10 High Value Development Chores to Start 2014 Right

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It’s a new year and that makes it a great time to tackle some high value development chores that get your team started on the right foot. Each of the 10 quick development tasks below can all be done in a few hours at most, and will immediately start paying dividends on your teams productivity.

1. Delete inactive branches and Pull Requests

We’ll start with an easy one. If your team is anything like ours, it creates branches and pull requests on a regular basis. The problem comes when they get abandoned or merged (perhaps via a rebase) and the branch and/or pull request gets left behind for all eternity. Code Climate only has three people working on it, but we have over 100 branches and a dozen open PRs across our three main repositories – almost none of those need to be looked at ever again.

Get all the developers in a room and go through Git branches and open pull requests in alphabetical order. Give anyone a chance to claim any branch they want around, but terminate any unclaimed branches with extreme prejudice. You’ll be left with a lot less clutter in your repos and GitHub views.

Time required: 15 minutes as a team. If you hold a daily stand-up, do it immediately following.

2. Optimize your deploys

Deploys are like a mutex in your development pipeline and it pays to keep them as fast as possible. There’s no excuse for a deploy that takes longer than 30 seconds, and in many cases you can optimize them to be significantly faster than that without too much effort. The main Code Climate Rails app can usually be deployed in less than 5 seconds.

Often the culprit is simply doing a lot of unnecessary work (updating dependencies with NPM or Bundler, copying large directories, or precompiling assets) on every deploy. Making better use of Git (and its ability to know exactly what is changing on each deploy) can eliminate these extra steps except when they are needed yielding big performance wins.

Back in October we described the upgrades we made to our Capistrano-based deployment process. Give that post a read and apply the techniques to your own project. Everyone on your team will be happier – well, except for the fact that you’ll take away one of their legitimate excuses for slacking off.

(If anyone has tips for optimizing deploys to Heroku, please share them in the comments.)

Time required: Three hours.

3. Ratify a coding style guide

Your code has a style whether you define it or not, and chances are if you have more than one programmer on your team that your natural styles will differ in at least a few ways. Ideally, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference (at least stylistically) between code written by any of your team members.

Rather than waging coding style war in diffs and GitHub comments, take some time as a development team to ratify a style guide for your organization. It doesn’t really matter what rules you choose, just that you all agree to follow them. The most important principle is:

Proposed changes to the team’s style guides will be litigated out-of-band.

This helps avoid the problem of developers wasting time reformatting code every time they start working in a new file or code reviews that devolve into style nit picking sessions. After you ratify your style guide, pick a date about a month in the future to review it as a team and discuss potential changes. You could even create a GitHub repository to store it, and discuss change proposals in pull requests.

There’s no need to start from scratch. Feel free to crib from other widely available style guides — for example, Airbnb’s JavaScript style guide might be a good starting point for you. GitHub itself also publishes their style guide, which has sections on Ruby, JavaScript and even the voice and tone to use on the site.

Time required: One hour as a team.

4. Curate a core test suite

Quick: How long do you have to wait for tests to run in order to give you 95% confidence that your latest code change is safe to ship to production? If it’s any longer than a few minutes, your team is paying a hefty tax each and every time they sit down at a keyboard.

Rigorously applying the principles of the testing pyramid will yield a fast test suite that still gives strong confidence the application is functioning as desired. What if your main test suite is already too slow? You’ve got a few options:

  • Delete slow tests that aren’t pulling their weight. Remember, if a test’s value drops below the investment it takes to keep around and run, it has got to go.
  • Segregate slow running tests into a separate suite. The goal is to reach 95% confidence within a few minutes of tests running. Often times teams end up with a bunch of slower tests they feel are important to get to 99% confidence, but a much smaller set of tests that cover core user flows can do a great job on their own. Running all tests every time is subject to diminishing returns.
  • Replace high level tests with lower level tests. This is an ongoing approach to improve the situation over time, and can’t usually be done in one sitting. Still, if your suite is too slow continually keep an eye out for where a lower level (e.g. unit) test may be a better fit than an acceptance test.

Remember that even a few seconds shaved off your build will save you several developer-hours over the course of the year.

Time required: Up to four hours upfront.

5. Audit your app for vulnerabilities

It seemed like 2013 was a particularly rough year for security on the Web, with a string of high profile breaches as startups and established companies alike. Now is a great time to take a step back and look at your code and operations to ensure you’re taking the appropriate precautions to avoid become a victim.

Although common Web application security risks transcend development tools, the detection of vulnerabilities and appropriate remedies tends to be a framework and language specific. For Rails apps, we recommend running Brakeman, an open source vulnerability detection scanner based on static analysis, and bundler-audit. If you’ve never run tools like this against your code base, it’s very likely they’ll uncover at least one issue worth addressing, making it time well spent.

