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  • If You Automate Your Tests, Automate Your Code Review

    For years, I can remember fighting the good fight for unit testing.  When I started that fight, I understood a simple premise.  We, as programmers, automate things.  So, why not automate testing?

    Of all things, a grad school course in software engineering introduced me to the concept back in 2005.  It hooked me immediately, and I began applying the lessons to my work at the time.  A few years and a new job later, I came to a group that had not yet discovered the wonders of automated testing.  No worries, I figured, I can introduce the concept!

    Except, it turns out that people stuck in their ways kind of like those ways.  Imagine my surprise to discover that people turned up their nose at the practice.  Over the course of time, I learned to plead my case, both in technical and business terms.  But it often felt like wading upstream against a fast moving current.

    Years later, I have fought that fight over and over again.  In fact, I've produced training materials, courses, videos, blog posts, and books on the subject.  I've brought people around to see the benefits and then subsequently realize those benefits following adoption.  This has brought me satisfaction.

    But I don't do this in a vacuum.  The industry as a whole has followed the same trajectory, using the same logic.  I count myself just another advocate among a euphony of voices.  And so our profession has generally come to accept unit testing as a vital tool.

    Widespread Acceptance of Automated Regression Tests

    In fact, I might go so far as to call acceptance and adoption quite widespread.  This figure only increases if you include shops that totally mean to and will definitely get around to it like sometime in the next six months or something.  In other words, if you count both shops that have adopted the practice and shops that feel as though they should, acceptance figures certainly span a plurality.

    Major enterprises bring me in to help them teach their developers to do it.  Still, other companies consult and ask questions about it.  Just about everyone wants to understand how to realize the unit testing value proposition of higher quality, more stability, and fewer bugs.

    This takes a simple form.  We talk about unit testing and other forms of testing, and sometimes this may blur the lines.  But let's get specific here.  A holistic testing strategy includes tests at a variety of granularities.  These comprise what some call "the test pyramid."  Unit tests address individual components (e.g. classes), while service tests drive at the way the components of your application work together.  GUI tests, the least granular of all, exercise the whole thing.

    Taken together, these comprise your regression test suite.  It stands against the category of bugs known as "regressions," or defects where something that used to work stops working.  For a parallel example in the "real world" think of the warning lights on your car's dashboard.  "Low battery" light comes on because the battery, which used to work, has stopped working.

    Benefits of Automated Regression Test Suites

    Why do this?  What benefits to automated regression test suites provide?  Well, let's take a look at some.

    • Repeatability and accuracy.  A human running tests over and over again may produce slight variances in the tests.  A machine, not so much.
    • Speed.  As with anything, automation produces a significant speedup over manual execution.
    • Fast feedback.  The automated test suite can tell you much more quickly if you have broken something.
    • Morale.  The fewer times a QA department comes back with "you broke this thing," the fewer opportunities for contentiousness.

    I should also mention, as a brief aside, that I don't consider automated test suites to be acceptable substitutes for manual testing.  Rather, I believe the two efforts should work in complementary fashion.  If the automated test suite executes the humdrum tests in the codebase, it frees QA folks up to perform intelligent, exploratory testing.  As Uncle Bob once famously said, "it's wrong to turn humans into machines.  If you can write a script for a test procedure, then you can write a program to execute that procedure."

    Automating Code Review

    None of this probably comes as much of a shock to you.  If you go out and read tech blogs, you've no doubt encountered the widespread opinion that people should automate regression test suites.  In fact, you probably share that opinion.  So don't you wonder why we don't more frequently apply that logic to other concerns?

    Take code review, for instance.  Most organizations do this in entirely manual fashion outside of, perhaps, a so-called "linting" tool.  They mandate automated test coverage and then content themselves with sicking their developers on one another in meetings to gripe over tabs, spaces, and camel casing.

    Why not approach code review the same way?  Why not automate the aspects of it that lend themselves to automation, while saving human intervention for more conceptual matters?

    Benefits of Automated Code Reviews

    In a study by Steve McConnell and referenced in this blog post, "formal code inspections" produced better results for preemptively finding bugs than even automated regression tests.  So it stands to reason that we should invest in code review in the same ways that we invest in regression testing.  And I don't mean simply time spent, but in driving forward with automation and efficiency.

    Consider the benefits I listed above for automated tests, and look how they apply to automated code review.

    • Repeatability and accuracy.  Humans will miss instances of substandard code if they feel tired -- machines won't.
    • Speed.  Do you want your code review to take seconds or in hours/days.
    • Fast feedback.  Because of the increased speed of the review, the reviewee gets the results immediately after writing the code, for better learning.
    • Morale.  The exact same reasoning applies here.  Having a machine point out your mistakes can save contentiousness.

    I think that we'll see a similar trajectory to automating code review that we did with automating test suites.  And, what's more, I think that automated code review will gain steam a lot more quickly and with less resistance.  After all, automating QA activities blazed a trail.

    I believe the biggest barrier to adoption, in this case, is the lack of awareness.  People may not believe automating code review is possible.  But I assure you, you can do it.  So keep an eye out for ways to automate this important practice, and get in ahead of the adoption curve.

    Learn more how CodeIt.Right can help you automate code reviews and improve your code quality.

    About the Author

    Erik Dietrich

    I'm a passionate software developer and active blogger. Read about me at my site. View all posts by Erik Dietrich

  • Are You Ready for Zero Day Software Deployment?

