Experiences from a highly productive development team

During the past year I’ve been working in a development team which arguable is the most productive team I’ve been around in my ten year career in software development. During the year, we have been able to achieve great things. We have been taking new systems and services live, delivering new features to both internal and external customers and decommissioning old services which have served their purpose in a fast pace. This article aims to address some of the key aspects that I have been observing, which makes this team so productive and efficient in how they work.

We seldom, if ever, perform work on our own. We have been exercising so called mob programming for a year now, which means the whole team works on the same problem, in front of a big shared monitor, with one keyboard and mouse being passed around the participants. This was something that the team just decided to try after attending a conference which had a presentation on mob programming, which then evolved into a standard way of working within the team. The team’s manager do not care how we work, as long as we deliver. Every morning we finish our daily scrum/standup meeting by deciding on the team formation. Sometimes a small task needs to be performed that might not be suitable for the mob. In that case we exercise pair programming while the mob continues. The benefits of everyone working together are e.g. knowledge sharing, that everyone knows what’s happening, architecture decisions can be made as we go etc. We also prefer constant pre-commit code review because at that point in time everybody is familiar with the code changes, the intent of the changes and what possible solutions were discarded, something that is not as clear with a separate post-commit review which also adds unnecessary overhead. A team moves quicker than an individual and the shared knowledge of the team is greater than of particular individuals. These effects were more or less immediate when we started with mob programming.

Continuous Delivery. We have a streamlined process where the whole delivery process is automated. For each code change that is pushed to a source code repository, a new build of the software is triggered. For each build we run unit, subsystem and regression tests in a fully automated fashion. This is our safety net and if all tests pass, we automatically continue deploying the code to our different environments. In roughly 30 minutes, the new code change has been deployed to production if it has passed all the gatekeeping. No manual interventions needed. This allows us to go fast and get quick feedback on whether a given code change is fit for purpose. A benefit of being able to ship new code changes as soon as possible is that you do not create an inventory of code changes. If a problem would arise, the developers would be up to speed and have the context of the particular code in mind if they would need to make any additional changes. Even though we tag our deployments automatically for traceability, it is also very easy to know what code is actually deployed in production.

Code that is in production brings value, code that isn’t, doesn’t.

Teams with end-to-end responsibility. The Amazon CTO Werner Vogels have been quoted saying: “You build it, you run it”. This aspect is really important for a development team to be able to take responsibility and accountability for the code they write. If you are on-call for the code you’ve written, you will pay attention to quality since you do not want to be woken up in the middle of the night due to technical issues. And if problems arise, you will be sure to solve them for good once they occur. Having to think about the operational aspects of software on a daily basis has made me a better developer. Not only do I write code that is easy to test (an effect of test-driven development), but I also keep in mind how the code is going to be deployed and run.

A team dedicated product owner (PO) is key. A year ago we had a PO that was split between our and another team. When that person was dedicated for our team only a few months later we noticed great effects. The PO was much more available for the needs of the development team. The PO was able answer questions and take decisions which shortened the feedback loop for the developers substantially. These days the PO even joins the programming mob to both gain an understanding of how particular problems are solved but also to bring domain specific expertise to the team.

Automate everything. Not everything is worth automating at first, but if it is obvious that a task is repetitive and thus error prone it will be worth automating. Automate the tedious task together in the team and everyone will understand the benefits of it and know the operating procedure. Time is a valuable asset and we only have so much of it. We need to use it wisely to be able to bring as much value for the company and our customers.

Don’t let a human do a scripts job.

The willingness to experiment and try out new things is of utmost importance. Not all experiments will bring the desired effect and some might even bring negative effect. But the culture should embrace continuous improvement and experimentation. It should be easy to discard an experiment and rollback.

You should never stop improving. No matter how good you feel about yourself, which processes you have in place, how fast you are able to deliver new features to your customers, you must not stop improving. The journey has no end. If you stop improving, someone of your competitors will eventually outplay you. Why has Usain Bolt been the best sprinter for such a long period of time? He probably works out harder than any of his competitors to stay on top of the game. You should too.

Tommy Tynjä
@tommysdk
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