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How to ship product faster with Continuous Improvement using Continuous Integration?

Understanding CI, Putting it into practice, tools and Best Practices

Table of Contents

Introduction

Accelerating release frequency is crucial to the success of a SaaS business. The goal is to learn from customer feedback, implement improvements, and return these enhancements to the users as quickly as possible. This typically involves developers writing or modifying code, which is where complexities can arise. How do you ensure that necessary product changes are implemented quickly without disrupting other parts of your roadmap? A well-executed Continuous Integration (CI) system can greatly assist with this. In this newsletter, we will explore how to expedite product delivery through effective CI implementation.

An overview of CI Cycle

What is Continuous Integration?

Continuous Integration (CI) is a software development practice where developers frequently integrate their code changes into a shared repository, often several times a day. Each integration is then verified by an automated build and tests to detect integration errors as early as possible. The major advantage of CI is that it allows for continuous improvement of the product as soon as changes are made, rather than waiting until the next release cycle.

CI is particularly beneficial in a startup environment for several reasons:

1. Rapid Feedback

In startups, where development cycles are short and agility is paramount, CI provides immediate feedback on code commits. This allows developers to identify and address problems early, reducing the cost and effort required for fixes. Rapid feedback loops help maintain development speed without compromising quality.

2. Reduced Risk

By integrating changes frequently, the risks associated with integration are significantly reduced. Developers avoid the "integration hell," a common problem in traditional software development where merging weeks of work from different team members leads to numerous conflicts and bugs. For startups, where the pace is fast and the pressure to deliver is high, minimizing risk is crucial.

3. Quality Assurance

Automated tests in the CI process ensure that every change made is tested, improving the quality of the final product. Maintaining high product quality is critical for startups, as it can be the difference between securing funding or customer acquisition and failing to grow.

4. Efficiency

CI automates repetitive tasks such as code compilation, database migration, and testing. This automation saves valuable developer time, which can then be redirected towards more critical aspects of product development. In a resource-constrained startup environment, enhancing efficiency can leverage limited resources for maximum output.

5. Building a Culture of Transparency

Continuous Integration fosters transparency and collaboration among team members. Since code is integrated and tested frequently, everyone has a clear view of the project's health and the impact of their contributions. This transparency can be especially beneficial in a startup environment, where team dynamics and morale are pivotal to the company's success.

6. Scalability

As startups grow, their projects typically scale, and more developers join the team. CI systems help manage this growth smoothly by ensuring that the process remains consistent regardless of the team size. Scaling up without disrupting existing operations is crucial for startups looking to rapidly expand their business.

For startups, CI is not just a technical best practice but a strategic asset that helps them maintain agility, ensure product quality, reduce risk, and manage growth effectively. By integrating and validating changes continuously, startups can stay responsive to market demands and iterate on their products at a fast pace.

Putting CI into effective practice

Step 1: Feedback β†’ Triage β†’ Backlogs Issues

The first step is to have an effective way to collect feedback from users. In the initial days of a startup, this is likely done by the cofounder themselves and is added as backlogs on product management tools like Linear or even GitHub. However, this process could be automated using a feedback tool like Olvy. Once feedback has been logged, it should be triaged, meaning verifying the issue with some additional technical information and also putting some way to solve/improve the issue. An issue is also assigned a priority determining its order of implementation. Once that is done, the issue could be immediately added to the next sprint or kept in the backlog until the next sprint picks it up.

Triaging an issue on Github

Step 2: Code in Cycles / Sprint

The issue with the highest priority in the backlog is picked first and added to the current Cycle/ Sprint. A developer creates a branch with the issue's name and starts working on the fixes/improvement. If you are using Linear, this could be done using its Branch name features, which will also automatically link the branch with the issue. This could be done manually within GitHub.

A cycle in Linear

Step 3: Reviews

As the improvements are made, the branch could be created as a Pull request to the Staging or Main branch, and a tool like Vercel preview can generate a live preview of the effective changes. Any feedback is done directly on the issue comments, and the PR awaits merge until all those issues are resolved.

Working With Vercel previews.

Step 4: Merge & Deploy

Once all the issues are resolved, the branch could go through an automated Testing phase. Tools for static code analysis, code review, or other quality checks can be integrated into the CI pipeline. These tools help maintain coding standards and improve the overall quality of the code. As all these tests are passed, the code could be then deployed to production.

Step 6: Announce

At the final step, you can go ahead and announce to your customer on a periodic basis using your product release board all the changes you have made. At early stages, I also recommend doing this in person with your early customers to verify good fixes and build trust.

Tools

GitHub is an indispensable platform for code hosting that seamlessly integrates continuous integration tools, issue tracking, and project management. Its built-in features, such as GitHub Actions, allow teams to automate workflows for software builds, testing, and deployment directly within their repositories. This integration helps teams enforce coding standards, run tests, and manage deployments without switching between tools. Additionally, GitHub’s robust community and plethora of integrations with other development tools make it an excellent resource for startups looking to establish efficient CI practices.

Vercel offers a powerful feature known as Vercel Previews, which automatically creates deploy previews of your web applications from new pull requests. This feature is particularly useful for Continuous Integration as it allows both developers and stakeholders to see the effects of changes in a live environment before merging them into the main codebase. These previews facilitate more informed decision-making and smoother collaboration by providing a tangible representation of code changes.

Olvy is a feedback management tool that allows you to collect and organize user feedback directly from your application. Integrating Olvy can enhance your CI pipeline by ensuring that the feedback loop is as short as possible. It provides analytics on user responses and can automatically create issues in your project management tools when users report bugs or request features. This direct link between user feedback and development priorities helps prioritize the backlog more effectively, making sure that the team focuses on changes that offer the most value to users.

Linear helps streamline issue tracking and project management with its sleek interface and powerful features designed to enhance team productivity. For startups implementing CI, Linear offers tools to automate task creation from feedback, organize sprints, and track progress across projects. Its integration capabilities with GitHub ensure that every pull request and branch is linked to a specific task, making it easier to keep track of changes and their purposes.

Swarmia is an additional tool designed to optimize software team performance. It provides actionable insights based on data from your existing tools like GitHub. By analyzing workflow patterns, Swarmia helps identify bottlenecks and improve team efficiency. This tool is especially useful for startups wanting to refine their CI processes, as it highlights areas where processes can be streamlined or where additional focus is needed.

Best Practices

  1. Be Transparent and collaborative with your customer and the team.

  2. Automate as much as possible to ensure quick iterations.

  3. Encourage the team to document changes at every step.

  4. Build an ownership-driven culture with a one issue one developer philosophy.

  5. Do Peer review to distribute workload instead

Conclusion

Building up an effective CI strategy can take some time and it doesn't need to be perfect on day one. Like your product, this would also evolve, so instead focus on the 1% improvement every day. One thing that I have personally learned about CI is that the sooner you implement it in your company, (even for a half-baked product) the sooner your tech becomes mature. It has to do with the build fast and fail fast mentality. A lot of time changes are done but not implemented immediately, discouraging devs' urgency, but if they know that the changes will be implemented immediately, this could lead them to be more serious and quick with the improvements.

Also, check out my talk on Lean DevOps playbook to see how CI comes together into a complete lean DevOps Methodology. πŸ‘‡πŸ»

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