Code ownership and software quality

Last Update: 9/27/2016

Author: Michaela Greiler

Collective code ownership has been advocated as a best practice [1]. Is it always?

Several studies have shown that code ownership has an impact on software quality. This article outlines code ownership and its impact on quality and shows the results of two studies we performed at Microsoft investigating this topic.

What is code ownership?

In a traditional sense, ownership determines rights and duties in regard to an object, for example a property. The owner of source code usually refers to the person who implemented the code. However, larger code artifacts, such as files, are usually composed by multiple engineers contributing to the entity over time through a series of changes. Frequently, the person with the highest contribution, in terms of lines written or code changes made, is defined as the code owner and takes responsibility for it. The owner is thus the engineer who has the most hands-on experience with the code.

How can you measure code ownership?

There are many ways in which we can measure ownership, especially for source code. In our particular case, we were interested in reflecting the notion of responsibility—how many engineers are currently contributing to the code and whether there is a single individual who can be considered the primary contributor.

Determine ownership by counting commits.

We base our ownership metrics on tracing changes as they are committed to source code repositories. For simplicity, we treat each commit to the affected artifact (source file or an executable) as one event—irrespective of how many line of code changed.

Distinguish strongly and weakly owned artifacts

We call the artifact strongly owned in a time period when at least 50% of its edits where contributed by a single developer (irrespective of the total number of developers modifying the artifact). Conversely, weakly owned files have no such primary developer.

Hypothesis: Code ownership affects code quality

Weak ownership means distributing the responsibility for a particular part of software among multiple developers. We speculated that code without a primary owner might have no champion who will take responsibility to maintain and test the code. Without such code owners, knowledge about the inner working and functionality of code might be limited and once lost completely, it might take time to recover. Overtime, such files become more susceptible to bugs.

Studying the consequence of weak code ownership

At Microsoft, we conducted two studies to investigate the phenomena of weak ownership. In a first study, we showed that Windows executables that lacked clear code ownership were more likely to be defect prone than strongly owned Windows executables, for both Windows Vista and Windows 7 [2]. While the results of this study are convincing, the chosen level of the study (executables) is too coarse to be actionable in practice. For example, a weakly owned executable can be composed of hundreds of source files each owned by a single engineer.

Looking into granular code ownership by file

To make the results more actionable for engineers, we decided to extend the original investigation and to look at two different granularity levels [3]: source files and directories. We choose directories as they are logical groupings of files that often share common properties, and often contain files which are close together in terms of functionality or product architecture. We also widened the scope of our investigation to other Microsoft products, which include Office, Windows, Office365 and Exchange.

Validation: Strong ownership matters

In this follow up study, we also demonstrated a strong relationship between ownership and quality. For example, we could show that the more engineers modify a file, the higher the number of bugs that are linked to this file and that if there is one primary contributor, the chances for a file to be buggy decreases significantly (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Effects of code ownership on bugs

Predicting bugs based on weak ownership

In addition, ownership metrics have a strong defect prediction power. We show that the number of contributors and the percentage of edits of the least involved contributor effectively identify future buggy code files and code directories.

Weak ownership is not always intentional

In follow up discussions with the development teams, it became clear some of the files were being changed by more people than the team assumed. For other artifacts though, engineers were well aware of the many contributors and the weak ownership was architecturally intended. This doesn’t change the fact that these edits were more likely to cause issues in software.

One size does not fit all cases of code ownership

Simply enforcing a very strong ownership model might not be the right solution, as ownership not only has implications on responsibility and accountability, but also on knowledge and dependencies. If we restrict ownership to one engineer per file or directory, we limit the number of engineers who are knowledgeable about that piece of code. Not being familiar with a certain piece of code is a serious problem and building a mental model about software a tedious task [4]. Also it has been shown that it is hard for developers to understand the code of others, and that “developers go to great lengths to create and maintain rich mental models of code that are rarely permanently recorded.” This directly impacts the ability of a developer to contribute to source code that she has not edited before. Nevertheless, weak files, intended or unintended can be a threat to the quality of a software system and actions should be taken to tackle the problem.

What should you do with weakly owned code?

Distinguish collaborative ownership from non-ownership

Identify your weakly owned files and directories to understand the mechanisms and dynamics at play. Are they intended to be changed by many developers? Are they positioned well architecturally? Martin Nordberg [5] in his paper makes a difference between “collaborative” ownership and “non-ownership”.

Collaborative ownership. Nordberg defines collaborative ownership, as an ownership where code is collectively owned, but responsibilities and schedules are clear. Each team member can work across subsystems or services as needed. If implemented right, this style helps to build and maintain knowledge about the code among team members and one might expect the quality of such systems to be high.

Non-ownership. On the other hand, non-ownership is a situation in which several developers make changes to the same subsystem but with minimal coordination or accountability for quality or team communication. In such systems, one might expect the quality to be low. In our discussions with engineers they alluded to a similar kind of differentiation. Engineers are obviously worried about the unintended or unknown weakly owned artifacts which seem to correspond to the non-ownership category, and expressed the need to further investigate.

Assign code ownership

As much as possible assign an owner to currently weakly owned files and directories or clarify responsibilities.

Use code ownership to ensure awareness and guide refactoring

We recommend that teams pay attention to ownership of files and directories, and especially to those where the reason for a lack of strong ownership is unclear. Assigning an owner might not imply that this is the only person that is allowed to change the artifact, but that this person is aware of changes to the artifact for example via code reviewing practices. If the reason for the weak ownership are architectural, the team should consider refactoring to split weakly owned files into more coherent units.

If you can’t simplify ownership, apply code reviews and tests to minimize risk

If driving changes to the ownership model is not possible or desired, use ownership information as indicator of risk. For artifacts, where strong ownership is not possible in practice, we highly recommend that changes to such weakly owned files and directories are carefully reviewed. We recommend to use ownership information to drive test and code review efforts.


[1] K. Beck, Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change 2nd. ed., Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2000.

[2] C. Bird, N. Nagappan, B. Murphy, H. Gall and P. Devanbu, "Don'T Touch My Code!: Examining the Effects of Ownership on Software Quality," in Proceedings of the 19th ACM SIGSOFT Symposium and the 13th European Conference on Foundations of Software Engineering, 2011.

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[4] T. D. LaToza, G. Venolia and R. DeLine, "Maintaining mental models: a study of developer work habits," in International Conference on Software engineering , New York, 2006.

[5] M. E. Nordberg III, "Managing Code Ownership," IEEE Softw., pp. 26-33 , 2003.

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[12] A. Meneely and L. Williams, "Secure Open Source Collaboration: An Empirical Study of Linus' Law," in Proceedings of the 16th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security, 2009.

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