Archive for July, 2010

Code Sharing Wrap-up

As I suspected, when I planned to write a series of posts about code sharing, I’ve realised that I won’t write them all. The main reason is that I started out with the juiciest bits, where I felt I had something interesting to say, and the rest of the subjects feel too dry and I don’t think I can write interesting posts about them individually. So I’ll lump them together and describe briefly what I mean by them in this wrap-up post instead.

The bullet points that I don’t think are ‘big’ enough to warrant individual posts are:

  1. Use JUnit.
  2. Use Hudson.
  3. Manage Dependencies.
  4. Communicate.

Let’s tackle them one by one. The first one, ‘Use JUnit’, is not so much intended to say that JUnit is the only unit testing framework out there (TestNG is as good, in my opinion). It is rather a statement about the importance of good automated tests when sharing code. The obvious motivation is that almost every conflicting change between two teams is a regression error and therefore possible to catch with automated tests. If each team ensures that the use cases they want from a shared library are tested automatically (note that I don’t call the tests unit tests; they are more functional than unit tests) with each build, they can guard their desired functionality from breaking due to changes made by another team. A functional test that is broken intentionally due to a change desired by one team should trigger communication between teams to ensure that it is changed in a way that works for all clients of the library.

I’ve never tried formalising the use of different sets of functional tests owned by different clients of a library as opposed to just having a single comprehensive set of unit tests. But it feels like a potentially quite attractive proposition, so it might be interesting to try. It might require some work in terms of getting it into the build infrastructure in a good way. I’d love to be able to see how that works at some point, but simply having a single comprehensive set of unit tests works really well in terms of guarding functionality, too.

‘Use Hudson’ says that continuous integration (CI) is vital when sharing code. It feels like everybody knows that these days, so I don’t think I need to make the case for CI in general. In the context of sharing libraries, the obvious benefit of CI is that you will detect failures sooner than you would have if you just rely on individual developers’ builds. This is especially true of linkage-type errors. You’ll catch most errors that would break a unit test in the library you’re working on by just running the build locally, but CI servers tend to be better at checking that the library works with the latest snapshots of related libraries and vice versa. Of the CI servers I’ve used (includes Continuum and Cruise Control), Hudson has been by a wide margin the best. Hudson’s strength relative to the others is primarily in the ease of managing build lines – the way we use it, anybody can and does create and modify builds for some project almost weekly. I haven’t used the others in a couple of years, so it may have changed, but earlier what you can do in 30 seconds with Hudson used to take at least an hour or more depending on how well you remember the tricks to use with them.

I think that I touched on most of the arguments I wanted to make about ‘Manage Dependencies’ in the post I wrote titled Divide and Conquer. Essentially, the graph of dependencies between shared libraries that you introduce is something that is going to be very hard and expensive to change, so it is well worth spending some time thinking hard about what it should be like before you finalise it. The Divide and Conquer post contains some more detail on what makes it hard to evolve that graph as well as some tips about how to get it right.

The final point is ‘Communicate’. I sometimes think that communication is the hardest thing that two people can try to do, and of course it gets quadratically harder as you add more people. It is interesting to note how much of business hierarchies and processes are aimed at preventing or fixing communication problems. In the particular case of code sharing, the most important communication problems to solve are:

  • Proactive notifications – if one team is going to make a change to a shared library, many problems can easily be avoided if other teams are notified before those changes are made so that they get the opportunity to give feedback about how that change might affect them. At Shopzilla, we’re using a mailing list where each team is obliged to send three kinds of messages:
    • After each sprint planning session, a message saying either “We’re not planning to make any changes to shared code”, or “We’re anticipating making the following changes to shared code: a), b) and c)”. The point of always sending an email is that it is very easy to forget about this type of communication, so always having to do it should mean forgetting it less often.
    • If a need to make changes is detected later than sprint planning (which happens often), a specific notification of that.
    • If changes have been made by another team that led to problems, a description of the changes and problems. This is so that we can continuously improve, not in order to point fingers at people that misbehave.
  • Understanding requirements and determining correct solutions – it is often not obvious from just looking at some code why it has been implemented the way it is. In that scenario, it is important to have an easy way of getting hold of the person/people that have written the code to understand what requirements they were trying to meet when writing it so that one can avoid breaking things when making modifications. This is often made harder by client evolution: shared code may not be modified to remove some feature as clients stop using it, so dead code is relatively common. Again, I think that a mailing list (or one per some sub-category of shared code) is a useful tool.
  • Last but probably most important: a collaborative mindset – this is arguably not ‘just’ a communication problem, but it can definitely be a problem for communication. It is possible to get into a tragedy of the commons-type situation, where the shared code is mismanaged because everybody focuses primarily on their own products’ needs rather than the shared value. This can manifest itself in many ways, from poor implementations of changes in the shared code, to lack of responsiveness when there is a need for discussions and decisions about how to evolve it. To get the benefits of sharing, it is crucial that the teams sharing code want to and are allowed to spend enough time on shared concerns.

So, that concludes the code sharing series. In summary, it’s a great thing to do if done right, but there’s a lot of things that can go wrong in ways that you might not expect beforehand – the benefits of sharing code are typically more obvious than the costs.

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