    As a teenager, I remember having a passing interest in hacking.  Perhaps this came from watching the movie Sneakers.  Whatever the origin, the fancy passed quickly because I prefer building stuff to breaking other people's stuff.  Therefore, what I know about hacking pretty much stops at understanding terminology and high level concepts.

    Consider the term "zero day exploit," for instance.  While I understand what this means, I have never once, in my life, sat on discovery of a software vulnerability for the purpose of using it somehow.  Usually when I discover a bug, I'm trying to deposit a check or something, and I care only about the inconvenience.  But I still understand the term.

    "Zero day" refers to the amount of time the software vendor has to prepare for the vulnerability.  You see, the clever hacker gives no warning about the vulnerability before using it.  (This seems like common sense, though perhaps hackers with more derring do like to give them half a day to watch them scramble to release something before the hack takes effect.)  The time between announcement and reality is zero.

    Increased Deployment Cadence

    Let's co-opt the term "zero day" for a different purpose.  Imagine that we now use it to refer to software deployments.  By "zero day deployment," we thus mean "software deployed without any prior announcement."

    blog-are-you-ready-for-zero-day-software-deploymentBut why would anyone do this?  Don't you miss out on some great marketing opportunities?  And, more importantly, can you even release software this quickly?  Understanding comes from realizing that software deployment is undergoing a radical shift.

    To understand this think about software release cadences 20 years ago.  In the 90s, Internet Explorer won the first browser war because it managed to beat Netscape's plodding release of going 3 years between releases.  With major software products, release cadences of a year or two dominated the landscape back then.

    But that timeline has shrunk steadily.  For a highly visible example, consider Visual Studio.  In 2002, 2005, 2008, Microsoft released versions corresponding to those years.  Then it started to shrink with 2010, 2012, and 2013.  Now, the years no longer mark releases, per se, with Microsoft actually releasing major updates on a quarterly basis.

    Zero Day Deployments

    As much as going from "every 3 years" to "every 3 months" impresses, websites and SaaS vendors have shrunk it to "every day."  Consider Facebook's deployment cadence.  They roll minor updates every business day and major ones every week.

    With this cadence, we truly reach zero day deployment.  You never hear Facebook announcing major upcoming releases.  In fact, you never hear Facebook announcing releases, period.  The first the world sees of a given Facebook release is when the release actually happens.  Truly, this means zero day releases.

    Oh, don't get me wrong.  Rumors of upcoming features and capabilities circulate, and Facebook certainly has a robust marketing department.  But Facebook and companies with similar deployment approaches have impressively made deployments a non-event.  And others are looking to follow suit, perhaps yours included.

    Conceptual Impediments to Zero Day Deployments

    If what I just said made you spit your drink at the screen, I understand.  Perhaps your deployment and release process takes so long that the thought of shrinking it to a day made you laugh.  Or perhaps it terrified.  Either way, I can understand that it may seem quite a leap.

    You may conceive of Facebook and other practitioners so alien to your own situation that you see no path from here to there.  But in reality, they almost certainly do the same things you do as part of your longer process -- just optimized and automated.

    Impediments take a variety of forms.  You might have lengthy quality assurance and vetting processes, perhaps that require many iterations between the developers and quality assurance.  You might still be packaging software onto DVDs and shipping it to customers.  Perhaps you run all sorts of checks and analytics on it.  But all will fall under the general heading of requiring manual intervention or consuming a lot of time.

    To get to zero day deployments, you need to automate and speed up considerably, and this can seem daunting.

    What's Common Today

    Some good news exists, though.  The same forces that let the Visual Studio team see such radical improvement push on software shops across the board.  We all have access to helpful techs.

    For instance, the overwhelming majority of organizations now have continuous integration via dedicated build machines.  Software developers commit code, and these things scoop it up, compile it, and package it up in a deployable package.  This activity now happens on the order of minutes whereas, in the past, I can remember shops where this was some poor guy's entire job, and he'd spend days on each build.

    And, speaking of the CI server, a lot of them run automated test suites as part of what they do.  Most commonly, this means unit tests.  But they might also invoke acceptance tests and even more exotic things like smoke, GUI, and functionality tests.  You can thus accept commits, build the software, run a bunch of test, and get it ready to deploy.

    Of course, you can also automate the actual deployment as well.  It stands to reason that, if your build machine can ball it up into a deliverable, it can deliver that deliverable.  This might be harder with physical media involved, but as more software deliveries happen over networks, more of them get automated.

    What We Need Next

    With all of that in place, why don't we have more zero day deployments?  What's missing?

    Again, discounting the problem of physical media, I'd say quality checks present the biggest issue.  We can compile, run automated tests, and deploy automatically.  But does this guarantee acceptable production behavior?

    What about the important element of code reviews?  How do you assure that, even as automated tests pass, the application isn't piling up mountains of technical debt and impeding future deployments?  To get to zero day deployments, we must address these issues.

    Don't get me wrong.  Other things matter here as well.  Zero day deployments require robust production checks and sophisticated "oops, that didn't work, rollback!" capabilities.  But I think that nothing will matter more than automated quality checks.

    Each time you commit code, you need an intelligent analysis of that code that should fail the build as surely as failing tests if issues crop up.  In a zero day deployment context, you cannot afford best practice violations.  You cannot afford slipping quality, mounting technical debt, and you most certainly cannot afford code rot.  Today's rot in a zero day deployment scenario means tomorrow's inability to deploy that way.

    Learn more how CodeIt.Right can help you automate code reviews, improve your code quality, and reduce technical debt.

    About the Author

    Erik Dietrich

    I'm a passionate software developer and active blogger. Read about me at my site. View all posts by Erik Dietrich

    

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