On Thursday and Friday October 4 and 5, Boost closed its doors for an all-hands two-day product development workshop, to build a new tool to support teams to run Agile retrospectives, which we call Scrummaker. This series of blog posts records the two days: what we made, and how we did in.
A little context: Boost is a team of designers, developers and Scrum Masters, who have been working with Agile for the past six years or so. As well as building websites and custom software and offering Scrum services and coaching from our Wellington office, we’ve recently opened an office in Shanghai offering Scrum training and coaching. Nathan Donaldson is Boost’s managing director and the Product Owner for Scrummaker.
As part of the whole Scrum ethos, I’m timeboxing the writing of each of these posts to 20 minutes, so if the brevity leaves you curious, feel free to get in touch for more detail.
Scrummaker: The technical discussion
At the end of the day on Wednesday, the team met (for strict 30 minute timebox) to thrash out technical decisions we felt we needed to make in order to get off to a clean start on Thursday morning.
We grabbed post-its and had two minutes to scribble down the things we wanted to discuss. These went up on a sheet of paper, were quickly grouped, then we dot-voted to pick what we wanted to discuss the most. We agreed to spend 8 minutes discussing the highest priority item, and 4 minutes on each of the other issues, until we ran out of time.
Post-it notes with topics for our technical discussion, grouped in priority order
The highest priority post-it was How do we avoid design blocking work. Balancing the needs of Scrum and design is something we’ve worked hard on for several years now, so it’s not surprising that with a two-day development period this came to the fore.
After discussing the issue, we came up with a series of actions:
Collaborative wireframing to kick each story off (then being able to start work on dev and design concurrently)
Next we quickly covered off Testing, agreeing to stick to our usual practice of Behaviour Driven Development, and to use RSpec and Cucumber
The Hosting post-it got the one-word answer Heroku.
Finally, we agreed on a zero critical bugs policy – new development would always come second to fixing critical bugs in existing features.
As an intern here at Boost I have had the privilege of working with a group of experienced and friendly developers. I have been here two weeks now and already feel settled in completely. One of the great things about working for Boost is that everybody is very approachable when you need to ask for help or when you need things to be elaborated. This has made the transition from university to industry easier than I initially expected.
Here at Boost we use the Agile software development methodology known as Scrum. So every day I have a stand up meeting with my scrum master (Jacob Creech) and product owner (Nathan Donaldson) where I go over what I have done, what I will be working on today, and discuss problems that I need to get out of my way. So far at Boost I have been working on bug fixes for our online usability testing tool IntuitionHQ, which is built in Ruby on Rails. Working in this way has helped me get my head around the large code base that I will gradually move towards developing features for.
The IntuitionHQ Scrum Board
Using Scrum means that I’m working in ‘sprints’, or two-week long development periods. Each bug in IntuitionHQ is written up as a user story. At the start of my first sprint I took part in a sprint planning meeting which included sizing the stories (assigning them points between 1 and 8 to indicate their complexity/the effort required to fix them) and then breaking the stories down into tasks. I had to indicate how many of the stories I could commit to in the two-week sprint, and how confident I was that I could complete them in that time frame.
As an intern I was not really sure how much I could complete, being new to Rails and working in the industry in general. But one of the cool things about Scrum is that at the end of each sprint you have a sprint retrospective. This is a chance to talk about how the sprint went, and what can be done to improve things. If I don’t complete all my stories in the first sprint, the next sprint will be adapted to deal with this, and so on and so forth. So in the case that I didn’t complete all my stories it will be known for the next sprint to take on less stories in relation to their size. Overall, this is about figuring out your ‘velocity’ – how many story points you can get done in a sprint.
For my first sprint I initially committed to seven stories. I ended up completing the stories early and brought in two more stories from the backlog. One of the fun things I have found about fixing bugs is it really stimulates the mind’s problem solving abilities. I developed most of my problem solving abilities while doing my Software Engineering degree at Victoria University. Although university is a great learning environment I have found that learning in a working environment has more merits. This is because you are working with a group of people towards a common goal so they are more likely to help you out and I find that social learning is the best way to learn. This differs from university as everybody in your papers are competing to get higher grades than you so they generally don’t feed you all the facts.
One of the cool things about coming out of university into a working environment is that once you get home from work it’s your time, not stressing-about-assignments time. I believe that the less stress you have weighing on your mind the more productive you can be. Not being stressed out has helped me to be more productive working here at Boost and has got me highly motivated and keen for my next sprint. To sum up my experiences so far I would say that working here has been awesome!
When we release a SaaS web application, such as IntuitionHQ, it’s inevitable that there will be two parts that make it up. The main part is the application itself. The second part is the marketing site that goes with it. The marketing site includes the content, and usually a way to sign up. It normally requires some integration with the application.
