All software has bugs. Someone has estimated that production code has about one bug per 100 lines. Of course there’s some variation in this number. Some software is a lot worse, and some is a little better.
But bugs-per-line-of-code is not very useful for assessing risk. The risk of a bug is the probability of running into it multiplied by its impact. Some lines of code are far more likely to execute than others, and some bugs are far more consequential than others.
Devoting equal effort to testing all lines of code would be wasteful. You’re not going to find all the bugs anyway, so you should concentrate on the parts of the code that are most likely to run and that would produce the greatest harm if they were wrong.
However, here’s a complication. The probability of running into a bug can change over time as people use the software in new ways. For whatever reason people to want to use features that had not been exercised before. When they do so, they’re likely to uncover new bugs.
(This helps explain why everyone thinks his preferred software is more reliable than others. When you’re a typical user, you tread the well-tested paths. You also learn, often subconsciously, to avoid buggy paths. When you bring your expectations from an old piece of software to a new one, you’re more likely to uncover bugs.)
Even though usage patterns change, they don’t change arbitrarily. It’s still the case that some code is far more likely than other code to execute.
Good software developers think ahead. They solve more than they’re asked to solve. They think “I’m going to go ahead and include this other case while I’m at it in case they need it later.” They’re heroes when it turns out their guesses about future needs were correct.
But there’s a downside to this initiative. You pay for what you don’t use. Every speculative feature either has to be tested, incurring more expense up front, or delivered untested, incurring more risk. This suggests its better to disable unused features.
You cannot avoid speculation entirely. Writing maintainable software requires speculating well, anticipating and preparing for change. Good software developers place good bets, and these tend to be small bets, going to a little extra effort to make software much more flexible. As with bugs, you have to consider probabilities and consequences: how likely is this part of the software to change, and how much effort will it take to prepare for that change?
Developers learn from experience what aspects of software are likely to change and they prepare for that change. But then they get angry at a rookie who wastes a lot of time developing some unnecessary feature. They may not realize that the rookie is doing the same thing they are, but with a less informed idea of what’s likely to be needed in the future.
Disputes between developers often involve hidden assumptions about probabilities. Whether some aspect of the software is responsible preparation for maintenance or wasteful gold plating depends on your idea of what’s likely to happen in the future.
Related post: Why programmers write unneeded code