RelEng 2015 (part 1)

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend RelEng 2015 - the 3rd International Workshop of Release Engineering. This was a fantastic conference, and I came away with lots of new ideas for things to try here at Mozilla.

I'd like to share some of my thoughts and notes I took about some of the sessions. As of yet, the speakers' slides aren't collected or linked to from the conference website. Hopefully they'll get them up soon! The program and abstracts are available here.

For your sake (and mine!) I've split up my notes into a few separate posts. This post covers the introduction and keynote.

tl;dr

"Continuous deployment" of web applications is basically a solved problem today. What remains is for organizations to adopt best practices. Mobile/desktop applications remain a challenge.

Cisco relies heavily on collecting and analyzing metrics to inform their approach to software development. Statistically speaking, quality is the best driver of customer satisfaction. There are many aspects to product quality, but new lines of code introduced per release gives a good predictor of how many new bugs will be introduced. It's always challenging to find enough resources to focus on software quality; being able to correlate quality to customer satisfaction (and therefore market share, $$$) is one technique for getting organizational support for shipping high quality software. Common release criteria such as bugs found during testing, or bug fix rate, are used to inform stakeholders as to the quality of the release.

Introductory Session

Bram Adams and Foutse Khomh kicked things off with an overview of "continuous deployment" over the last 5 years. Back in 2009 we were already talking about systems where pushing to version control would trigger tens of thousands of tests, and do canary deployments up to 50 times a day.

Today we see companies like Facebook demonstrating that continuous deployment of web applications is basically a solved problem. Many organizations are still trying to implement these techniques. Mobile [and desktop!] applications still present a challenge.

Keynote

Pete Rotella from Cisco discussed how he and his team measured and predicted release quality for various projects at Cisco. His team is quite focused on data and analytics.

Cisco has relatively long release cycles compared to what we at Mozilla are used to now. They release 2-3 times per year, with each release representing approximately 500kloc of new code. Their customers really like predictable release cycles, and also don't like releases that are too frequent. Many of their customers have their own testing / validation cycles for releases, and so are only willing to update for something they deem critical.

Pete described how he thought software projects had four degrees of freedom in which to operate, and how quality ends up being the one sacrificed most often in order to compensate for constraints in the others:

  • resources (people / money): It's generally hard to hire more people or find room in the budget to meet the increasing demands of customers. You also run into the mythical man month problem by trying to throw more people at a problem.

  • schedule (time): Having standard release cycles means organizations don't usually have a lot of room to push out the schedule so that features can be completed properly.

    I feel that at Mozilla, the rapid release cycle has helped us out to some extent here. The theory is that if your feature isn't ready for the current version, it can wait for the next release which is only 6 weeks behind. However, I do worry that we have too many features trying to get finished off in aurora or even in beta.

  • content (features): Another way to get more room to operate is to cut features. However, it's generally hard to cut content or features, because those are what customers are most interested in.

  • quality: Pete believes this is where most organizations steal resources for to make up for people/schedule/content constraints. It's a poor long-term play, and despite "quality is our top priority" being the Official Party Line, most organizations don't invest enough here. What's working against quality?

    • plethora of releases: lots of projects / products / special requests for releases. Attempts to reduce the # of releases have failed on most occasions.
    • monetization of quality is difficult. Pete suggests tying the cost of a poor quality release to this. How many customers will we lose with a buggy release?
    • having RelEng and QA embedded in Engineering teams is a problem; they should be independent organizations so that their recommendations can have more weight.
    • "control point exceptions" are common. e.g. VP overrides recommendations of QA / RelEng and ships the release.

Why should we focus on quality? Pete's metrics show that it's the strongest driver of customer satisfaction. Your product's customer satisfaction needs to be more than 4.3/5 to get more than marginal market share.

How can RelEng improve metrics?

  • simple dashboards
  • actionable metrics - people need to know how to move the needle
  • passive - use existing data. everybody's stretched thin, so requiring other teams to add more metadata for your metrics isn't going to work.
  • standardized quality metrics across the company
  • informing engineering teams about risk
  • correlation with customer experience.

Interestingly, handling the backlog of bugs has minimal impact on customer satisfaction. In addition, there's substantial risk introduced whenever bugs are fixed late in a release cycle. There's an exponential relationship between new lines of code added and # of defects introduced, and therefore customer satisfaction.

Another good indicator of customer satisfaction is the number of "Customer found defects" - i.e. the number of bugs found and reported by their customers vs. bugs found internally.

Pete's data shows that if they can find more than 80% of the bugs in a release prior to it being shipped, then the remaining bugs are very unlikely to impact customers. He uses lines of code added for previous releases, and historical bug counts per version to estimate number of bugs introduced in the current version given the new lines of code added. This 80% figure represents one of their "Release Criteria". If less than 80% of predicted bugs have been found, then the release is considered risky.

Another "Release Criteria" Pete discussed was the weekly rate of fixing bugs. Data shows that good quality releases have the weekly bug fix rate drop to 43% of the maximum rate at the end of the testing cycle. This data demonstrates that changes late in the cycle have a negative impact on software quality. You really want to be fixing fewer and fewer bugs as you get closer to release.

I really enjoyed Pete's talk! There are definitely a lot of things to think about, and how we might apply them at Mozilla.