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Why Should the Product Build Be Hard, Anyway?

First of all, the product you are going to ship has more pieces to it than the prototypes you have been putting together for internal consumption. Here’s a classic example: Developers and testers rarely look at the help system, because they know the product well enough to play with it and test it. Once you are going to have outsiders try to use it, you need a well-elaborated and working help system for people to use. Further, you need instructions for installing the software in different computing environments, as well as various other adjuncts that you can live without when you are only consuming your software internally. So the first problem that comes up is one that might be dismissed as packaging. You need more pieces to ship a product than to use it internally; and further, you need to document all the little details that the internal team has always known or taken for granted.4 Making the product ready for outside consumers is sometimes called sanding off the rough edges. Some of these "rough edges" can be very sharp, and because you don’t catch them all the first time, your first consumers may cut their fingers on them.

Let’s assume, however, that this is just a logistical exercise and that with enough planning you can avoid the "packaging" trap. In some sense, it can be put in the "annoying detail" category: If you ignore it, it will bite you; but if you are aware of it and plan for it, then it is relatively easy to overcome. So, forewarned is forearmed: Treat packaging as a purely technical problem and you will be fine.

In fact, there are three much more fundamental obstacles to success that come up over and over again. They are distinct and interrelated, and all three must be worked on to achieve a successful build process.

Obstacle 1: Organizational Politics

Many software development managers lose sight of the simple fact that controlling the build process is first and foremost a political problem. To put it simply, he who controls the build has an enormous amount of power. After all, the build cycle itself defines the rhythm of the entire development and test organization. Think of the build cycle as the software equivalent of a factory assembly line. The person who gets to define the characteristics of the line and its speed determines, to a very real extent, the output of the factory. Line workers are very aware of their subservience to the line. The cardinal sin in the factory is to slow down, or—Heaven forbid!—shut down the line. The software equivalent is submitting a set of changes that breaks the build.5

Now the build process is something that everyone must participate in, but only one group can control. By its very nature it is not a democratic enterprise; it requires a certain amount of hierarchical and structural apparatus to work at all. Everyone agrees on this, more or less. The sticky wicket is determining who gets the responsibility and authority to make it work. That group will, from that day forward, wield a lot of power and clout.

Because human beings are, in general, reluctant to give up this sort of power, the build process becomes a political football. Myriad discussions ensue as to who will have the right to do what to whom in the interest of the build process. All of the negative political tendencies of your organization will be exposed during these discussions.

The purists among you will cry out that political tendencies should be discouraged or even condemned, pointing out that the job is hard enough from a technical point of view and should not be "polluted" by politics. In most organizations, however, wishing politics away will not necessarily make them go away. Politics is a fact of life that must be dealt with.6 However, you must get through this phase, as unpleasant as it first appears. Else, you will be incapable of dealing with the next two hurdles.

Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Try to get the group to agree that someone has to be in charge, because a loose confederation approach is doomed to failure.

  • Try to reach a reasonable compromise between the autonomy of the constituent teams and the centralized authority that will be required.

  • Always make sure that the management team understands the importance of the issue and has the very best people assigned to the build.

  • Later in this chapter, we will talk about having a czar of the build. Make sure it is a person who is technically competent, firm, fair, and respected by everyone. Install him or her early in the process and have this person guide you through the political shoals.

  • Enlist management’s support in crushing "bad politics," should it rear its ugly head.

Obstacle 2: The Process

Having hacked through all the political jungles that accompany conceding power to the build group, the participants must now agree on the process they will use. Just as form follows function, the process will often be shaped to mirror the political compromises that were made to get to this juncture. There is plenty of interaction between the first and second obstacles. In fact, often the process obstacle presents itself early on, in Phase 1, because it is being used as a surrogate by those who don’t want to openly admit that there are unresolved political issues. In some organizations, we see these two obstacles mashed together into one giant hairball, which in turn gives "process" a bad name. You cannot use "process" to solve what are intrinsically political problems, much in the same way that you cannot "solve" technical problems through political compromise.

The basic tension at this point revolves around the people who want a strict, rigorous process—sometimes called lots of rules and no mercy7—versus the people who want a looser set of policies. Acknowledging that there is no single, simple, right answer is usually the best place to start here. Your process will have to be tuned to your organization, because all organizations have their peculiarities.8

That does not mean that you need to invent new process. I used the word "tune" advisedly in the previous paragraph because I am firmly convinced that the best way to deal with this issue is to start with a base process that has been demonstrated to work before. Rational Software’s Unified Change Management (UCM), for example, has a rich legacy of successful application. We know it works across a broad spectrum of domains, applications, and organizations. Why start over? Do you really think you are going to do better?

There are a few traps you don’t want to fall into at this point. One is the religious wars pitfall. In every organization there are process gurus who believe that they, and only they, have the magic formula. And sure enough, every time there are others who resist, quite certain of their own convictions.9 Regardless of who is right or wrong, these crusades are totally unproductive, often revolving around obscure details of little importance. The strong manager needs to identify the religious process fanatics and stifle them early. Sometimes the only answer is to tell them to put a cork in it. Remember always that process is not an end in and of itself; it is a means to an end—shipping the product!10

Another trap is to think that any process, no matter how good, can substitute for thought or judgment. For every ironclad rule, there is bound to be an exception. You will have to watch what is going on and make midcourse corrections, no matter what your process is. As called out previously, you will need to modify and tune your process in real time as you discover what works for you and what doesn’t.

Lastly, get on with it. Perfect is the enemy of good.11 You will develop your process iteratively, just the way you develop the software. Get to Iteration 1 quickly. Learn. Change. Improve. Repeat until done.

Obstacle 3: Tools

Just as the first obstacle (politics) and the second obstacle (process) are intimately related, so are the second and the third. The third, of course, is the toolset that you will use to implement the process. Needless to say, choosing the tools first is getting it bass-ackwards, but surprisingly enough, that’s the way many organizations go about it. They then wind up with the tool determining the process, which can be loads of fun when the process thus derived is inconsistent with the political philosophy of the organization.

Obviously, you need tools that will automate and enforce the process you have chosen to use. If you have a process that admits mistakes, you will be "backing out" changes from time to time. Does the tool support that easily? Are developers going to be checking in their work to a common baseline from multiple remote sites? If so, then your tool had better support that model. Do you want to build your entire product from top to bottom every night? If so, then I hope your tool has the performance and turnaround characteristics that will permit that. Do you want to automate your regression testing as part of the build? Once again, tool support is crucial.

Even organizations that have done a good job with the first two problems sometimes flounder with the third. And sometimes it is not the tools’ fault either. Once again, using our factory analogy, you need someone to monitor the line and to do quality control for the product coming off the line. Without constant vigilance, it is easy to automate a process that produces a low-quality result. Every successful build process requires a foreman or the equivalent thereof; sometimes he or she is called the czar (or czarina) of the build or, more simply, the buildmeister.12 The buildmeister monitors the health of the line and makes sure that a steady stream of good-quality product is produced.

One last semi-technical note: Beware of the old saying "We can always write a script that can do that." The problem is that these scripts always start out small and simple and then grow in ways that are random and unsupervised. Scripts, unlike programs, are rarely designed; they just grow. They become compendia of special cases and are inadequate to respond to the ever-increasing demands of the organization; they are brittle. They are a maintenance nightmare, especially if the original author moves on. And they are very, very difficult to debug. Just as the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, the road to "build Hell" is paved with the out-of-control products of general-purpose scripting languages.13

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