report from the very late Rome period, the plot below caught my attention (the regression line was not in the original plot). The points follow a general trend, suggesting that when implementing a module, lines of code written per man-hour increases as the size of the module increases (in LOC). There are explanations for such behavior: perhaps module implementation time is mostly think-time that is independent of LOC, or perhaps larger modules contain more lines that can be quickly implemented (code+data).

Then I realised that the pattern of points was generated by a mathematical artifact. Can you spot the artifact?

Module size against LOC-per-hour.

The x-axis shows LOC, and the y-axis shows LOC/man-hour. Just plotting LOC against LOC would produce a row of points along a straight line, and if we treat dividing by man-hours as roughly equivalent to dividing by a random number (which might have some correlation with LOC), the result is points scattered around a line going up to the right.

If LOC-per-hour were constant, the points would form a horizontal line across the plot.

In the below left plot, from a different report (whose axis are function-points, and function-points implemented per month), the author has fitted a line, and it is close to horizontal (suggesting that the mean FP-per-month is constant).

FP against FP-per-month.

In fact the points are essentially random, and the line is a terrible fit (just how terrible is shown by switching the axis and refitting the line, above right; the refitted line should be vertical, but is horizontal. There is no connection between FP and FP-per-month, which is a good thing because the creators of function-points intended this to be true).

What process might generate this random scattering, rather than the trend seen in the first plot? If the implementation time was proportional to both the number of FP and some uniform random component, then the FP/time ratio would have the pattern seen.

The plots below show module size (in LOC) against man-hour (left) and FP against months (right):

Module size against man-hours, and FP against months.

The module-LOC points are all over the place, while the FP points look as-if they are roughly consistent. Perhaps the module-LOC measurements came from a wide variety of sources, and we should not expect a visually pleasant trend.

Plotting LOC against LOC appears in other guises. Perhaps the most common being plotting fault-density against LOC; fault-density is generally calculated as faults/LOC.

Of course the artifacts also occur when plotting other kinds of measurements. Lines of code happens to be a commonly plotted quantity (at least in software engineering).

Growth of conditional complexity with file size

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Conditional statements are a fundamental constituent of programs. Conditions are driven by the requirements of the problem being solved, e.g., if the water level is below the minimum, then add more water. As the problem being solved gets more complicated, dependencies between subproblems grow, requiring an increasing number of situations to be checked.

A condition contains one or more clauses, e.g., a single clause in: if (a==1), and two clauses in: if ((x==y) && (z==3)); a condition also appears as the termination test in a for-loop.

How many conditions containing one clause will a 10,000 line program contain? What will be the distribution of the number of clauses in conditions?

A while back I read a paper studying this problem (“What to expect of predicates: An empirical analysis of predicates in real world programs”; Google currently not finding a copy online, grrr, you will have to hassle the first author:, or perhaps it will get added to a list of favorite publications {be nice, they did publish some very interesting data}) it contained a table of numbers and yesterday my analysis of the data revealed a surprising pattern.

The data consists of SLOC, number of files and number of conditions containing a given number of clauses, for 63 Java programs. The following plot shows percentage of conditionals containing a given number of clauses (code+data):

Percentage of conditions containing a given number of clauses in 63 large Java programs.

The fitted equation, for the number of conditionals containing a given number of clauses, is:

conditions = 3*slen^pred e^{10-10pred-1.8 10^{-5}avlen^2}

where: slen={SLOC}/{sqrt{Number of Files}} (the coefficient for the fitted regression model is 0.56, but square-root is easier to remember), avlen={SLOC}/{Number of Files}, and pred is the number of clauses.

The fitted regression model is not as good when slen or avlen is always used.

This equation is an emergent property of the code; simply merging files to increase the average length will not change the distribution of clauses in conditionals.

When slen = e^{10} = 22,026, all conditionals contain the same number of clauses, off to infinity. For the 63 Java programs, the mean slen was 2,625, maximum 11,710, and minimum 172.

I was expecting SLOC to have an impact, but was not expecting number of files to be involved.

What grows with SLOC? Number of global variables and number of dependencies. There are more things available to be checked in larger programs, and an increase in dependencies creates the need to perform more checks. Also, larger programs are likely to contain more special cases, which are likely to involve checking both general and specific values (i.e., more clauses in conditionals); ok, this second sentence is a bit more arm-wavy than the first. The prediction here is that the percentage of global variables appearing in conditions increases with SLOC.

Chopping stuff up into separate files has a moderating effect. Since I did not expect this, I don’t have much else to say.

This model explains 74% of the variance in the data (impressive, if I say so myself). What other factors might be involved? Depth of nesting would be my top candidate.

Removing non-if-statement related conditionals from the count would help clarify things (I don’t expect loop-controlling conditions to be related to amount of code).

Two interesting data-sets in one week, with 10-days still to go until Christmas :-)