Agile, Programming

Tasking

I have been following this seemingly innocuous practice of “tasking” when programming on a story, which I find very useful and I recommend you try it. Here are the what, when and whys of tasking.

What: Breaking the story into small tasks that could be worked on sequentially.

When: Before writing the first line of code for the implementation of the story.

Why:
Understanding: By breaking the story into smaller chunks, it gives a good grasp on the entire scope of the story. It helps define the boundary of the story and gives a good idea of what is in scope and out of scope.
Completeness: Tasking makes you think of the edge case scenarios and is a conversation starter for missed business requirements or even cross functional requirements like security, performance, et al.
Estimation: Doing tasking right in the beginning of the story gives a sense of the story size. On my current project we are following the Kanban process. Ideally we would like to have “right-sized” stories, not too-big not too-small. Tasking helps me decide if the story is too big and if it is, then how could it be possibly split into smaller ones.
Orientation: This has been a big thing for me. I feel I go much faster when I have a sense of direction. I like to know what is coming next and then just keep knocking off those items one by one.
Talking point: If you have 1 task per sticky which I recommend, it serves as a good talking point for say business tasks vs refactoring/tech tasks, prioritizing the tasks, et al.
Pair switch: If you are doing pair programming, like we do, then you could be switching pairs mid way through the story. Having a task list helps retain the original thought process when pairs switch. Stickies are transferable and they travel with you if you change locations.
Small commits: Another big one. Each task should roughly correspond to a commit. Each task completion should beg the question “Should we commit now?”. If you are doing it sooner, even better.
Minimize distration: There is a tendency as a developer to fix things outside the scope of the story like refactoring or styling changes to adjacent pieces of code. If you find yourself in that situation, just create a new task for it and play it last.

Thanks for reading and feel free to share your experiences.

Advertisements
Standard
architecture, Integration, Programming

Integration-first development

Yay, yay, I know its another one of those X-first development, but this one has been a bit of a revelation to me. I have been convinced of its value, so late in my career, when it should have been obvious day one. Its not that I did not know about it, but I never realized its paramount importance or conversely, the havoc it can cause, if not adhered to. Oh well, its never too late to do the right thing :). Now that I talked so much about it, let me say a few words about what it means to me. It means, when you are starting a new piece of work, always start development at your integration boundaries. Yes, it is that simple and yet was so elusive, at least to me until now.

We have had numerous heart burns in the past over, not being able to successfully integrate with external systems, leading to delays and frustrations. Examples of integration points in a typical software system could be web services, databases, dropping files via FTP into obscure locations, GUI. Number one reason for our failure to integrate, has been our lack of ability to fully understand, firstly, the complexity of the data being transferred across the boundary and secondly, the medium of transfer itself. We think we understand these 2 things and then proceed with the development with mostly the sunny-day scenario in mind. We happily work on the story development until we hit this integration boundary and then realize, damn, why is this thing working differently than we expected. Not completely different from what we thought, but different enough to warrant a redesign of our system and/or having to renegotiate some integration contract. By then we have spent a lot of time working on things which are very much under our control and could have been done later.

Now what are the possibilities that we could not have potentially thought about in the first place? Let me start with a real-world example that I have come across. We were integrating with a third party vendor that delivered us some data via XML files. We had to ingest these files, translate them to HTML and display on the screen. Easy enough? We thought so too. We got a sample file from them, made sure we were parsing the XML using the schema provided and translating it into HTML that made sense for us. We were pretty good at exception handling and making sure that we did not ingest bad data. The problem started when we were handed a file of over 10 MB of data. Parsing such a huge file at request time and displaying the data on the screen in a reasonable amount of time was impossible. At this point we were forced into rethinking our initial “just-in-time” parsing strategy. We moved a lot of processing offline, as in, pre-process all the XML in to HTML and store it in the database. This alone did not solve the problem, for it was still not possible to render the raw HTML on the screen in a reasonable amount of time, since the HTML had to be further processed to be displayed correctly with all the styling. Obviously the solution was to cache the rendered HTML in memcached. We hit another road block with memcached, being unable to store items greater than 1 MB in size. Surely, we could have used gzip memcached store or some other caching library but that wouldn’t have solved our problem either. We chose to create another cache store in the database. After doing all this, some of the pages were still taking too long to load because of the sheer size and as a result, the business had to compromise on not showing those pages as links at all. But this meant that we had to know the page sizes before hand, to determine where to show links and where not to. All this led to a lot of back and forth, which is fine, but had we known about this size issue earlier, it would have saved us a lot of cycles. By the way, we could have incrementally loaded the page using Ajax but it was too late and wasn’t trivial for our use case. We could have known about the size issue if we had integrated first and worked with a realistic data set rather than a sample file.

So as per the example above, our integration point dictated our architecture in a huge way and also, more importantly, business functionality which is another reason to practice integration-first development. In an ideal world, you would like to insulate yourself from all the idiosyncrasies of your integration points but it rarely happens in a real world.

