Making Release Frictionless, a Business Decision, Part 1

Would you like to release your product at any time? I like it when releases are a business decision, not a result of blood, sweat, and tears. It’s possible, and it might not be easy for you. Here are some stories that showed you how I did it, long ago and more recently.

Story 1: Many years ago, I was a developer on a moderately complex system. There were three of us working together. We used RCS (yes, it was in the ’80s or something like that). I hated that system. Maybe it was our installation of it. I don’t know. All I  know is that it was too easy to lock each other out, and not be able to do a darn thing. My approach was to make sure I could check in my work in as few files as possible (Single Responsibility Principle, although I didn’t know it at the time), and to work on small chunks.

I checked in every day at least before I went to lunch, once in the middle of the afternoon, and before I left for the day. I did not do test-first development, and I didn’t check my tests in at the time. It took me a while to learn that lesson. I only checked in working code—at least, it worked on my machine.

We built almost every day. (No, we hadn’t learned that lesson either.) We could release at least once a week, closer to twice a week.  Not friction-less, but close enough for our needs.

Story 2: I learned some lessons, and a few years later, I had graduated to SCCS. I still didn’t like it. Merging was not possible for us, so we each worked on our own small stuff. I still worked on small chunks and checked in at least three times a day. This time, I was smarter, and checked in my tests as I wrote code. I still wrote code first and tests second. However, I worked in really small chunks (small functions and the tests that went with them) and checked them in as a unit. The only time I didn’t do that is if it was lunch or the end of the day. If I was done with code but not tests, I checked in anyway. (No, I was not perfect.) We all had a policy of checking in all our code every day. That way, someone else could take over if one of us got sick.

Each of us did the same thing. This time, we built whenever we wanted a new system. Often, it was a couple of times a day. We told each other, “Don’t go there. That part’s not done, but it shouldn’t break anything.” We had internal releases at least once a day. We released as a demo once a week to our manager.

After that, I worked at a couple of places with home-grown version control systems that look a lot like subversion does now. That was in the later 80s. I became a project manager and program manager.

Story 3: I was a program manager for a 9-team software program. We’d had trouble in the past getting to the point where we could release. I asked teams to do these things: Work towards a program-wide deliverable (release) every month, and use continuous integration. I said, “I want you to check everything in every day and make sure we always have a working build. I want to be able to see the build work every morning when I arrive.” Seven teams said yes. Two teams said no. I explained to the teams they could work in any way they wanted, as long as they could integrate within 24 hours of seeing everyone else’s code. “No problem, JR. We know what we’re doing.”

Well, those two teams didn’t deliver their parts at the first month milestone. They were pissed when I explained they could not work on any more features until they integrated what they had. Until they had everything working, no new features. (I was pissed, too.)

It took them almost three weeks to integrate their four weeks of work. They finally asked for help and a couple of other guys worked with the teams to untangle their code and check everything in.

I learned the value of continuous integration early. Mostly because I was way too lazy (forgetful?, not smart enough?) to be able to keep the details of an entire system in my head for an entire project. I know people who can. I cannot. I used to think it was one of my failings. I now realize many people only think they can keep all the details. They can’t either.

Here’s the technical part of how I got to frictionless releases:

  1. Make the thing you work on small. If you use stories, make the story a one-day or smaller story. I don’t care if the entire team works on it or one person works on it (well, I do care, and that’s a topic for another post), but being able to finish something of value in one day means you can descend into it. You finish it. You come up for air/more work and descend again. You don’t have to remember a ton of stuff related but not directly a part of this feature.
  2. Use continuous integration. Check in all the time. Now that I write books using subversion, I check in whenever I have either several paras/one chunk, or it’s been an hour. I check that the book builds and I fix problems right away, when the work is fresh in my mind. It’s one of the ways I can write fast and write well. Our version control systems are much more sophisticated than the ones I used in the early days. I’m not sure I buy automated merge. I prefer to keep the stories small and cohesive. (See this post on curlicue features. Avoid those by managing to implement by feature.)
  3. Check in all the associated data. I check in automated tests and test data when I write code. I check in bibliographic references when I write books. If you need something else with your work product, do it at the time you create. If I was a developer now, I would check in all my unit tests when I check in the code. If I was really smart, I might even check in the tests first, to do TDD. (TDD helps people design, not test.) If I was a tester, I would definitely check in all the automated tests as soon as possible. I could then ask the developers to run those tests to make sure they didn’t make a mistake. I could do the hard-to-define and necessary exploratory testing. (Yes, I did this as a tester.)

Frictionless releases are not just technical. You have to know what done means for a release. That’s why I started using release criteria back in the 70s. I’ll write a part 2 about release criteria.

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2 Comments

  1. Bobby Peru

    I like the idea, but I don’t think I’ve ever worked on anything that could just be checked in daily without breaking something.

    Or are you recommending an entire shift in the process, so that any change is intentionally kept so small that you can, almost, always commit and pass the build?

    Reply
    • johanna

      Bobby, yes. If you keep changes small, and support those changes with automated tests (unit and system), most of the time you can commit and build with no trouble. Will there be times when something happens? Of course. And, if you find that those times are once every few weeks, you have much more ease of releasing.

      Reply

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  1. New PM Articles for the Week of July 18 – 24 - The Practicing IT Project Manager - […] Johanna Rothman posted a two-part series on how to get to a frictionless release. Here’s part 2. […]

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