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Speed Up Project Delivery with Repeatability

Automate high-friction, unpredictable tasks in your environment to regain sanity and achieve a rapid, sustainable pace.

very environment has them: The dreaded manual tasks that drain productivity from the team and add instability to the processes. We usually dedicate only half our brain power—and never enough time—to deal with them, which only compounds the problem. But what if you could automate the most painful tasks and gain a huge boost in productivity and speed of delivery?

Anyone who has worked on a large project, especially one with multiple developers, knows the pain of dealing with code change conflicts, the "works on my machine!" syndrome, "magic" builds, and other process and procedure anti-patterns. Developers hate having to deal with these things, nonetheless, we always get stuck having to do them. In this article, I'll walk you step-by-step through some simple changes you can make to your environment to eliminate many of the non-code related headaches. By producing reliable, quality builds every time and easing the pain of deployment to multiple environments you'll be able to get back to doing what you really love: Coding!

Author's Note: All the tools used in this article are free and most are open source. You can try out these techniques with no startup cost other than your time. All the tools have active communities with mailing lists, wikis, and websites from which you can learn more, ask questions, and even contribute. If you find any of these tools useful, please consider donating some time and contributing some documentation, FAQ answers, or tutorials back to the community to help make the tools even better!

Keep Your Tools Sharp

Raise your hand if you love preparing a release build for production development or release-to-customer. If you didn't raise your hand, you're like most people involved in software projects. Sure, you know that there are many new and old tools that help you automate these things, but it takes time to get up to speed on them and use them correctly. It's an old problem. Stephen Covey's book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People uses a really great tree-chopping analogy for this concept: "I don't have time to sharpen the saw, I'm busy sawing!" If you don't take the time to sharpen your saw, eventually the growing inefficiency of dull tools and over-work will choke your productivity. Time invested in keeping your tools sharp can pay back handsomely.

Remove Friction and Surprises

Repeatability is a virtue. It's both something you strive for and a goal to be achieved. You should try to identify friction/pain points and try to automate them as soon as possible. One fact I have observed in my projects is that automating a frequently-repeated task is always worthwhile. The time it takes to automate a task is usually recaptured after the third or fourth time the task is repeated. So the ROI happens extremely quickly. The key to automating these tasks, however, is to have the right tools and know how to use them.

In summary, you should strive to eliminate all the "magic" in your software process. If you can perform a task on one developer's box, you should be able to do it on any developer's box. You should be able to eliminate all surprises as quickly as possible, and automate all manual tasks in the critical path so you can mitigate risk to the maximum extent possible.

Key Aspects of Repeatability

This article covers five key aspects of a repeatable environment:

  1. Source control
  2. Automated build
  3. Automated testing
  4. Automated deployment
  5. Continuous integration
Author's Note: Previous issues of CoDe Magazine have covered many of these topics, and you'll find links to those articles here, so that you can delve deeper into that particular subject.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the November/December 2009 issue of CoDe Magazine, and is reprinted here by permission.

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