Creating the Conditions for Developer Happiness

In my last post, My Thoughts on Code “Modernization” I tried to describe my company and more specifically my team’s thinking about our technical initiatives and end goals as we work to update the technology and architecture of our large systems. In this post, I’d like to continue that discussion, but this time focus on the conditions that hopefully promotes developer (and testers and other team members) “happiness” with their ongoing work.

When I presented to our development organization last week, I included this slide to start that conversation:

To be clear, I’m completely focused in this post on issues or factors where I think I have influence or control over the situation. That being said, I am technically a people manager now, so what I can at least do for the other folks in my team is to:

  • Be supportive and appreciative of their efforts
  • Ask them for their feedback or advice on our shared work and intended strategies so they know that they have a voice
  • Occasionally be a “shit umbrella” for them whenever necessary, or maybe more likely just try to help with disputes or tensions with folks outside of our team. I’m still finding my sea legs on being a manager, so we’ll see how that goes
  • Not hold them up for too long when they do need my approvals for various HR kind of things or when they ask me to review a pull request (speaking of which, I need to pull the trigger on this post soon and go do just that).

On to other things…

Employability. Really? Yes.

Developer retention is a real issue, especially in a problem space like ours where domain knowledge is vital to working inside the code. Not to oversimplify a complex subject, but it’s my firm belief that developers feel most secure and event content in their current job when they feel that they’re actively developing skills that are in demand in the job market. I strongly believe, and our development management seems to agree, that we will do better with developer retention if we could be using newer technology — and we’re not talking about radical changes in platform here.

On the flip side, I think we have some compelling, anecdotal evidence that developers who feel like they’ve been in a rut on the technical side of things are more likely to get happy feet and consider leaving.

So, long story short, moving to newer tools like, say, React.js (as opposed to existing screens using Knockout.js or jQuery heavy Razor Pages) or the latest versions of .Net partially with the goal of making our developers happier with their jobs is actually a defensible goal in my mind. Within reason of course. And if that means that I get the chance to swap in Marten + Postgresql as a replacement for our limited usage of MongoDb, that’s just a bonus:)

At a minimum, I definitely think we should at least try to rotate developers between the existing monolith and the newer, spiffier, lower friction services so that everybody gets a taste of better work.

I know what some of you are thinking here, “this is just resume-driven development and you should concentrate on delivering value to the business instead of playing with shiny object development toys.” That’s a defensible position, but as you read this let’s pretend that my shop isn’t trying to go guard rail to guard rail by eschewing boring tools in favor of far out, bleeding edge tooling just to make a few folks happy. We’re just trying to move some important functionality from being based on obsolescent tools to more current technology as an intermediate step into our company’s future.

Low Friction Organizational Structure

I’m only speaking for myself in this section. Many of my colleagues would agree with what I’m saying here, but I’ll take the sole blame for all of it.

Given a choice and the ultimate power to design the structure of a software development organization, I would build around the idea of multi-disciplinary, self-contained teams where each team has every single skillset necessary for them to ship what they’re working on completely by themselves. This means that I want front end developers, back end developers, testers, and DevOps (or just folks with DevOps skillsets regardless of their title) folks all in the same team and collaborating together closely. This obviates the need for many formal handoffs between teams, which I think is one of the biggest single sources of friction and inefficiency in software development.

By formal handoffs, I mean Waterfall-ish things like:

  • Having to fill out Jira tickets for some other team to make changes in your development or testing environments
  • Creating a design or specification document for another team
  • Testers being in a separate organization and schedule than the development team so that there’s potentially a lag between coding and testing

I’m of course all in on Agile Software Development and I’m also generally negative toward Waterfall processes of any sort. It’s not surprising then that I think that formal handoffs and intermediate documentation deliverables take time and energy that could be better spent on creating value instead. More importantly though, it makes teams less flexible and more brittle because they’re more dependent upon upfront planning. More than that, you’re often dependent on people who have no skin in the game for your projects.

Being forced to be more plan-oriented and less flexible in terms of scheduling or external resources means that a team is less able to learn and adapt as they work. Being less adaptable and less iterative makes it harder for teams to deliver quality work. Lastly, communication and collaboration is naturally going to be better within a team than it is between teams or even completely separate organizations.

