Intentionally Disposable Software

Update 11 Feb: Sorry, somehow comments were disabled for this post. This has been resolved now.

There’s a series of code retreats that take place each year where a group of programmers get together to work in groups to solve a problem (kata). They do this in iterations over and over again, and most importantly they delete their entire code at the end of every iteration (typically 45 minutes).

“It’s much easier to walk a new road when the old road is out of sight”

~ Drew Miller

Programmers don’t delete enough production code. Which is funny because I’ve met heaps of programmers, including myself, who love deleting code; it’s a strangely satisfying, cleansing ritual.

What if we could replicate what we do when doing these katas and delete the entire source code of a system every 6 months or a year and start again? Does that sound crazy? Can we do this?

We couldn’t do this with how we currently develop software. It’s because we build software systems that are way too complex, have features that no-one uses and are built to last way too long. We expect our software systems to last 10+ years, and we’re so anxious about long-lasting technology impacts we make overly cautious or conservative decisions that come back to bite us constantly in the years to come. We build technical debt into legacy systems that no one wants to work on. We obsess about re-usability, longevity and salvageability of every piece of code we write. We build massive overly complex regression test suites because we expect the system to work for so long and be maintained for so long we expect it to eventually deteriorate and we want a regression test suite as a ‘safety net’ when it inevitably does.

Maintaining legacy software is like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You start painting it on one side and by the time you get to ‘finish’ it on the other side it’s taken you so long you now need to start repainting the original side again. Wouldn’t it be easier to just build a new bridge?

What we need is Intentionally Disposable Software. We need to build software only designed to last 6 months, a year max. As soon as we deploy it we start immediately on a replacement for it. We put bare minimum effort into maintenance as we’ll just replace what we have in Production as soon as we can: why wash up when you can use fresh paper plates for every meal? As soon as the replacement is ready, we deploy that and completely blow away the old software system. We rinse and repeat.

It’s somewhat similar to planned obsolescence but we don’t do it to annoy our customers and attempt to generate repeat purchases, we do it to refine our software system without any legacy.

We use analytics to tell us exactly what features of the system in production are used and most importantly, what features are little or never used. We don’t build those features into the replacement systems ever again so each system we build is leaner, more focused on the important things it is meant to do and does them better each time. We don’t waste any time on building or supporting unimportant things.

We don’t have time to build up technical debt. We aren’t anxious about choosing a wrong technology. Did we use AngularJS and now hate it? Never fear, we start work immediately on our new system replacement and use ReactJS (or whatever the latest/coolest framework is).

Developer happiness skyrockets! No legacy code! No technical debt! Everyone can work on the latest/best technology to get the job done and want to stick around in our organization to do just that. It’s like being a consultant without being a consultant. Because everyone has already implemented the same thing before, everyone is aware of the gotchas, so whilst people are constantly learning new technology, they’re efficient because they know what they’re actually trying to achieve. And because we’re building such a lean system we’re lean in our approach.

We do need to make sure we use open standards and have an easy way to export/import/migrate data in fast, clean ways – which is good.

The same applies to integration points, we need to be modular enough and use open standards and protocols exclusively to be able to drop out one system and replace it with another that integrates easily.

So what about testing?

If we expect a system to last six months to a year, we need just enough testing. We need just enough testing to make sure the system is built right (doesn’t break), but not too much requirements based testing around building the right system, because we know we won’t build the right system, we’ll be building a ‘more right’ replacement as soon as this one is built.

We need testing that focuses on intention of the system over implementation, because the implementation will constantly change each time we rewrite it. If we write our automated tests in a declarative style devoid of implementation detail we’ll be much better off.


Scenario: Overseas customers must provide ID for expensive purchases
Given I am a non-Australian customer
When I order more than $100 of tea
Then I need to provide additional ID on checkout


Scenario: Overseas customers must provide ID for expensive purchases
Given I go to the Beautiful Tea Home Page
When I click Sign InAnd I enter my username and password
And I click OK

Think of Disposable Software like building a house.

You want somewhere to live so you decide to build a house. You design and build a new ‘dream home’ with the best intentions but soon you realize there’s a big difference between what you actually need and what you thought you needed. There’s also some fundamental design flaws you didn’t even realize until it was built and you’re living in it, like mold in the bathroom as it has not enough air-flow and the bedrooms face the wrong direction and are constantly too hot to sleep at night. Plus life has since thrown a new baby into the mix, so 12 months later you find yourself with a house with a lot of design flaws that doesn’t meet your now much clearer, and since expanded, requirements.

So what do you do? Since you’ve invested a lot (financially and emotionally) into your house and you expected it to last ten years of more, you renovate. But the problem with renovating is that you’ve got to work around all the original design flaws, and since the house is already built it’s much more difficult and expensive to make changes to it, and also since you’re living in it, any renovation comes with risk of disruption/displacement to the occupants including an overly sensitive newborn. You find since it’s mainly custom work that the renovations you’re planning will cost nearly as much as the original house.

This is like legacy software. You can’t renovate it easily as it’s already in use, you’re constantly working around its design flaws so it’s much more difficult and costly to make changes to it. Plus it’s really hard to remove the unnecessary parts of your house by renovation.

But what’s the alternative? What if you built the house knowing that come 12 months time you could knock it down, recycle it, and build a new house knowing exactly what you want this time around. You’ll know not to face the bedrooms West. You’ll know the make the bathroom has plenty of air-flow. You’ll even include a bedroom suitable for the baby. But you don’t get too caught up in getting this house ‘perfect’ because come 12 months time you can do it all again. The house could be prefabricated so it’s much cheaper to build off-site in a construction friendly environment, and the migration involves temporarily moving some furniture from the old structure, placing the new house in place with the furniture and recycling the old. You own less objects (clutter) as you know this happens and are prepared for it. As you kids grow up their needs change so instead of doing ‘extensions’ and ‘renovations’ you simply redesign your new house which will be delivered in 12 months time.

This is like Intentionally Disposable Software.

As Alex Bundardzic wrote almost ten years ago in his fantastic Disposable Software post:

“In reality, a good software developer should be able to… deliver a disposable, short lived product that addresses only the pressing needs of the moment, and then simply disappears. No maintenance, no enhancements, no song-and-dance, nothing.”

What do you think?

Author: Alister Scott

Alister is an Excellence Wrangler for Automattic.

1 thought on “Intentionally Disposable Software”

  1. I can’t agree more. It’s the very basic practice: keep your work station clean.

    However, not everyone is OCD. I guess there may be a growing need for some automated cleanup facility in the modern SE world soon.


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