As I’m sure I’ve
mentioned in the past, Continuous Integration is far more than just a collection of tools and scripts. It’s “a practice”, a way of doing something, and it has to be part of our working culture to be truly effective.
I’ve seen instances of CI implemented which are truly magnificent, using great tools, great architecture, very smart scripts and a good process, but I’ve also seen this system fail. Unfortunatley, it’s all too easy to have your wonderful system, and then have it ignored unless there is the right level of buy-in from the people who this system is meant to cater for, nameley development, QA and Management.
The way I currently see it, is that there are a number of levels of CI maturity. I’ll just call these levels “Level 1″, “Level 2″ and so on, rather than “Highly Immature”, “Stroppy Teenager” etc:
No CI tools to speak of, no CI process. I’ve been there. Builds take about a day to get working. It’s a nightmare. I still shiver just thinking about it.
We’ve got some CI tools like cruise control, repeatable builds, but no CI process. We’ve basically got a front-end to a system of chaos. Most of the builds are broken, but you now have a nice way of visualising that, and nobody cares. It’s Level 1 with a pretty wrapper on it.
We’ve got a system, but not the right tools. We’ve got a policy of running our tests locally before checking-in, and some poor soul somewhere is left with the task of making the “official” builds for passing to QA. These builds will usually fail and everyone will have to chip in to help sort out the mess until a build can be made. We desperately need a computer to do this build lark for us!
We’ve got some rudimentary tools, like Cruise Control or Jenkins, but we’re not using them to their full capacity, but we’ve got a build monkey! The build monkey does his or her best to make sure that people are aware that they’ve broken the build. The build monkey sets up the CI system and makes changes whenever necessary. The build monkey is the first to look into every build failure. The build monkey goes on holiday and the whole place grinds to a halt.
We’ve got the tools, we’ve got the process, but nobody’s listening to us!!! All the tools are in place, we’ve got a suitable CI system and maybe we’re even trying to do continuous delivery. The build system is virtualised and we have a release engineering team (the collective noun for a group of build monkeys is a “release engineering”). The only trouble is, the unit test coverage is apalling and people don’t fix their broken builds, despite the fact that we’ve got a nice shiny wiki page saying we should aim to have 95% unit test coverage and broken builds should be fixed within 3o mins.
We’ve got the tools, the processes and we’ve got management buy-in! This is looking good, we now have a lovely system, which our team of build engineers looks after, and we have a semi-compliant dev team who get told off if they don’t play ball! We’re all heading in roughly the right direction
We’ve got the tools, the process and the right culture! Everyone has buy-in to the build system. Developers and build enginners alike can be trusted to edit build files and even the CI configuration because we all clearly understand what we’re trying to achieve. Best practices are being observed and so our build engineering team don’t need to spend all day chasing people or working on trivial tasks. Our time can be better invested and productivity increased.
Ultimately we’re all responsible for looking after the CI system – it’s for our own benefit afterall. As a developer I want to make sure I have some fast and reliable feedback on the quality of my code changes. If I see my build has failed, I would actually want to find out why, rather than ignore it. As a build engineer I want our CI system to be providing useful feedback to our developers, and useful information to management – if it isn’t, or if this “useful” information isn’t being acted upon, then it’s not really useful at all, and my job is less fulfilling! All of this means that we all have some responsibility to occasionally look under the hood and see what’s going on, and try to figure out why the system is telling me that something isn’t working quite right.
The hardest part to get right, particularly in distributed teams or in companies over a certain size, is the culture. You have to have a team of build engineers and developers who all understand the big picture. Developers need to understand that they are instrumental in making the system work – their input is vital, and they have to understand clearly what benefits they will personally get from this system, otherwise they’ll ignore it. Build engineers in turn need to understand that the more you are able to devolve the ownership of the system, the better it can work, and the more buy-in you will get in return. The build system needs guardians, but it doesn’t need treating like a holy relic.