Get it up and running

West Side-project story

West Side-project story

I have seen quite a few projects that spent a ton of calendar/developer time and bugdet in building components and frameworks instead of getting something running. Running in this sense does not mean being able to show an application started from a developers IDE on her development notebook. With running I mean versioned artifacts deployed on some sort of staging infrastructure the client/customer has access to. Let me elaborate on that:

Walking skeleton

I really like the notion of the walking skeleton coined by Steve Freeman and Nat Pryce in “Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests“. While I do not want to emphasize TDD and/or automated end-to-end testing I see great benefits in producing a walking skeleton that touches all important parts of a system and is working with a minimal set of functionality. For me that means that all of the following elements are in place, albeit in a primitve way which can be refined on the way:

  • The code is hosted in a source code repository accessible to the project members
  • A build system is chosen and able to produce a runnable artifact
  • A continuous integration server (CI) is triggered on changes in the repository and produces the runnable artifact
  • The artifact is easily installable on the target machines and/or installed on a staging system that resembles the target system as closely as reasonable
  • If there are components they talk to another using minimal requests and stubbed replies that can be refined over time

I usually aim for that walking skeleton in the first few hours into a project after the base technologies and requirements allow starting with coding. That may take up to several days when the system is more complex but it should not take weeks. Connect different parts of the system as early as possible even if responses are minimal, hardcoded or “wrong”. It shows that the parts are able to communicate and mismatches will become visible either someway along the build process or at least when running application. Why should you choose such an approach?

Benefits

  • Most people I know are better at evolving and improving existing stuff than at creating new stuff in empty space in a focused and efficient way. If you have a skeleton of the system it is much easier to talk about the interfaces and responsibilites of the different parts of the system.
  • You get to define APIs which you can evolve over time instead of specifing the complete API and experience implementation and mismatch problems much later when the components need to be integrated.
  • Similarily it is much more difficult to package a complex system after it is finished than to package a simple minimal system and evolve all aspects – building, implemenation and packaging/deployment, maintainance – when necessary.
  • You see if things may work like expected or if there is some inherent problem in the whole design much earlier. Essentially you evolve your proof-of-concept into something with real value for your clients.
  • As soon as your system provides some value you can deploy the working stuff long before the whole project is finished.
  • It is much easier to discuss a working system than to reason about a system not yet existing.
  • You are eating your own dogfood from early on and can address pain points in development, user experience, deployment and running the application.
  • You have something to show more or less right from the beginning and progress will be visible throughout the project.
  • No “Works on my machine!” syndrome.

Potential Problems

Of course there is the challenge of continuously refactoring and extending existing stuff. Later on data migration or migration of configuration may be additional tasks. But hey, you are skilled, agile developers that embrace the idea of changing requirements and the ability to move fast. You have to pay attention not to accumulate too much technical debt as it will slow you down and hurt you in the long run.

Summary

Running systems providing value are what your clients often care about the most. If you can something like that early on communication with your stakeholders tends to be more relaxed as they have better possibilities of steering in the right direction and they steadily see progress. Running software should be the primary goal.

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