Track your pains

31 / 5 / 2018  •  Daniel Garnier-Moiroux

Whether you work alone or with a team, when you develop software, you experience little and bigger pains. Maybe some of our tests are flaky. Maybe the build time is very long. Maybe the architecture of this component is rigid and is hard to change. Maybe some critical piece of our infrastructure, say our deployment machine, crashes from time to time.

What we usually do

When we experience a catastrophic failure, and often times gear up, assemble the Avengers and fix the mess at hand - after all, we can’t not deploy. Sometimes, we’ll write a nice, formal post-mortem, and devote budget to actually fix the underlying problem. But that’s not always the case, sometimes we go on with our lives until the next outage. After all, there’s feature work to be done, and deadlines, and angry stakeholders shouting all around.

When it’s minor problems, either the fix is a low hanging fruit and we take the time to fix it, or it’s more of an effort, and we choose to ignore it until next time. Sure this test fails 10% of the time, let’s just re-run it !

There is work to be done, acknowledge it

These pains are a signal that there is work to be done, and the strength of the signal is the intensity of the pain. Work might be some tests to add to prevent frequent regressions, some tests to speed up, a deployment to automate. These tasks often do not provide direct feature value, but are often centered around developer productivity. They might save a little bit of time everyday, increase confidence in important tasks, save us some time in the future when we automate our learnings and don’t have to re-discover them in 6 months.

When we choose to ignore these pains and go for a quick fix, without giving it much thought, we implicitly de-prioritize this work. Which, often times, is the right thing to do - that’s why don’t fix things in the first place. A good practice to avoid this could be to do a write down, say in your issue tracker, a trello board, a spreadsheet. Summarize your problem in a few words, and explain in detail how things are how you wish they were (or you wish they were not). This will help think it through before you decide not to do something.

Then, prioritize this work

Once you start doing this, you can actively prioritize the work there is to be done. You can regularly go over your list of pains, talk it through with fellow engineers and surface the most important ones. You might even want to invite your product managemenet team to these sessions, help them gain insight on the health of the codebase, and eventually prioritize some of this crucial housekeeping over feature backlog. This will also avoid long discussions when you end up blocked and PM had not seen that coming.

To prioritize work, product practices do some user and business research, and gather data in general. You should do the same: every time the same little pain comes back, take some time to update your tracker/trello/spreadsheet, say who was impacted, when explain how much time and effort might have been wasted over it. It may well be just a few minutes, but those can easily compound.

Maybe next time, this practice will help you make conscious, explicit and informed decisions, and not unduly reject work.