If you add your Rails repo to Code Climate, Code Climate’s Security Monitor feature will notify your team when new security vulnerabilities are introduced.

If you know of tools for other programming languages that are helpful, please share them in the comments.

Time required: 15 minutes to run a scan.

6. Extract an open source project

Lots of us have a TODO on our list to extract some useful component of one of our applications and release it as an open source project. The turn of the calendar is a great time to take that opportunity.

Why open source code? There are lots of reasons. First, the act of extracting the code often tends to lead to cleanup and better definition of the boundaries, making the component more maintainable. Then, once the code is published, you may very well get contributions. For example, the short time since we released our codeclimate-test-reporter gem, we’ve already received a few valuable contributions in the form of pull requests. Those were features we had on our list, and we saved time because other generous individuals spent their time improving our code! Finally, open source is a great way to get your organization’s name out into the community, which certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes time to grow your team with hiring.

Often developers get hung up on the need for code being exemplary before they share it. While it’s understandable that no one wants to be represented by messy code, remember that the sooner you flip the OSS bit the sooner other people can start benefiting from your work and making contributions. Plenty of the important OSS projects you use every day are messy codebases, but I bet your are happier that they are available as-is.

In short, obey the squirrel!

Time required: Up to four hours.

7. Ditch your CI server

Developers in 2014 benefit from access to a wide range of services that strive to solve a variety of pain points that we used to have to roll up our sleeves and tackle on our own. Continuous integration (CI) is one of those pains, and it can be a big one.

Rather than operating your own CI server (like Jenkins), consider trying out a hosted alternative. They’ve advanced significantly over the past couple years and usually the time spent to make the switch is quickly paid back by not having to perform maintenance tasks like software updates and adding capacity on your own. Further, most of these tools have whole teams working every day to improve the continuous integration tooling. That’s just not something most dev shops can afford to do – at least until you’re Facebook-sized.

There are a lot of vendors competing in the CI space these days, but to give you some starting points, Code Climate has partnerships with Semaphore, Solano Labs and Travis CI.

Once you’re up and running, as a final step be sure to test intentionally breaking the build to ensure you are properly notified.

Time required: Two hours.

8. Clean up your READMEs

Good READMEs lay a foundation for getting developers up and running with a codebase. However, unless they are actively maintained, they start to drift away from the reality of the underlying project.

We like to begin our READMEs with a one sentence summary of the role of the codebase. Beyond that, we may include some additional context about how the code fits into the overall architecture, but we try to keep this brief. The meat of the README is comprised of install steps and any instructions necessary to execute the code. (Hopefully the install steps are few, as we try to automate as much as possible.)

Take a few minutes to glance at the READMEs of your most important codebases (or write them if they don’t exist or are empty). Most importantly, remove outdated information that could send your future teammates on a wild goose chase. No documentation is better than wrong documentation. But if you have the time while you’re in there, sync up the content of the README with the context in your head.

Protip: Whenever a new developer joins your team, have them follow the README instructions to get set up. Hopefully it should go smoothly, but should they run into any missing our outdated documentation, have them commit README updates before they move on.

Time required: 30 minutes.

9. Aggregate and index your logs

Here’s one that I’ve gone an embarrassingly long time in my development career without addressing. Searching through log files sucks. Searching through log files across three applications and eight servers leveraging all of the power of Terminal.app’s tabs functionality sucks even more. There’s no reason for this.

Today it’s simple to get up and running with log aggregation tools, either hosted (like Papertail or Loggly) or on-premise (with Logstash and Kibana. Both systems can be setup to accept log messages already flowing through rsyslog or, with a bit more configuration, being written to log files on disk.

Either way, once you’re done, you’ll have a single place for your developers and operations people to go to search logs for valuable clues when diagnosing issues. This is a lifesaver in emergencies. Once you’ve got a handle on the basics, you can play around with fancier techniques like using values emitted in log files to push data into a time series database like Librato Metrics and archiving old logs to S3 (because storage is cheap and who knows if you’ll need them).

Time required: Two hours.

10. Track the quality of your team’s code as you commit

Every day we see experienced, well meaning teams struggling to achieve their code maintainability goals. A big part of the problem is that you can’t tell whether your code is getting better or worse simply by pulling up your project in GitHub.

Developers these days leverage increasing visibility to tackle all sorts of thorny problems from failing tests to slow databases. Code Climate lets you see how your code is changing from day-to-day in a way that’s clear, timely and actionable. Derek Hopper, from Ideal Project Group, writes about the impact Code Climate has had for them:

We’ve eliminated numerous code smells. We’ve properly extracted business logic which transformed F classes into A classes. We have better test coverage for the important pieces of our application. The application is more stable overall.

If you haven’t tried it yet, we offer a 14-day free trial and we’d be happy to talk with you about how you can get off on the right foot with Code Climate in 2014.

Time required: Less than 15 minutes to get the results.

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