We choose Radiant for our CMS when working on internal projects. The reason we like it is for it’s simplicity and power. In this post I’ll go through the different ways we’ve experimented with to integrate our SaaS applications with Radiant based websites.
It’s been a busy time here at Boost, and we have just released our new web usability testing application IntuitionHQ. I’ll be writing a post about IntuitionHQ soon, but today I’d like to talk about hosting.
When we launched SonarHQ in April we decided to host on Slicehost. There were two main reasons we went with a virtualised hosting solution. The first was that we were not sure whether we would be scaling vertically (bigger, faster servers) or horizontally (splitting different functions onto different servers), and the second was the we wanted to be able to scale up and down in a fine-grained way.
Our initial approach with SonarHQ was to have 2 applications servers, 2 database servers and a utility server (for background tasks including mail). This approach gave us some redundancy and the ability to scale in either horizontally or vertically as needed. This has worked well, but we didn’t feel that the performance/price ratio is particularly good.
During our initial testing, we had IntuitionHQ setup at Slicehost in the same way. As we were preparing to launch, Engine Yard released Engine Yard Cloud. Built on top of the Amazon cloud infrastructure, Engine Yard Cloud provides a managed instance and configuration engine specifically optomised for hosting Ruby on Rails applications.
It was easy and painless to get IntuitionHQ up and running on Engine Yard Cloud – taking under an hour from start to finish. I don’t think it could have been any easier – everything just seems to work! We fired up a small instance and put through a quick series of load tests. It was evident even with casual clicking through the application that we were getting better response times. Working through the likely costs for hosting on Engine Yard Cloud, we found that we could use a 32bit, 5 ECU, 1.7GB RAM instance for around the same cost as our previous setup and get a useful boost in both performance and manageability.
One of the most significant benefits is the ability to scale vertically all the way to a 64bit, 20 ECU, 68GB RAM instance with a simple restart. Scaling horizontally is just as easy, and Engine Yard Cloud really takes the pain out of this.
Another important benefit has been the streamlining of our deployment processes. Engine Yard takes care of everything needed for automated deployments, and any custom deployment tasks are easily handled with Chef recipes. Deploying multiple application instances is easy and works seamlessly, with Engine Yard implementing a proxying system with failover across all instances without the need for a separate proxy instance (and single point of failure) – a significant cost saving. Running a seperate instance (or set of instances) for the databases is as easy as ticking a checkbox.
The image used for the instance is kept up to date with the latest security and reliability patches and is used each time our application is deployed. This gives you a semi-managed hosting system without any of the associated costs.
The margin over standard Amazon EC2 is reasonably high for the small instances but reduces to a 10% premium on the biggest instances. This is very reasonable and for us makes a great deal of sense.
The one thing that would make this much more affordable is the ability to use Amazon reserved instances. These give you a discounted hourly rate for the instance once a one off payment is made. If you know what you need and can commit to a year, this can effectively half the hosting costs.
We launched IntuitionHQ a week ago and have been extremely happy with the performance and utility of Engine Yard Cloud. We are looking forward to growing IntuitionHQ and are confident that Engine Yard Cloud can grow with us.
When writing a Rails application, how do you decide on the best indexes to add to your database? It might seem obvious, especially if you work on a project from scratch. The problem is a little harder when you come to optimize an existing codebase.
Recently I’ve been using two methods to work out where to put indexes. Firstly I’d strongly recommend using New Relic RPM in development mode. When running your application you can visit /newrelic to get all kinds of useful information. Here you can see the most recent rails calls:
On several occasions we’ve looked at Rails projects with no tests, or very low test coverage. Trying to write tests when you didn’t write the original methods is difficult. Here are some tips that we’ve found useful.
Use your favourite framework.
If there is a large body of existing tests using a particular framework, write your new tests in that framework. If there are few or no tests then strip out anything already there and replace it with your preferred framework. At Boost we’ve decided to use RSpec for all our projects. Your objective here is to write tests, not to learn a new way of writing tests. (more…)
But notice the binary field :objectsid. This is the binary form of the string you may see sometimes when using AD, called SID, and it looks something like “S-1-5-21-123-456-789″. In order to find the users group you would take the :primarygroupid and the users :objectsid to generate the groups SID.
On the 25th of February ’09 I did a brief JRuby presentation on JRuby and how we’re using it at Boost. We’re really excited about some of the capabilities of JRuby.
We’re running a client deployment on Tomcat fronted by IIS, and it was really easy to get everything set up. We wanted to try another deployment on Glassfishv3 with no webserver in front. Unfortunately (and glassfishv3 is still in development) there were two barriers that prevented us doing so (more…)