About Aaron Nichols

Aaron works with startups and small companies to help their development organizations move faster. He is presently the senior Operations Engineer at a startup in Boulder working on implementation of Continuous Deployment, automated monitoring & configuration management.

Continuous Deployment: Are You Afraid It Might Work?

I’ve been wondering for a few years now, why it’s so hard to get companies to prioritize the work that I feel is important. I mean, I’m telling you how to do it and you aren’t listening – don’t you want to build quality software? Would you listen to that argument? I wouldn’t. Everybody has an opinion about how to do things, what makes one better than another?

 
 
 
 
 

I think you should listen to me, but that’s irrelevant

I’m on my 4th SaaS company at this point. I’m starting early this time and hoping to steer things in the right direction. I feel like I’ve observed some good and some bad and some really ugly at this point and I have a pretty good idea of what patterns and anti-patterns are important. The problem hasn’t changed though, just because I feel they are important doesn’t make them a priority for the company.

When I go to work for a new company a very important question to answer is whether the company is ready and willing to implement all the cultural and technical requirements for Continuous Deployment. I’ve at least figured out that, from my position, it’s exceptionally hard (so far impossible for me) to convince a company they want to do this – they have to already want to. I know how to implement, I know how to enact change, but I need support that has to already exist.

I focus on Continuous Deployment not because it’s a technical solution that you just plug in and go. I focus on it because it drives conversation around all the other areas where organizations should improve. For each improvement you make working toward Continuous Deployment, you make your development process better and your software better. These aren’t things that only provide benefit once you are doing Continuous Deployment – but when you’ve done them all it becomes a fairly easy decision to deploy continuously.

I’m early into my latest venture but already the attention is there, the interest in doing this right. I’m being asked for my thoughts on what we need to prioritize to move toward Continuous Deployment, what do we need to focus on early so that it’s easier later on. I’m also being asked to educate folks on what is important and why, what have I watched work and what have I watched fail. What mistakes can we avoid and what mistakes are we just going to have to make on our own?

Oh, you were hoping not to make mistakes? Good luck with that. The best I can hope for is to make my own mistakes.

Dude, I would never do that…

My first flight on an airplane, in my life, was a skydiving trip. When the instructors discovered this as we ascended toward altitude they said “Well this is perfect, next time you fly you can tell the person next to you that you’ve flown before, but you’ve never landed”. My risk tolerance may differ slightly from others. I like to rock climb as well, plenty of people won’t do that. The thing is, both of these sports involve a very risky activity offset by copious amounts of safety. Still, when you watch the girl up on the cliff hanging by a limb all you can think of is “what if she falls?”. The answer is, she’ll get a little bruised up maybe, but if she’s doing things right she’ll keep right on climbing.

When you’ve been climbing a bit, when you understand the safety mechanisms, you pay much more attention to the climb, to the technique, to each movement. You know that the climber is probably safe, because you know what keeps them safe. You can take more risk with each movement knowing that any single mistake will only set you back so far.

These activities, like Continuous Deployment, look more risky from the outside than they are. If you don’t take the time to understand all the safety mechanisms then you can’t accurately evaluate the risk. For a company who pushes software every few weeks to consider pushing every commit without substantial other changes would be insane. Just like I would never go rock climbing without the right equipment (I’m allergic to free soloing – sorry). The act of Continuous Deployment is a realization of a ton of other effort – and all that effort has to be prioritized before you can ever get on the rock face.

Reality check – you are deploying more often than you think

Lets say you deploy every week – I’m being generous here, but lets just pretend. So you deploy on Thursday during the day because you have an awesome deploy process and you know it’s better to spot problems when everyone is in the office. You spot a problem, what do you do? I’m guessing your deploy was from a branch, so you just fix that branch & deploy. Then you merge the fix into master.

Friday comes along, hey there’s another critical issue. Fix, branch, deploy. Lather, rinse repeat. Meanwhile, depending on how involved the fix is and what other stuff you have going on, you’ve got a bunch of merging to get right and the closer to your next branch you get, the more of a problem this becomes. How about a fix on Wednesday before the next deploy? I’m guessing you’ve already cut the next branch, so now you apply the fix to 3 branches (last week, this week, master).

All this deploying and merging and branching, it’s all work. The problem is – it’s not automated work, it’s work asking for mistakes to be made. It’s risk. Where are your safety mechanisms? Are they your manual testers? Your automated test suite? If those automated tests aren’t good enough to test each commit before it goes to production, why are they good enough to test each weeks deploy? Because you do manual testing?

This all sounds risky to me, but for some reason it sounds less risky than Continuous Deployment to some. I think this can only be because of a lack of understanding around the safety mechanisms, the pre-requisites. The proof is in the pudding though, and if you still produce shitty software when doing Continuous Deployment because you write bad tests and don’t do retrospectives and don’t prioritize the important work of making the system work right – then you’re sunk either way.

There are some companies that are probably better off deploying every 8 weeks.

Wrapping up – why so much focus on Continuous Deployment?

The practices that surround Continuous Deployment/Delivery substantially reduce risk – things like Feature Toggles, automated testing, automated deployments, deploying off master, retrospectives, monitoring, accountability, access, ownership, reduced MTTR, and the list goes on. These all add up to make a software development and deployment environment so safe, anyone can commit code – if it doesn’t work it will not make it to production.

But, things will still break. In my experience you have to break things in very subtle ways for code to get into production & as time goes on and you build better monitoring, even those issues should be detected fast & resolved fast.

It can take a while to reach the end goal, but you’ve got to start somewhere. However, even if you never actually practice Continuous Deployment, all of these practices will produce better software and probably happier developers.

Further Reading

Here are a few other good resources to learn about Continuous Deployment/Delivery

 

Reference: Continuous Deployment: Are You Afraid It Might Work? from our JCG partner Aaron Nichols at the Operation Bootstrap blog.

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