Chris James - Software developer and other things

The Web I Want

20 August 2018

I originally posted this at Dev.to, where you can see some comments

This post will very much sound like I want you all to get off my lawn - because I do.

How has the web become like this?

From this very website

The other day my partner was browsing the web on her two year old Chromebook, it struggled to run a number of sites as they loaded ads, gifs, videos and tons of JavaScript to do absolutely nothing of value.

Every day I am frustrated at my phone as it chugs along trying to display a blog post. The post is there behind a sea of JavaScript and auto-playing videos.

This all sounds a bit first world problems, but it's far, far worse for those in developing nations. Do you know how bad satellite Internet is compared to what most of us have here in the west? It is awful.

Graph of mobile connection speeds

The World Wide Web is supposed to be a leveler, something that brings knowledge everywhere and yet developers every day are making it harder for those who need the Internet to work well the most.

Let's take a look at how things have "progressed" with the Internet.

20ish years ago

I made my first website about 20 years ago and it delivered as much content as most websites today. It was more accessible, ran faster and easier to develop then 90% of the stuff you'll read on here.

20 years later I browse the Internet with a few tabs open and I have somehow downloaded many megabytes of data, my laptop is on fire and yet in terms of actual content delivery nothing has really changed.

Technologies used: - HTML

10-15 years ago

People were fed up of nested tables and spacer images. The web was losing its roots of being a content delivery platform.

I was working on websites like the above in my placement year on my degree. I started reading articles on A list Apart about how we should be pushing for semantic markup, where HTML simply describes a document of content and then it is styled using this thing called CSS.

Eventually I ran into CSS Zen Garden which is a website that showcases what you could do with CSS.

The idea is the markup is the same and the website has submissions from developers showing different designs purely using CSS.

The HTML remains the same, the only thing that has changed is the external CSS file. Yes, really.

This website had a profound impact on my attitude to web development. It clicked. HTML for content, CSS for style. No JavaScript required, no tables needed for layout, no spacer images.

Just pure HTML decorated with CSS.

It felt exciting to be part of a community that took real pride in delivering beautiful looking content in the leanest, simplest and most accessible way possible.

Not only did this make websites more accessible and fast to run but in some ways made them easier to develop. Suddenly generating the markup from the server wasn't horrible!

Still things were quite difficult. CSS support wasn't amazing and we still didn't have a lot of semantic elements with HTML4 so there were a lot of divs. Firebug had just come out which was a huge boost but it was still hard to make a consistent experience.

I seem to recall Gmail coming out around this time and it was amazing. Suddenly the web could be actual applications. This is interesting and groundbreaking, but had a real negative impact too. Soon enough people thought that the promotional website for their local pub had to have as much JavaScript as Gmail.

5 years-ish till present

Here is a not exaggerated summary of today's attitudes

Scores of people who just want to deliver their content and have it look vaguely nice are convinced you need every web technology under the sun to deliver text.

You're not a frontend developer unless you know Vue/React/whatever. You're mocked if you dare to just write the bare minimum JavaScript you need for your website

The page refreshing is seen as a massive problem for users, and it must be avoided at all costs.

For some reason people are building tons of SPAs (single page web apps). The reasons stated are for speed and ease of developer use. (I don't buy sending tons of JavaScript to a browser will ever be as fast as just some damn HTML. Also it's not as easy as putting some HTML files on the Internets)

You see these laughable posts where developers jump through dozens of hoops to make their website "fast and performant". They struggle because of the underlying technical choices and then I'm still downloading half a megabyte of data to read 500 words. It's embarrassing.

There are a few things I want you to take away from this post

So what is the The Web I want

So no JavaScript, really?

JavaScript of course still has its place and when used tastefully can improve the usability of a website. However think carefully about the libraries and frameworks you pull in. Maybe you can accomplish what you need without bringing in JQuery, modern browsers have excellent APIs built in these days. Aim for progressive enhancement with JS. Your website should still work without JS turned on.

Regarding single page apps (SPAs), I genuinely believe too many people are making them. GMail is a web application and as such deserves a framework. Your blog platform? Not so much. Remember these frameworks not only put a lot of strain on user's experience but it's also just a lot to learn. Maybe your time could be served better.

But my product owner says we need all these bells and whistles!

As a professional, it is up to you to take a stand. You are the expert, not the customer.

If I told the builder of my home to make it out of straw, I would hope she would convince me otherwise.

Of course, circumstances are tricky and sometimes people will ignore you but when you look at the state of some of the popular websites today you can only conclude that people either don't know what they're doing or are just not pushing back on bad requirements enough.

Wrapping up

Take a look at the performance tab in developer tools for your website. Does it make you proud? If not, take some pride and start cutting away the cruft you thought you needed.