Other issues around integration points that have influenced our design are, web services going down often, and hence having to code defensively by caching the previous response from the service and setting the appropriate expiration time on it based on the time sensitivity of the data. In some cases, you might want to raise an alarm if the service goes down. If you know that it happens too often, then you might want to have it raised less frequently and be more intelligent about it.

There have been cases, when we have had no test environment to test a service and hence having to test with the production version of the service, which could be potentially dangerous. We had to do it in such a way, so as to not expose our test data in production. This meant our response had to change based on what environment they were being sent from. Certain services charged us a fee per request hence we had to reduce the number of service calls to be more economical.

Some vendors offered data via database replication and occasionally sent us bad data. In this case, we had a blue-green database setup where we had two identical databases, blue and green. The production would point to one of them, say it was pointing to blue. We would load the new data in the green database, run some sanity tests on the new data and only when the tests pass, point production to green. We would then update blue to keep it in sync.

Some of the vendors offered data via flat files. Sometimes they would not send us files on time or completely skip them. We updated our UI to reflect the latest updated time so as to be transparent. In addition to the file size episode I mentioned above, we had another problem with large file sizes. Our process would blow up when we processed large amounts of data. It was because we were saving large amounts of data to the database in one go, which wasn’t apparent initially.

Performance of external systems was an issue and obviously affected the performance of our app. We had to stress/load test the external system before hand and build the right checks into the system if the system would not function as expected.

We have tried to mitigate these integration risks in a number of ways. We implement a technical spike before integrating with an external system, to understand its interactions or even feasibility in some cases. When integrating with data focused stories, what I have found to be most useful is, as a first step, striving to get all the (minimum releasable) dataset into the system, without even worrying slightly about UI* jazz. Don’t bother the developers with UI since it can be distracting. Have the raw data displayed on the screen and then “progressively enhance” it by adding sorting, searching, pagination, etc. This is popular concept used in UI view rendering where you load the most significant bits of the page first and then add layers of UI (javascript, CSS) to spruce it up so that the user can get maximum value first.

On a recent refactoring exercise, we moved a tiny sliver to our application to a new architecture to test out fully the integration points and have a working model first. After that it was all about migrating other functionality to the new architecture.

There are so many things that could possibly go wrong when integrating and it is always a good idea to iron out the good and bad scenarios, before you start working on anything that you know you have full control over. I am not saying you could predict all these cases before hand, but if you start integrating first you have a much better chance of coming up with a better design and delivering the functionality in a reasonable time.

I would like to leave with you two thoughts: integrate-first and test with real data.

* UI can have exacting requirements too, in which case it should be looked at along with data requirements. Some UI requirements that could influence your architecture are loading data in certain amount of time or in a certain way, like all data should be available on page load.

Standard
Agile, Programming

Refactoring: Levels and Lessons Learnt

Refactoring is a critical factor in the successful evolution of a code base. Slow and small steps of refactoring help keep the code base healthy and clean.

I would classify refactoring into 3 levels ordered by increasing scope, and consequentially, effort.

1) class level refactoring

This is the type of refactoring typically done at the end of red-green-refactor cycle. As TDD practitioners are aware, you write a failing test for the business expectation, you fix the test and then refactor the code to make it ‘better’. Here are some examples:
a) rename methods/variables to clearly express their intent
b) extract duplicate lines of code into a method
c) memoize to avoid duplicate calls to expensive pieces of code
d) write idiomatic code. I was baffled when I first heard the word ‘idiomatic’ so let me take a minute to explain it. It means using the language constructs rather than the plain old constructs, that you find in almost every language. An example in Ruby would be: lets say you have a method that initializes an array, adds some elements to the array and returns the array. As you can imagine, these three steps would each correspond to a line in your method if written in a non-idiomatic fashion. If you were to write idiomatic code, you would use tap instead. Here is how it looks.

[].tap do |fruits|
  fruits << 'apple'
  fruits << 'banana'
end


2) story level refactoring

This is the type of refactoring, you do when the story is “functionally” complete. Here are some examples:

a) convert procedural code into object oriented code. A symptom of procedural code is, manipulating the state of an object outside its own class. Here is an example:

if(input.numeric?)
  NumberFormatter.format(input)
else if(input.date?)
  DateFormatter.format(input)
end


In this case, some code outside the input class is making a decision of which formatter to apply to a input. This clearly breaks encapsulation by exposing the input data to something outside the input class. Doing this the right way would mean, when initializing the object you create the right type of class based on its input, like a NumericInput vs DateInput, write a format method on each of those classes and simply have the client call the format method on the instance of the class. The client should not care what instance it is calling the format method on, as long as the input type knows how to format itself.

Here is how it looks:

class NumericInput
  def format
  end
end

class DateInput
  def format
  end
end


client code would be:

input.format

Believe it or not, a lot of your decision making statements will go away, if you create the right type of objects. To create the right type of objects, it is very important to identify the right abstractions for “state holders” and then push the behavior on to those abstractions(classes in object-oriented world).

b) Remove duplicate code from multiple classes and create common abstractions.

c) Watch out for performance-related refactorings like avoiding n+1 query problem, removing/merging duplicate database/service calls, caching expensive service/database calls, avoiding fetching more data than necessary from external services (example being fetching all the search results and counting them as opposed to directly getting count of results or getting database results and sorting the results as opposed to fetching sorted results), graceful handling of service/database error conditions.

