Friday, 20 March 2009

Solo Software Development

Many people have been asking me how life in my little world of Solo Software Development is going. So I figured I'd best just write about it here and be done with it.

The prologue: those that know me will recall that just before Christmas my company laid off my entire office. Except me. I was the sole survivor. Left holding the bomb, as it were. We were using XP to develop cool C++ code.

It's an interesting experience moving from work in a highly social collaborative software development shop to a bloke on his own.

But I'm really enjoying it.

Working on your own presents a developer with a new and different set of challenges. I'm aiming to keep up a very high quality of code, and wherever possible will maintain the XP processes we used for development. Is that possible, and how much has my XP experience changed?
  • Pair programming was perhaps the most obvious casualty. Clearly, in a team of one there isn't any pairing. We didn't religiously pair program, but wherever pairing was missing we would always perform a code review. I really, really miss this discipline. The best substitute I can come up with is to carefully go over every checkin prior to committing.
  • Planning development with stories, tasks, etc is still very useful. I can keep the planning game, and I'm maintaining it all in the same xplanner system we used previously. I've switched down from two week to one week iterations, as that seems to fit my one-person efforts better.
  • Unit testing. I'm keeping up with this. Without the accountability of other coders sharing the codebase, TDD definitely requires more discipline. It's very tempting to skip writing the tests and just code form the hip. But I've enjoyed the benefits of automated tests for so long, I simply couldn't consider living without them. When I skip tests the code is often incomplete, buggy, or badly designed. My unit tests are the closest to team accountability I have!
  • Morning standup meetings. These provided a great heartbeat to the weekly development effort, and I miss them. Without this meeting I miss the chance to assess my progress and discuss if I'm still on track or doing the right thing. I've tried to set myself daily goals and reassess each morning, but honestly it's not going too well.
Being a one-man-band has given me the liberty to make some sweeping code changes that had been put off for a long time. With the whole team in place as they were too intrusive to other people's work, but they'd been annoying me for long enough that it feels great to purge my demons. I've had the chance to perform a lot of overdue tidying up of the code, the design, and restructuring of the file structure and build system.

There are many pros to my situation: for a start, I still have a job. And I get to work on good code, and I get to ensure that it stays good. Oh, and no one complains when I play music very loud.

There are many cons to Solo Software Development, many of which I will have to adjust to or work out ways to deal with:
  • No one to talk to
  • Motivation is harder to get; you have less accountability
  • No chance to learn tips and techniques from peers
  • Trips to The Wrestlers have taken a hit
  • Getting "stuck" on a gnarly problem halts the entire development effort, not just one person's tasks.
And many things are just plain different. For example:
  • Version control discipline is different. I needn't always create a branch for a piece of work. No one else is going to mind when I shuffle stuff around on the trunk. (That doesn't mean branching isn't valuable)
  • I'm spending longer on the phone to the managers in the US. My working hours are consequently changing.
  • I'm liaising with people I'd not have talked to before - service providers, estate agents, admin and finance people.
I'll be honest, work on my own isn't ideal, but it's not turned out as bad as I expected it to.

It looks like I'll be moving on to some different projects shortly. This will serves to highlight how good our old code was, but it's good not not get stuck in a ghetto.

And I'll be moving office soon. Sadly, to something less palatial.


Anonymous said...

I've been working solo (apart from when i rope my wife in to help) for nearly four years now, since I started out as a freelancer. I find I tend to read mailing lists, blogs and more recently twitter (I'm @a_williams) in order to feel part of the community.

I still do TDD, but I don't do iterations. I find it's more helpful to work on the top priority feature and ship to my clients when I've got it done. Repeat until project finished. In some cases this might mean daily deployment, whereas in others it might be a couple of weeks between builds. Smaller features work better, because they get to see updates more often, I can incorporate feedback sooner, and they get a better feel for the progress I'm making rather than just a "I'm making progress" declaration.

The gnarly problems are a pain though --- sometimes it feels like I don't get anything done for hours because I'm stuck on something nasty. I keep thinking I ought to make more use of things like twitter and accu-general to bring some fresh insight.

GG. said...

Definitely a great post. dream girls