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Thoughts on 'Are We Done Yet?'

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A classic question in software is "are we done yet?". This is not just a question for software developers. Anyone who is working in IT needs to ask the question when writing code, testing a feature, upgrading a network, or designing a user experience.

There is no perfect answer to the question. Every individual, every team, every business scenario will have a different answer, and you’ll only know if the answer was good using hindsight.

However, we need to make sure we ask the question and think about the answer.

When Is Fast Too Fast?

Most of us work in a business that wants to move fast. We feel a lot of pressure to release software as quickly as possible and move on to the next task. We descend on tasks like peregrine falcons - moving quickly and finishing jobs at breakneck speeds.

Falcon

There’s a danger in moving too fast. We take shortcuts, we rely on short term thinking, and we accumulate technical debt. Moving too fast today will force us to go slower tomorrow. We’ll spend more time tracking down bugs that are hard to find, and it takes longer to make changes in brittle code.

We need to avoid future slowdowns by moving at a sustainable pace. A sustainable pace requires us to change our definition of "done".

Two Types of Requirements

Most teams tend to focus on functional requirements. A functional requirement is how we think about the behavior of a system. For example – "must import an HL7 XML file", or "must compute the customer discount". A job can’t be done until the functional requirements are satisfied.

A business might also include some non-functional requirements. Non-functional requirements describe a specific characteristic or quality of a system. For example – "must comply with U.S. section 508 accessibility laws", or "must maintain a median response time less than 3 seconds".

Good development teams will go beyond just the requirements handed over by the business. Here are three specific non-functional requirements that we often sacrifice so we can move faster. However, without these requirements we are going to move slower in the future. The pace is unsustainable.

Maintainability

We need to build maintainable software. The code we write today might be around for many years. I have a 20-year old web forms application still in production. We need to make sure code is clean and, in the right places, extensible.

Deployability

Most clouds makes it easy for one developer to publish software into a platform. Unfortunately, it then becomes easy for the entire team to think of the one developer as The Person Who Does Every Install and never bother with automating the install so that anyone can deploy the software at any time. The irony here is that DevOps platforms and cloud themselves have never been so easy to automate. Good teams will automate every step ruthlessly.

Observability

Nothing is more time consuming than bugs that leave behind no clues. Instead of fixing problems, teams can spend days hypothesizing about what could be going wrong. Today's micro-service architectures with distributed messages make the scenarios even more difficult. There are, however, good solutions. Teams have to take the time to make software observable, and use telemetry frameworks that know how to correlate cross-process activities.

Are We Done Yet?

Most of us should say our software isn’t good enough for the first release into production until it is maintainable, deployable, and observable. To achieve these goals we want to:

  • Schedule more regular design and code reviews.

  • Automate deployments to the point where someone who is not on the team can deploy the app with a minimum amount of instruction.

  • Include error scenarios in test plans. Users should see friendly error pages with a transaction code they can capture. Errors in any page, controller, form, or API endpoint needs to generate diagnostic information in a queryable data source.


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