Let's take pride in making lean, accessible, simpler to execute websites by using simple technologies that work everywhere. There are moral and technical arguments for taking this approach.

Remember that the goal of most websites is delivering useful textual content, and all you really need for that is HTML.

Then we might not have to buy new laptops every 2 years and people less fortunate than you have a chance of actually using the web; the way it was intended.

Why you should deploy on Friday afternoon

28 May 2018

I originally posted this at Dev.to where lots of people agreed and disagreed.

Don't deploy on Friday afternoons!

This expression is taken as programmer wisdom but I hate it. I'm going to try and kill it, with words and experience.

The motivation behind it is sound. I don't want to spend my Friday nights debugging a production problem either.

To me the expressions smacks of unprofessionalism. Software development as an industry has a poor reputation and phrases like this do not help.

If you went to an ER on a Friday afternoon and was turned away because the doctors don't trust their own tools and know-how, how would you feel?

If we want people to take our craft seriously we need to own it and not give the impression that we dont understand the systems are we making enough to make changes at the end of the week.

Why a lot of people don't want to deploy on Fridays

Continuous Delivery (CD)

I have worked on teams that have deployed new versions of various services in a distributed system multiple times at 4:30pm and not broke a sweat.

Why? Because deployment is fully automated and is a non-event. Here is the groundbreaking process.

Not so long ago it was considered normal for there to be releases every 6 months, or even just one at the end of a project.

The forward thinkers in that age saw problems with this

So the industry as a whole worked on lots of tooling, techniques and best practices to allow us to release software far quicker.

Recognising that releasing often reduces risk is generally accepted nowadays but teams still often settle on weekly or fortnightly releases; often matching the cadence of their sprints.

What are the problems with weekly/fornightly releases?

With CD we recognise that we can go further, deploying new software to live every time the build is green. This has some amazing benefits,

But what if you break things?

Often people say with CD

Yeah it's nice but what if it breaks? We should have a QA check things over

Here's the thing, no process in the world prevents bugs. You will ship broken code. What's really important is how quickly you can detect and recover from it. Hoping manual testing will catch everything is wishful thinking.

How to CD on a new project

It is much easier to do CD on a new project since you can start small and evolve.

Generally your work should be centered on delivering the most valuable user journeys first, so this is an excellent chance to practice how to ensure that feature works without any humans checking anything.

For each subsequent story ask yourself

How to CD on an existing project

Peel away at the manual process

CD up to staging.

Some companies have many environments in their delivery pipeline. A good first start is to automatically ship all the way up to the environment before live. A better step is remove as many of them as you can. It's ok to have some kind of "dev" environment to maybe experiment with but ask yourself why cant just test these things locally in the first place.

Identify a sub-system you could work with as a starting point

If you're working with a distributed system you might be able to identify a system which is easier to CD than the rest. Start with that because it'll give your team some insights into the new way of working and can help you begin to break the cultural barriers.

CD is a cultural issue as much as a technical one

Roles and responsibility

Often a product owner or project manager wants to be the one who is in charge of releasing.

There are circumstances where exposing features to users should be controlled by a non-technical member of your team, but this can be managed with feature toggles.

But the copying of code from one computer to another is the responsibility of the developers on the team. After all we are the ones who are responsible for making sure the system works. It is a technical concern, not a business one.

What do QAs do now?

CD is actually liberating for QAs

Re-evaluate your tolerance for defects

Lots of companies think they cannot have any defects and will spend a lot of time and effort on complicated, time consuming (and therefore expensive) processes to try and stop them.

But think about the cost of all this? If you push a change to production that isn't covered by tests, perhaps a CSS change; consider if it's really catastrophic if there's a small visual fault for some browsers

Maybe it is, in which case there are techniques to test specifically for this too.

Recovery

Each release you do with CD will have the following qualities

So in my experience fixing anything that falls through the cracks is easy. It's much less complicated than trying to look through 2 week's worth of git history.

I would recommend in most cases not rolling back (unless it's really bad), but just fixing the issue and releasing it. Rollback is sometimes not an option anyway (e.g database migrations) so the fact that your system is geared to releasing quickly is actually a real strength of CD.

Other quick tips

Wrapping up

This has been a small introduction to CD, it's a huge topic with plenty of resources to investigate.

Continuous delivery is a big effort both technically and culturally but it pays off massively.

I have worked on distributed systems with over 30 separately deployable components with CD and it has been less stressful than another project I've worked on that had just a handful of systems but a ton of process and ceremony.

Being able to release software when it's written puts a higher emphasis on quality and reduces risk for the team. It also forces you into using agile best practices like testable, small, independently releasable user stories.

Maybe most importantly, it demands that you understand your system and that you're not deploying to production and crossing your fingers. That feels more professional to me.