Continuous Integration: A Mindset January 28, 2012at12:18

I attended a round-table discussion on CI (Continuous Integration) the other day – and it prompted me to write this post.

There seem to be some confusion about CI. Some have chosen to let  integration mean the interaction of two or more software components. Hence, making the conclusion, that integration is only taking place during test execution.

Unfortunate, if you have that limited understanding of what CI is, you loose the big picture. CI is not only the triggered build and test-execution on every check-in. That is only the safeguard that makes it possible to perform the actual activity; that of continuously integrating others’ work with your own.

I’ll say that again: continuously integrate others’ work with your own

That means you do not have team-branches, feature-branches; you keep it one track as much as the product will allow you to. Every change in the system should propagate to you more or less immediately.
Yes, you need builds, and test to insure that your code is always working, but the integration is not the integration of software modules or components, it is the integration of your work with other people’s work.
Someone might get irritated by the use of the word work here. Why isn’t he saying code if that what he means. Why not say that you continuously integrate other developers’ code with your own. Well, first off, “your code”, “others’ code” imply code ownership. In an agile environment, you don’t own code; it is a communal responsibility.
Second off, it is not just code that requires integration. It also applies to toolsets, platforms, hardware, environments, configurations; every aspect of the software development process.

The concept of continuous adaptation or really continuous adoptation, should be your mindset.

Using this practice, some will experience that everything changes underneath you, that you constantly need to change small aspects of your code because of others’ changes. It will become tedious and your own progress will be slow because you have to take every one else’s changes into account. You might even long back to the good old days when you could work without a care fore a month and then hand of your work to the integrator who magically just made things work together.
First of all, the integrator’s job in these situations was never easy. They often spent late nights getting yours and others’ crap to work properly. So even if it was the good old days for you, it wasn’t for them. Secondly, this was an error prone process. It created a mess that you usually ended up having to fix. So if you remember the frustrating debugging sessions due to obscure errors it isn’t so much the good ol’ days anymore.

Despite all of this, if you still find yourself longing for the old ways, it can be helpful to realize this:

Decoupling of dependencies should always be done by architecture and design in the code– never by black magic in the version control system/by configuration management.

If you are in a situation where you use the version control system to reduce the impact of changes, to create isolation between modules, this is a symptom of pore architectural design, which needs to be addressed. DO NOT hide the problem by configuration management.

In conclusion, the mindset of continuous integration is not just that of having automatic builds and automatic tests. It is the process of pulling in and integrating other developers’ work with your own. Decoupling of subsystems and modules must be done through architecture and design in the code, never through configuration management.

3 Responses to “Continuous Integration: A Mindset”

  1. The debate about feature branching vs CI goes on… I tend to, like you, prefer CI. My “opponents” have one argument that I can agree on though…
    How about human testing/QA? If team or feature branches are used, the QA department has a chance testing PBIs isolated before integrating with mainline which, hopefully, leads to more stable mainline. Also, if new stuff is too unstable or there has been misunderstanding about functionality, it doesn’t have to be integrated at all.
    What’s your reply to people having these argument against CI?

  2. Hi Roger,
    Thanks for the question.

    Come back in a few days and I’ll try to have a well written answer to your question.

    I found your questions so important that I addressed them in a separate post.

  3. […] received a couple of excellent questions/concerns about CI in a comment from Roger that I will try to address. “How about human testing/QA? If team or feature branches are used, […]