Monday, March 24, 2008

Is Your Software Development Organization Mainstream?

Have you ever wondered how your organization compares to other organizations when it comes to the process of developing software? Do you feel like there is an area that really needs improvement, but everybody else says "that's the way everybody does it?" While looking at what is involved in mainstream Agile adoption, I realized that it would be useful to create a list of the current mainstream software development practices for comparison purposes and I thought other folks might find it useful as well.

I define a practice as being mainstream if it is a practice that most people would agree that most people do. It may not be that they do that exact practice, they may do something equivalent or further along the spectrum of what constitutes a good practice, but they at least go to the level described.

The word "practice" is the key word here. This is about what people can be observed as actually practicing in their day to day real work. Things which are described by policy or documented as the correct way of doing something but avoided and worked around don't qualify. A mainstream practice is something that is in common usage that people do because they believe the value is worth the effort and not doing it is sort of like saying “electricity and hot and cold running water aren’t for me, I much prefer candles and fetching water from the well.”

While each of the following individual practices is considered a mainstream practice, that does not mean that it is mainstream to being doing all of the following practices. That is, in some of the areas that these practices cover, any particular development organization may be operating at a lower level than these practices, but for any particular practice, most development organizations operate at or above the level of these practices.


Basic flow – the common development activities are: talk to customers and/or do market analysis, document market needs via requirements, create a design, implement the design, write tests, execute the tests, do find/fix until ready to ship, ship.


Requirements documented using Microsoft Word or Excel – while there are actually quite a few off-the-shelf requirements tools available, most people do not use them. The most common method for documenting requirements is via Word and Excel.

Recording of defects in Bugzilla – there are very few organizations which aren’t using at least Bugzilla to track bugs and Bugzilla is definitely the most popular choice. And recording of defects is pretty much as far as it goes. Enhancements, RFEs, requirements are tracked separately.

Basic initial project planning – this is the simple act of picking a bunch of work to be done, estimating it, dividing it up among the folks that are available to do the work and determining a target ship date. Some teams use MS-Excel, some teams use MS-Project. This does not mean sophisticated project planning. The extent of re-planning is a simple “are all tasks done yet” with the occasional feature creep and last minute axing of important functionality at the last minute.

Basic design – prior to coding features or defect fixes that will take more than two days to do or are highly impactful, a design document is created, circulated, discussed, and updated.


All source code is stored in a source control system – this is not to be confused with “all work is done in a source control system.” It is actually surprisingly common to see the source control system used for archiving of work done rather than as a tool for facilitating the software development process.

Source control and issue tracking integration via a hand-entered bug number in the check-in comment, without enforcement – while there are certainly more sophisticated integrations, most people at least type in the bug number when checking in changes so that they can later find the changes associated with that bug.

Defects have a defined workflow that is defined in and enforced by the bug tracking system – even if it is as simple as Open, Assigned, Closed.

Mainline development – all developers on a project check-in to the mainline (aka the trunk).

Refactoring – while the term “refactoring” has come to mean just about any change to the software, the idea that code should be periodically cleaned up and simplified is pretty much universal at this point.

Nightly build – the entire product is built every night. This does not necessarily mean that tests are also run automatically or that there is an automatic report of the results, just that there is a nightly build.


Mostly manual testing – this one is the hardest to understand. The process of testing software is one of the most backwards parts of software development.

Unit tests – while the overall testing of software is still mostly manual, unit testing has caught on rapidly in a very short span of time.

Using defect find/fix rate trend to determine release candidacy – this is not actually a particularly good practice, but it is what most people do.

Separation of developer, test, and production environments – you might think this is so obvious it isn’t even worth mentioning, but this principal is violated enough that it is worth mentioning that it is actually a mainstream practice. I mention it to emphasize that if you aren’t doing this, you really need to.


Basing official builds on well-defined configurations from source control – the official process for producing production builds includes the step of creating an official configuration in the SCM system and using that configuration to do the build.

Releasing only official builds – all builds that go into production are produced using the official process.

Major and minor releases - creating a major release every 6 to 12 months and minor and/or patch releases on a quarterly basis.

What do you think? Are these right on target or way off base? Do you think there are any missing areas? Do you think the mainstream practice level is higher or lower for some of these? Let me know what you think!

Next: "There is no Bug. It is not the Bug That Bends, it is Only Yourself."


Anonymous said...

Just getting started in SCM and this is good stuff.

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