At a bare minimum, I absolutely want developers (including front end, back end, database, and whatever type of developers a team needs) and testers in one single team working on the same schedule toward shared goals. Preferably I’d like to see us transition to a DevOps culture by at least breaking down some of the current walls between development groups, testing teams, and our operations team.

Lastly, to relate this back to the main theme of making an environment that’s better to work in, I think that increasing direct collaboration between various disciplines and minimizing the overhead of formal handoffs makes for more job satisfaction and less frustration.

“Time to Login Screen” Metric

Let’s say we’re onboarding a new developer or maybe one of our developers is moving to a different product. After they do a clean clone of that codebase onto their local development machine, how fast can they get to a point where they’re able to build the code, run the actual system locally, and execute all the tests in the codebase? That’s what a former colleague of mine like to call the “time to login screen metric.”

To reduce that friction of getting started, my thinking is to:

  • Lean heavily on using Docker containers to stand up required infrastructure like databases, Redis, monitoring tools, etc. that are necessary to run the system or tests. I think it’s very important for any kind of stateful tools to be isolated per developer on their own local machines. Running docker compose up -d is a whole lot faster than trying to follow installation instructions in a Wiki page.
  • Try to avoid depending on technologies that cannot be used locally. As an example, we already use Rabbit MQ for message queueing, which conveniently is also very easy to run locally with Docker. As we move our systems to cloud hosting, I’m opposed to switching to Azure Service Bus without some other compelling reason because it does not have any local development story.
  • It’s vital to have build scripts within the code repository that can effectively stand up any environment necessary to start working with the code. This includes any kind of database migration infrastructure and baseline test data setup. Everybody wants to have a good README file in a new codebase to help them get started, but I also believe that a good automated script that sets things up for you is awfully effective as documentation too.

It’s probably also going to be important to get to a point where the codebases are a little smaller so that there’s just less stuff to set up at any one time.

“Quick Twitch” Codebases

Almost a decade ago I wrote a post entitled When I’m most productive about the type of technical ecosystems in which I felt most productive that I think still holds up, but let me expound on that a little bit here.

Let’s start with how fast a new developer or a current developer switching into a new codebase can be up and working. Using the “time to login screen” metric I learned from a former colleague, a developer should be able to successfully build and run the system and tests locally for a codebase very shortly after a fresh clone of that codebase.

Today our big platforms are fairly described as monoliths, with us underway toward breaking up the monolithic systems to something closer to a microservice architecture. I think we’d like to get the codebases broken up into smaller codebases where a development team can completely understand the codebase that they’re currently working in. Moreover, I’d like it to be much more feasible to update the technical tools, libraries, and runtime dependencies of a single codebase than it is today with our monoliths.

As a first class goal of splitting up today’s monoliths, we want our developers to be able to do what I call “quick twitch” development:

  • Most development tasks are small enough that developers can quickly and continuously flow from small unit tests to completed code and on to the next task. This is possible in well-factored codebases, but not so much in codebases that require a great deal of programming ceremony or have poor structural factoring.
  • Feedback cycles on the code are quick. This generally means that compilation is fast, and that test suites are fast enough to be executed constantly without breaking a developer’s mental flow state.
  • Unit tests can cover small areas of the code while still providing value such that it’s rare that a developer needs to use a debugger to understand and solve problems. Seriously, having to use the debugger quite a bit is a drag on developer productivity and usually a sign that your automated testing strategy needs to incorporate more finer grained tests.

The key here is to enable developers to achieve a “flow state” in their daily work.

This is not what we want in our codebases, except substitute “running through the test suite” in place of “compiling:”

xkcd: Compiling

Next time…

In the third and final post in this series, I want to talk through our evolution from monoliths to microservices and/or smaller distributed monoliths with an emphasis on not doing anything stupid by going from guard rail to guard rail.

One thought on “Creating the Conditions for Developer Happiness

  1. Hey Jeremy. Great post as usual. Regarding “try avoid depending on technologies that cannot be used locally”. One of my learnings from developing cloud first apps is to treat the cloud with same rules as local development. Each dev has their our own (isolated) Azure Dev Subscription. Our build scripts will set up any infra required to “get to the login screen” in the dev’s environment (local and cloud).

    Basically we run anything we can from local, but all services which don’t have a local dev option like Service Bus runs on isolated per dev subscriptions.

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