X is business value 18 Nov 2011
devops buzzwords continuousdeployment

Disclaimer: I hate the term “business value”, it’s completely subjective and generic; it is one of my least favorite synergies.

A few weeks ago Christian Trabold posted to Twitter saying “Speed is business value”, a simple statement that is often forgotten by both developers and non-developers alike in the process of building and deploying software. That is to say, the ability to deliver software in a timely fashion is a very important, sometimes the most important, facet of building a product.

The statement has stuck with me, constantly coming up in the back of my mind whenever we spend a little bit of time improving our internal development and deployment processes.

I believe that you can tease out the statement to include:

  • Speed is business value
  • Quality is business value
  • Cost is business value

Look at all that business value man! Unless you’re a telecom company, or a manufacturer of sugared water, your company is competing in the marketplace. In this competition your product is typically judged loosely on these three axis.

How soon can I have the new one? How crappy is it? How much will it cost me?

The practice of continuous deployment can help improve each of these axis. I emphasis “practice” because I think continuous deployment is an on-going exercise of reaction, reflection and improvement.

Being part of the startup world, where you live by the phrase “fail fast”, mistakes are going to happen. You might even argue that you want to make some mistakes, it’s a great learning experience and helps make the product better.

All to often, this mantra is applied to the product, but not engineering. In the past I’ve worked in organizations with little-to-zero automated testing, and absolutely zero time for post-mortems and improvement. Looking back, that situation is so dysfunctional I have trouble believing I was actually part of it.

Coming back to Christian’s quote, I’m even more bewildered by our actions at the time. Manual QA is expensive and time consuming, regressions become more and more costly the further down the deployment pipeline you get, the most costly being “in production” where you’re affecting actual users.

At face value, deploying rapidly (“shooting from the hip”) with little or zero automated tests, seems like you’re moving faster than everybody else until you’re not. Until you:

  • Take down the site
  • Screw up your payment flow
  • Introduce subtle regressions that affect one side of an A/B test
  • Spend many man hours manually verifying production

If you would imagine the pipeline of a feature going from: Product -> Developer -> QA -> Live.

The further down the pipeline you find failures, the more time-consuming and expensive those failures are.

My answer to the problem is predictable, automated testing. Unit tests, integration tests, browser tests. Test ALL the things!

Tests by themselves aren’t enough, unfortunately. As an organization you absolutely must do some form of post-mortems after screwing things up. If for example, a bad deployment contains JavaScript that causes browsers to fall into infinite loops. The easy fix after such an event is to say “don’t write bad JavaScript”, but that’s not very realistic is it? What if a bad deployment contains poorly optimized database queries? What about a simple logic error where the developer simply assumed would return Y but instead it returns Z? What else can you do outside of testing, in your development practices and deployment processes to ensure quality?

The only way you can move faster, cheaper and with more stability is if you make this practice of analysis and improvement commonplace.

Stop being stupid and do things better.