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Signs of a Golden Hammer antipattern, and 5 ways to avoid it
The Golden Hammer antipattern can sneak up on a development team, but there are ways to spot it. Learn the signs, as well as some direct steps a team can take to avoid it.
Without a reliable process in place, software development efforts can become unpredictable and extremely difficult to manage. As such, teams often introduce one or more tool sets, frameworks, collaboration platforms and software design patterns to standardize workflow, automate processes and provide guardrails against developer-induced coding errors.
While it makes sense to build a reliable and reusable process, the capabilities of existing tools and practices can fail to keep up with increases in application scale or demands for new functionality. Sadly, far too many development shops tend to stubbornly adhere to outdated tooling, problematic practices or mismatched frameworks. Whether it is due to a failure to keep track of application needs, an unwillingness to adapt to changes, or simply a failure to notice the problem, this situation tends to create a troublesome antipattern known as the Golden Hammer.
Luckily, teams can avoid falling victim to the Golden Hammer with the right mindset and approach. In this article, we'll examine what the Golden Hammer antipattern is, how it occurs, the negative effects it has on development processes and what teams can do to avoid letting this antipattern interfere with an otherwise-dependable development project workflow.
What is the Golden Hammer antipattern?
The Golden Hammer antipattern permeates from a development team's overreliance on a single tool set, pattern, platform or other component of the development workflow. It is a classic pitfall that any team faces when they have gained some level of expertise in a particular solution or methodology. This antipattern is appropriately summarized using the following adage: "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
A Golden Hammer scenario can play out in many ways, but it's often attributable to at least one of three primary conditions:
- Team members successfully solve so many problems with a single tool or platform that they believe it will address nearly any and all issues that might affect the development process.
- Those making purchasing decisions claim to have spent so much money on one tool or system that they are unwilling to consider investing in new technology.
- "It's always been that way" (or some variation of that phrase) is a go-to explanation for why certain issues are never addressed.
The history of XML provides a decent illustration for this. When XML first gained widespread use as a standardized data format, developers tried using it for everything from writing simple configuration files to performing complex application builds. Despite its benefits -- namely, its flexibility and self-describing format -- it proved inappropriate for tasks such as specifying command-line parameters. Nonetheless, some development shops continued using XML for these jobs, only to find themselves plagued by issues such as unreliable access to shared network resources and an inability to specify complex file paths.
How to recognize the Golden Hammer
On the surface, the fix for a Golden Hammer situation might seem like a no-brainer -- simply avoid becoming wholly reliant on one tool, platform or design pattern. But software development has never been that simple, especially when it comes to decisions regarding whether to stick with technology or forgo it. As such, team members need to thoroughly understand the typical factors that lead to the Golden Hammer and learn to quickly recognize when the team has a problem.
Fortunately, there are often clear warning signs that a development team might be stuck in a Golden Hammer antipattern. These are four of the most common:
- The system's architecture is often described in the context of a single product, vendor toolkit or service suite.
- The development team increasingly fails to meet certain requirements because they depend too much on existing tooling that doesn't meet project needs.
- The development team fails to perform occasional research into new application development approaches and technologies and lacks a general awareness or knowledge of emerging techniques.
- The majority -- or entirety -- of the development lifecycle depends on only one vendor or set of technologies.
Steps to avoid Golden Hammer antipattern
Despite how easy it is for a team to fall into the pitfalls of a Golden Hammer antipattern, there are some specific principles and methodologies that can help keep it at bay. To that end, let's examine five key practices teams can adopt:
Expand the team's learning horizons
It's much easier to identify a Golden Hammer antipattern once a development team expands its knowledge regarding technology trends and new tools. One popular way of doing this is forming in-house learning groups or forums that facilitate discussions on new standards, products, practices or any other pertinent area of development. Keep track of new open source projects, read new books on software development methodologies, and attend technology conferences to keep you and your team up to date.
Foster a dynamic tech environment
The Golden Hammer usually appears when only small circles of team members are involved in picking a solution or framework. Expanding the size of these teams can help encourage new ideas and build a communication network to discuss new technologies and products. Also, ensure that the existing development approach does not overcomplicate the process of migrating to new technologies.
Build case studies and proofs for new tools and processes
Ideally, the first step of selecting a new tool or technology is to build a case study. Outlining and demonstrating the pros and cons of a solution, the value it provides, available alternatives and other pertinent details will help you make a strong argument for a new technology. The case study will help team members make informed decisions, encourage in-house research and experimentation and build detailed proofs of concepts to record the feasibility of adding new technologies.
Encourage a flexible team culture
The Golden Hammer antipattern is an issue that embeds itself culturally as much as it does technologically. Teams must cultivate diverse mixtures of professional skill sets and backgrounds, as well as reinforce the value of continuous exploration for new technologies and better solutions. It's also important to keep track of how dependent the team is on an individual tool or framework approach.
Establish clear contextual boundaries
Part of breaking a universal reliance on one tool or development approach involves understanding the places where adding new technologies will cause a minimal amount of disruption among individual application systems. To do this, those responsible for architecture design need to establish clear contextual boundaries that help the system's design remain flexible and ease the process of replacing problematic software components going forward.