Some Thoughts On Software Development

Before the job interview that I mentioned the other day, the company asked me to answer some questions in writing. I didn’t get the job, but I was pleased with my written answers (and they presumably helped me to get the interview, at least). So I thought I’d reuse them as a blog post. None of this should be surprising for anyone who knows anything about the software development field, but it’s interesting to reflect on how things have changed across my career.

What are some of the fundamental changes in your approach to software development you have adopted in the last few years?

There are two main changes that are fundamental and independent of languages and deployment environments: agile techniques and test-driven development (TDD).

Agile

Moving from waterfall to agile development was probably the most significant change to development practices in the industry. We always knew that breaking work down into smaller units led to better estimating, more modular code, and just better software. The genius of agile was to extend that understanding to the period of time spent on a block of work. A two-week sprint, with its work being specifically estimated, planned and developed, is just infinitely more manageable than a project phase lasting months.

Add to that:

  • self-organising teams which include someone from the customer or end user — or at least someone whose role is to represent the user;
  • accepting that change will happen, and embracing it;
  • and the discipline of saying that some features won’t be developed;

and we have a recipe for success.

TDD

Good developers always understood that testing was essential, and did it. But they used to follow a written test plan, or just have an idea of what needed to be tested and work to that. Testing was manual, hard to repeat, and error-prone.

TDD brought automation. So instead of writing a document listing the required tests, we can write code. That inherently makes the tests rerunnable, so regressions get caught before they become a problem.

But almost more important than that is the idea of writing the tests first. In an ideal world you write a comprehensive set of tests, write functional code until all the tests pass, and you’re done. It may not always work out exactly like that — in particular, adding tests to a mature codebase can be problematic — but writing tests first encourages us to write code that is easy to test, which tends to lead to better-designed, more modular code.

An added bonus is that the tests can help to document the code, by showing our expectations. And of course they make refactoring easy and safe, as long as they are in place before you start.

If you were to start your last project over again, what would you do differently?

The project I’m thinking of involved rewriting the product’s GUI into a modern, responsive, browser-independent form, using HTML 5 and Twitter Bootstrap.

The existing version was an old frames-based web app that only worked fully in Internet Explorer, and had to be tweaked when each new version of that browser came out. We had long wanted to modernise it, but there were always other demands on development time.

Eventually I got a chance to try a proof of concept for the change. The application uses JSPs and Struts action classes, and the brief was to continue using these as much as possible. I decided to start with one of the main display pages, the one that users spend most of their time in. The idea was to give a quick demonstration of what was possible; and it did, to a point. But what I hadn’t realised was that frames are not part of HTML 5. There are ways to keep using them, but it’s not easy, and not good practice.

So while the new look and feel of a single page was clear, it was far from clear how the various pages would interact, how they would be brought together to form the whole UI, without frames.

If I were to start the project again now, my first step would be to work out how to link the pages together into a single interface, in the absence of frames. Most likely I would use one or other of the forms of JSP includes.

However, if there was the budget to do a more complete rewrite — by which I mean one that did not necessarily seek to use the existing JSPs — I would probably make much greater use of JavaScript and Ajax, and use the action classes just to provide data to the Ajax calls.

What is your approach to testing, and how would you test your application?

I would use a mixture of automated unit testing using JUnit, automated GUI testing, and actual user testing, if at all possible.

This fits well with what I was saying above. There are, broadly, three levels of testing: unit, integration, and system. Though writing automated unit tests is a development activity, rather than a testing one. Certainly we wouldn’t expect dedicated QA testers to work at the unit-test level.

So let’s assume that we have satisfactory unit-test coverage and we are interested in testing the application as a whole. Automation is obviously key here, as well, both because it allows us to easily repeat the tests regularly — for every checkin, in an ideal world (and see below); and because it removes the need for testers to manually step through a written script, which is boring and error-prone.

I have used Selenium for automated GUI testing, with some success. It takes a significant amount of development work, because it’s doing a significant thing, but the effort should pay off.

However, even after all that, there is still no alternative to having someone sit down and actually use the application. Automated testing might pick up outright errors in how the user interaction works. But it won’t catch fine details like misaligned elements, typos in onscreen text, or just generally how it feels to use the application.

What are the benefits of Continuous Integration?

Continuous Integration takes us beyond the traditional daily build. It does more than just building, and does it more frequently than just daily.

At the simplest level it ensures that, for every commit, an incremental build of the complete product is made, and all the unit tests are run. In the most advanced case, as well as building and testing, the product can be deployed to test servers and integration tests such as the automated GUI tests mentioned above can be run. Realistically those tend to take longer, so it’s unlikely that you would do them for every commit, but they can certainly be run multiple times daily.

So we get the following benefits:

  • frequent builds catch problems in code integration;
  • unit tests are run frequently, catching any regressions;
  • integration tests are run regularly, catching other problems;
  • general confidence in the product is increased;
  • developers are happy to commit changes frequently.
Some Thoughts On Software Development