Eating your own dog food

Early feedback is important. The earlier in the life cycle of development feedback comes in, the faster you can iterate, figure out what is working and what is not working, improve, and iterate again. You should release early and release often.

Releasing early and often usually aims at release cycles of something like 2 weeks. Depending on your kind of system, this can be shorter, but especially for native apps, much shorter release cycles aren’t really feasible. An even quicker way to get feedback is to give your software into the hands of your own colleagues and selected testers – constantly. Within your own organization, nobody prevents you from releasing continously, as often as multiple times in a day, without the overhead of an official release. You can then take the feedback of your own peers to iterate even faster. In modern tech slang this has become known as “eating your own dog food”.

Here at Klamr we try to get ongoing development into the hands of all our colleagues as fast as possible. The key to do this is Continuous Integration, that’s where everything ties in. Here’s how we do it:

  1. Jenkins: We’re using Jenkins as our continuous integration server and use it to automate most of our tasks. For each project there is a Jenkins job that pulls the latest code regularly, builds it, tests it, and then distributes it. Jenkins is amazingly easy to set up and configure, yet incredibly flexible and powerful. Ever since we started using it, it has grown with us into dozens of very different jobs for pretty much every project we’re working on.
  2. GIT branching strategy: while working on new features we need to decide when exactly changes should be made available internally. The general requirements are never to break builds altogether and not to break core functionality. We don’t pull every single change that is made anywhere in the project. We hook our Jenkins job into our GIT branching strategy to give the responsibility to decide which change is ready to our engineers. They have control over it by pulling changes into certain branches when they are ready.
  3. Schedule your distribution: depending on the project we either distribute immediately on every new change, or nightly. This is configured in Jenkins. My personal rule of thumb is: the more transparent new versions are for your (internal) users, the quicker and easier distributions/deployments are, and the less frequent commits to your distribution branch are, the better is to distribute changes immediately. When starting a new project, I generally start with this. Once problems appear that can be solved by slowing down, go to nightly distributions. Everything running server-side like a web app, for example, is completely transparent for users (just as they are in your production environment), new versions aren’t disrupting anybody. That’s a good candiate for very frequent distributions. An iOS application, on the other hand, needs to installed manually, hence pushing out 20 new versions every day tends to be disrupting for everybody. The last thing we want to do is make our co-workers feel disrupted and annoyed, that just leads to less and worse feedback.
  4. Distribute: the actual deliveries are all automated, but differ quite a bit depending on the type of software. Some examples of what we do:
    • Backend application: this get built and deployed to internal servers. This is the most complex deployment process we’ve got, especially things like database migrations don’t make it exactly trivial.
    • Web application: our web application is deployed on every new change to an internal, protected web server. It is then connected to our live database, so everybody in the company can use this web application instead of our live production web application. Changes on here have sometimes only been finished for minutes until they get available.
    • Android: our Android app is distributed in two ways: new APK files are sent out directly via email (Android makes installing new APK’s directly from email attachments so much easier than iOS) and via the service Appaloosa Store. The latter has some nice advantages like providing a custom store app and push notifications for new versions.
    • iOS: our iOS app is distributed via Testflight. There’s a few catches for iOS, for example that you need to build on a machine running Mac OS. That’s why we have a separate Jenkins instance only for building the iOS app. Most other Jenkins jobs are running on one Linux-based instance hosted on Amazon EC2. Also, devices must be explicitly registered in your ad-hoc provisioning and Apple restricts the number of internal devices to 100. No rocket science once it’s all set up, but a few extra hoops to jump through.
  5. Real data: It’s important to allow internal users to use these early builds against their real Production data. Our web application, for example, runs on an internal URL, but is configured against our Production servers and database. This allows us to test drive new features early on with our real accounts. This leads to much better feedback than asking people to test features on isolated servers with fake data and helped a lot with internal acceptance.
  6. Automate: the key to all of this is automation. If it’s not automated, regular distribution either doesn’t happen, or it wastes valuable engineering time. And as mentioned already above, this all ties into continuous integration. Much of the process and infrastructure described above should be in place anyways to continuously build and test your software in an automated way.
  7. Release notes: for us it proved incredibly helpful to automate release notes for each internal distribution. Remember that one of the main reasons to do all this in the first place is to get early feedback. Without release notes, it’s not possible for anybody to know what has changed and to know which part of your apps to pay attention to. We’re not doing this in all places but if we do it, we’re using GIT commit comments. They aren’t suitable for end users, but they are more than good enough for internal users.
  8. Respect: although these builds are only internal, we highly respect them. This means we never try to break them (see above), we try to make using and updating them as easy as possible for our co-workers, and our engineers are quickly reacting to any kind of feedback that comes in.

Regular internal distribution helps us to keep the feedback cycle as short as possible, sometimes even down to minutes. Automation of all the tasks involved helps us to keep moving fast, even as the number of systems and their complexity grows. I would highly recommend trying to automate as much as possible right from the start.

Are you eating your own dog food? What is your experience with this? Are you using different techniques and tools? Leave a comment, I’m very interesting to hear what you’re doing.