Saturday, November 26, 2011

Group Programming and Issue-based Project Management

I spent the last couple weeks doing some group-based programming on a small WattDepot project. The project was to build a command-line interface that lets a user poll the energy data collected from one of the dorms on the University of Hawai'i--Manoa campus. Different commands allow the user to see the current power consumption of a dorm tower or lounge, to rank the different dorm towers by energy consumed over a given time period, to see the energy use of a tower or lounge for a given day, or to see the total energy consumed by a tower or lounge since a given date.

I haven't done any group programming in about 10 years, but I found the return to it quite enjoyable. I find it motivating to know that someone else depends upon and is eagerly awaiting my changes. I found myself prioritizing this project over my other projects to make sure I wasn't holding someone else up.

Our group consisted of only two programmers. We used Google Project Hosting's issue-tracking system to manage the project. We met occasionally to map out the course of the project, and we would create new issues for tasks that needed to be done. Then one of use would accept responsibility for the task and work on it. Once it was done, the other person would look over it and mark the issue as verified. Since the different issue pages allow for threaded discussion, I found this is a good way to track the progress of the project. It was also very easy to link from source code commit logs to the relevant issues and also back from an issue to those commits that solved it.

We happened to worked in shifts, and so we never had to deal with a code merge. I'm a little disappointed I haven't had a chance to experience this yet.

We also used continuous integration. That means we had a Jenkins server setup that independently verified that each commit to the Google repository still compiled successfully and passed all tests and QA checks. This was a comfort. After a commit, I'd always wait a few minutes to make sure I didn't receive an email from Jenkins. When I didn't, I felt more confident signing off for the night.

Our project was plagued with external problems, though. I had to make a emergency 5-day trip back to the mainland for a funeral during the middle of the project. My partner, Jeff, broke his leg around the same time. Besides being on painkillers after that, he wasn't able to drive to campus. So we only had one initial face-to-face meeting, but we compensated with a couple phone meetings and nearly-daily overview emails in addition to the issue-tracking threads. Near the end of the project, the WattDepot server went down, which halted production and then broke all of our test cases. This meant that our build appeared broken for about 3 days while we waited for the new server to generate enough data for us to work with.

All this planning and coordination certainly did come with an overhead. I'd say this project took 2 to 3 times longer than if we'd just done the project independently. But, like I said, I found the group atmosphere quite motivating, and it probably helped to have a couple pairs of eyes look over all the code.

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