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Prairie Dev ConĀ 2010!

June 6, 2010 Comments off

Chris Presenting at PRDC10

Chris from P2 Presenting at PRDC10

This last week I had the great opportunity to attend Prairie Dev Con 2010 in Regina. This is the first time a good sized software conference has been organized here in the prairies. I travelled to Regina with some co-workers and really enjoyed the experience. I was extremely impressed at how well organized the conference was, as well as the number of talks lined up (50 talks over 2 days).

Since this was the first time a big software conference had been hosted in Saskatchewan, the organizer, who works primarily with Microsoft technologies, used many of his contacts from within that community to put together a good list of speakers. Now that the conference has been run once and had a good attendance, the hope is for next years conference that we can attract speakers on a more wide range of technologies such as as Python, Django, Scala, and document style databases such as MongoDB.

Since Point2 has been doing a lot of interesting work with new technologies, I hope for next year we will be able to put on a number of talks to offer a more well rounded list of topics for next year.

Overall, I was really impressed with PRDC10 and I am looking forward to seeing it happen again next year!

by Brian Richardson

A Positive Root Cause Analysis

January 8, 2010 1 comment

At the end of every development iteration we always do a retrospective and a root cause analysis meeting. In our retrospective we cover what went well, what did not go so well, and come up with action items for things to try in our next sprint. In our root cause analysis meetings we usually pick some problem that occurred, try to figure out why it happened, then understand how we could prevent this problem from happening again in the future. Our root cause analysis meetings are usually always on a negative topic. However, during our recent project we decided to change things up and do a root cause analysis of the following question:

Why did our last project go so well?

This may seem like a strange question to ask, but often in root cause analysis meetings we tend to focus only on the mistakes made during a project. When problems occur you need to identify the root causes of those problems to prevent them from happening again. While in a project that goes well it is just as important to recognize what we did right this time to ensure we understand “why”. What did we do different this time that worked? What were the crucial decisions made that kept the project on track? In our root cause analysis we found some key decisions, that in retrospect were important but at the time did not seem critical.

Failing fast when a decision starts to become problematic
For our project we thought we had a clear, straight forward design to work with from the beginning. However, after spending even just a day spiking some ideas our design immediately started to show cracks. Our design that on the surface looked simple, turned out to be far more complicated to implement than we had imagined. A large part of the reason for this problem was that our project was to make changes to an existing application about which no one on our project had any previous knowledge. We immediately had a team huddle, called a “Just In Time” design meeting and corrected our course. As a result, we lost a day, instead of a week or a month going down the wrong path.

Consulting experts early
When we started our project we knew of a few ways to accomplish our task, we had received suggestions that sounded fine, but we really were not sure if our approach was the best solution available. Fortunately we have some very experienced people in our company that have spent many years contracting and as a result have an incredible variety of experiences from which to draw upon. So we called a quick design meeting with one of these experts, showed them what we were thinking of doing and just picked their brain for ideas. It turned out our expert was able to come up with an approach to our problem that not only would allow us to complete the task within the time-line given to us by our business team, but at the same time would allow us to implement a cleaner solution.

Keeping code ownership high
We had no one person on the team that if they were sick for a day it would prevent a task from being completed. During our project we made sure every line of code was written with a pair (We always try to pair program every line of code) and switch pairs regularly. Because of this knowledge sharing we did not have any “Experts” on any one area of the application. We always had at least 2-3 members of the team who were knowledgeable enough on any given area of the application be able to bring another developer up to speed.

Break all stories into small tasks with a clear definition of “Done”
The stories we work on during a sprint always show the business value we are adding, but from a developers perspective there are usually multiple tasks required to complete each story. At the start of each sprint we held a task breakdown meeting for breaking each story down into a set of small tasks. Our team found that having a set of clearly defined tasks for each story was very important to keeping the project on track. With any story we receive from the business team their will be questions and as a result we found that doing this task breakdown meeting helped flush out many of those questions at the start of the sprint, as opposed to after development had already began, which in the past was usually what happened. It made it clear to our team lead and business analyst exactly what work was being done, who was doing it, what tasks had been completed, and what tasks had not yet been started. Also this gave our business analyst and team lead a better idea of when to expect demos since they could see how many tasks were remaining before a story would be completed.

Demo to business team often
We started our project doing a fairly poor job of demoing but this was corrected after one of our sprint retrospectives. Business analysts need to see the work being done and often will think of something that was missed, or see something that perhaps spawns another story. One of the easiest ways to ensure that what is being developed matches what the business team wants is to keep them in the loop and an excellent way to do that is through frequent demos.

Quick feedback from business team
During development there are always going to be cases in business logic spotted by developers that were missed during the initial planning phase. When a developer spots a missed case and brings it up to the business team, quick feedback from the business team can play a major role in keeping the project on schedule. In our last project this turn around time was often hours, if not shorter in most cases.

