August 10, 2011

Lessons learned from project M

August 10, 2011 - Categories: drupal, ibm, kaizen, review, work

I’m wrapping up a Drupal 6 project which was funded by one of IBM’s corporate citizenship grants. The Snake Hill folks we’ve been working with will continue working with the client until they’re ready to launch. For my part, I’ve been in user acceptance testing and development mode for almost a month, rolling out new features, fixing bugs, and getting feedback.

The project manager has shuffled some hours around and made sure that I’ve got some “support” hours for follow-up questions after we turn the project over.

What worked well

Hey, I can do this stuff after all! I gathered requirements, estimated the effort, negotiated the scope, communicated with the clients and other team members, and generally did other technical-lead-ish stuff. I’ve done that on other projects, but usually that was just me working by myself and talking to clients. This one was more complex. It was fun figuring out what would fit, how things were prioritized, whether or not we were on track, and how to make things happen. I’d love to do it again. (And with the way the world works, I will probably get an opportunity to do so shortly!)

Understanding a project deeply: I was on the first phase of this project as well, and the experience really helped. We didn’t have any disruptions in technical leadership on our part, unlike in the first phase. See, last year, the IBM technical lead who had been talking to the client ended up leaving the country, so we had to repeat a few discussions about requirements. This time, I could draw on my experience from the first phase and our ongoing discussions about the client’s goals for the project. That was fun.

I’ll be turning the project over to the other development company, and the client’s concerned about whether they’ll be able to pick things up and run with it. I’ve tried to write down as many notes as I can, and I also invested time in briefing the other developers on the overall goals as well as the specific work items. Hope that works out!

Externally-accessible issue tracking: In the previous phase of this project, issue tracking consisted of e-mailing spreadsheets around. It was painful. One of the first things I did when we started this phase of development was to set up a Redmine issue tracker on the client’s server. After we gathered and prioritized requirements, I logged them as features in Redmine and split them up over the different phases. I reviewed our list of outstanding work and filed them as bugs, too. As feedback came in, I tracked bugs. I took advantage of Redmine-Git integration and referred to issue numbers in my commit messages. When people e-mailed me their feedback or posted messages on Basecamp, I created issues and added hyperlinks.

Having an externally-accessible issue tracker helped me worry less about missing critical bugs. I also shared some reporting links with the clients and the project manager so that they could track progress and review the priorities.

On future projects, I would love to get to the point of having clients and testers create issues themselves. Wouldn’t that be nifty?

Git for version control: I’m so glad I used Git to manage and share source code between multiple developers. The other developers were fairly new to Git, but they did okay, and I figured out how to clean up after one of the developers wiped out a bit of code after some commit confusion. Git stash and git branch were really helpful when I was trying lots of experimental code.

Developing with a non-default theme: We had a lot of development items to work on while the No.Inc creative team got their Drupal theme together. Once No.Inc sent the theme, I layered it on top of the site, fixed the usual problems, and had even more fun working on a site that looked halfway done. Definitely recommend getting a reliable theme in place sooner rather than later.

Mentoring people: I helped a new developer start to get the hang of Drupal. It was a slow process (must raise estimates even more when dealing with newbies), but I hope the investment pays off. I wrote (and updated!) documentation. I identified small tasks that he could work on first. I checked on him every so often. I successfully resisted the urge to just do things myself. Slowly getting there…

Decision log: I used a wiki to keep track of the design decisions I needed to make, the alternatives I considered, and what I eventually chose. That was helpful for me. I hope it will help future developers, too.

Linux VM on a Microsoft Windows host, XMing, and Plink: I’ve tried lots of different configurations in the course of this project. Doing my development inside a virtual machine has saved me so much time in terms of restoring from backup or being able to tweak my operating environment. I started with a Linux VM on a Windows host, using Samba to access my files and either Eclipse or Emacs to edit them. That was a bit slow. Then I shifted to a Linux VM on a Linux host, SSHing to the VM and using Emacs from the VM itself. That was great for being able to do Linux-y stuff transparently. But then I found myself wanting to be back on Microsoft Windows so that I could use Autodesk Sketchbook Pro (Inkscape and MyPaint aren’t quite as awesome). I ran XMing to create an X server in my Windows environment, used plink to connect, and then started a graphical Emacs running on my virtual machine. Tada! I could probably make this even better by upgrading to 64-bit Microsoft Windows, adding more RAM, and upgrading to a bigger hard disk. (Alternatively, I could host the VM somewhere else instead of on my laptop…)

What I’m going to work on improving next time

Better browser testing, including cross-browser: I’m getting slightly better at testing the actual site, motivating myself with (a) interest in seeing my new code actually work, (b) the remembered embarrassment of gaping bugs, and (c) the idea of slowing down and getting things right. Juggling multiple browsers still doesn’t make me happy, but maybe I can turn it into a game with myself. Selenium might be useful here as well.

Continuous integration: I set up Jenkins for continuous integration testing, but it fell by the wayside as I wasn’t keeping my tests up to date and I wanted more CPU/memory for development. I ran into a number of embarrassing bugs along the way, though, so it might be worth developing stricter discipline around this. I’m still envious of one of the Drupal projects I heard about in IBM, which got through UAT without identified defects thanks to lots of manual and automated testing. If I add more power to my development machine or offload testing to another machine, that might be a good way to stick to this process.

Closer communication with clients and external developers: We set up short daily meetings for the developers, but sometimes people still felt a little lost or out of touch. On future projects, I’ll make sure the clients have it on their calendar as an optional meeting, and maybe see about getting e-mail from people who can’t join on the phone. If I’m the tech lead on a future project, I’ll sit in on all client status update meetings, too. We found out about some miscommunications only when I handled one of the status calls. Fortunately, it was early enough that we could squeeze in the critical functionality while reprioritizing the others. Tense moment, though!

Better vacation planning: I realized we had a 4-day weekend the week before we had it, and we forgot about some people’s vacations too. Heh. I should get better at looking at the entire project span and listing the gaps up front.

Earlier pipeline-building: I nudged some project opportunities about a month before our projected end date, but that wasn’t long enough to deal with the paperwork lag. Oh well! Next time, I’ll set aside some time each week to do that kind of future pipeline-building, and I’ll set myself reminders for two months and a month before the project ends. Not a big problem.

My manager’s been lining up other Drupal and Rails projects for me to work on. Looking forward to learning all sorts of lessons on those as well!

Other Drupal lessons learned:

2011-08-10 Wed 17:08