3) big bang refactoring

This is the type of refactoring where you change a large part of your code, purely for technical reasons. The drivers for this type of refactoring are the exorbitant cost of changing a relatively small piece of code, performance being unacceptable, the code being too buggy and rather be rewritten than applying band-aid solutions or the code breaking in production and it is hard to tell what is going on. The effort is too big to be handled as a part of a ‘feature’ story and hence has to be done independently as one or more stories.

Big bang refactoring stories are generally hard to sell because they don’t deliver any client-facing functionality, the impact and to some extent the scope being unclear(example being refactoring Javascript code for a page to follow MVC pattern) and the fear of breaking something already working. These stories have to be drafted with a clear end goal in mind to give the developers a good idea of the scope and assess the impact. The story should enunciate the pain points being addressed as a part of acceptance criteria and the rough amount of effort required. Such stories should be more actively monitored to avoid losing focus. The stories with high level of pain and low level of effort should be prioritized first. It is possible that such stories might never get prioritized. In such a scenario, the work should be broken down into smaller chunks and handled as type 2 story-level refactoring with a related feature card.

Lessons learnt:

* Make separate unit tests for testing different intentions of a method. For an example, lets say a method returns a hash of attributes about a person object. So you would have a separate test for each item in the hash or at least a logical grouping of items in the hash. Here is an example

it "should format the name" do
  person.to_hash[:name].should == 'Todkar, Praful'
end

it "should calculate the age based on the birth date" do
  person.to_hash[:age].should == '29'
end


This way it makes it easier to understand the behavior being tested. Also if some of the logic changes or goes away it is easy to change or delete the test. Also, you could test the complicated parts more rigorously without testing everything that the method returns. You could put the test setup for the method in a before block to avoid duplication.

* Avoid unit testing of private methods of a class. Testing private methods is a smell and indicates that there is too much going on in the class being tested. The fact that you want to test the private method without going through the public interface means that you could easily create an abstraction for that code and inject it as a dependency. You could test the dependency separately and rigorously. For example, there is a method that finds the median age for a group of people stored in a database. Now as you can see, there are two separate pieces of logic here. The part where you read from the database is fairly easy to test where as testing the median age is more complicated and hence can be tested easily and thoroughly if it were its own abstraction. Also for some reason if your logic changed to find the mean age instead of the median age, your database test should remain the same.

* Try to do as much unit-level testing as possible to isolate problems during test failures. The other advantage of unit testing is that it helps reduce the combinations of integration/functional tests. Say you have to write a functional test to test a form that accepts age as one of it fields. If you have properly unit tested all the edge cases for the field accepting age as an input, then the form submission test does not have to deal with various combinations of age input. Almost always integration tests are an order of magnitude slower than unit tests. Unit tests give you faster feedback at relatively low cost.

* It is very important to have clearly defined outcomes for refactoring stories. I was on a project that had the first phase of the project dedicated to refactoring. Quickly we realized, we weren’t making much progress as it was hard to tell when a refactoring story was done. The boundary lines of the refactoring stories were blurry, hence causing confusion. I recommended that we tie refactoring effort to new feature stories, originally planned to be developed in phase 2. The approach we took was refactoring code in and around the feature we were working on. This way we had a better sense of story boundary and knew when to stop refactoring. Once the patterns were in place, it was easy to replicate those across the code base. The business also liked it as they started seeing features delivered sooner than they had anticipated.

* If you find too much mocking/stubbing of dependencies when testing a method in a class, it might be a good time to consolidate the dependencies into fewer abstractions, and delegate some of the testing to the new abstractions. Too much mocking/stubbing can be a result of a chatty interaction between multiple dependencies. It happens when you have data being passed around from one object to the other. It helps to have a owner of the data and push the behavior on to the data owner to avoid chatty interaction.

* One of the tips that I have found useful when naming classes is having the name be a noun as opposed to a verb. For example, when picking a name for a class that compares hotels, it should be called HotelComparison as opposed to HotelComparer since it feels more natural for a HotelComparison class to hold state like date of comparison, result of the comparison, requesting user. This helps in writing more object-oriented code.

* Always test the public interface. One of the biggest advantages is that unit tests don’t break when internal implementation changes. Also it strengthens the idea of having a public interface for a class.

* Functional/UI tests can be very useful when doing story level or big bang refactoring to make sure that the functionality is working as expected.

* When refactoring a large piece of code, change one thing at a time. When refactoring a complicated piece of Javascript code, we decided not to change the structure of HTML, so that we do not break the CSS and keep it out of the equation.

* When refactoring a large piece of code, follow a top-down refactoring approach. Make sure that you create the right abstractions first and establish the interactions between them in such a way that data lives as close as possible to the class manipulating it. Then move on to refactoring individual classes. If unit tests exist, it is easier to ignore them until you have stabilized on the classes and their methods.

Standard