Keep the systems team involved from the start
The people who will be deploying the application and hosting it should be involved right from the start of the project. Your systems team has experienced many deployments and also know the pain of hosting a problematic application. Allowing the systems team, who will be responsible for the application after development has been completed, to be involved in key decisions can greatly improve the chances of a successful deployment and potentially reduce the cost of hosting the application.

Conclusion
Having your team do a positive root cause analysis can be very useful. It sometimes seems like after a problem in one sprint, we focus in the next sprint so much on improving in that one area that we sometimes slip in areas where we were previously doing well (for our team it was demos). On previous projects I have worked on, we definitely tried to follow each of these best practices outlined in our positive root cause analysis. However, since we moved to Agile almost two years ago, this was the first project where everything just “clicked”.

by Brian Richardson

University of Saskatchewan Programming Contest

October 7, 2009 Comments off

U of S Programming ContestMarcos and I attended the University of Saskatchewan Programming Contest where students were competing for prizes and the chance to attend the Regional Programming Contest at the U of S on Oct 30, 2009.

The contest had eight coding problems to solve. To win you just needed to correctly solve the most questions. However, in the event of a tie the team who solved the problems in the shortest amount of time wins. The questions ranged from very simple to extremely difficult. If you are interested in seeing some sample questions (Or would like to test yourself!) you can check the U of S Programming Contest sample page.

Students competing in the contest ranged from novice to advanced, however there was also an opportunity for anyone interested, to form a team and compete for fun! (count us in for next year). The contest is not just about writing code, but more about focusing on problem solving where you prove your solution with a small program. Of course the competitors who are able to solve each problem with small simple applications definitely have an advantage.

While at the programming contest we had the chance to meet the co-ordinator of the programming contest, professor Christopher Dutchyn. He gave us an overview of the contest, how scoring was handled, and walked us through some of the problems teams were attempting to solve. During our discussion, Marcos chanllenged the winners of the U of S contest to a programming contest with Point2 employees.

During our weekly professional development time we plan to put together a team to practice similar problems to the ones solved in the programming contest. We hope to prepare ourselves for a fun challenge. We know the competition will be tough, but we hope to give students a fun practice session before they go on to another competition. We hope to set something up some time over the next few months. If not, then we will enter a team next year and compete for fun.

At the end of the contest there was an awards ceremony where some prizes donated by Point2 were presented to the contest winners. Marcos and I also had an opportunity to tell the students a little bit about Point2. We hope to see many of those students applying for positions offered through the U of S Internship Program for next spring.

After having a chance to spend a day on campus it sure makes me miss my time their as a student. The faculty and staff were great hosts.

by Brian Richardson and Marcos Tarruella

TeamCity – Using Personal Builds to help improve cycle time

September 3, 2009 Comments off

So you are working on a large project, many developers committing regularly to the same code base, you run all the unit tests, commit and you break the build. Now everyone on your team is angry (As they should be!). How could this have happened when you ran all of the tests? The reason is that you did not update before running tests locally and committing. The problem is that constantly updating and building can waste a lot of time. Even if you do update, run all tests, then commit, there is still a chance another developer made a commit during that cycle. The solution: Team City Personal Builds.

Personal Builds

The great people at JetBrains have a feature in TeamCity that allows you to use your build server build agents for “Personal Builds”. More great news is that TeamCity plugins that make use of this interesting TeamCity feature are available for IDEs such as IntelliJ and Visual Studio.

So now when you use your IDE tool with the TeamCity plugin you would use the “Remote Run” option to make your commit. TeamCity will then spin up a personal build, apply your code changes to a fresh checkout of the repository, build, and run all unit tests. If your “Personal Build” passes, your code changes will be committed. Now, here is the great part, if it fails, your code changes will NOT be committed, and you will be notified of the failure.

This feature of TeamCity allows developers to get out of the update, run all tests, and commit cycle and offload some of that work to their TeamCity server.

IntelliJ Plugin Setup

  • File->Settings->Plugins
  • Click on the “Available” tab
  • In the search box enter “TeamCity” (The option JetBrians TeamCity Plugin should show up in the list)
  • Right click on the plugin and select “Download and install”
  • You should see a TeamCity option on your IntelliJ toolbar
  • Enter your TeamCity credentials, setup your notifications

So now, when you commit use TeamCity – > Remote Run rather than using the Version Control menu. You will be notified if your commit is accepted or rejected.

Visual Studio Plugin Setup

To download the Plugin, login to your TeamCity server, go to the “My Settings & Tools” page. You will find a download link for the plugin in the “TeamCity Tools” panel on the righthand side of the page.

by Brian Richardson