My Ideal Development Environment

by alex_gaynor

Here's what a day looks like in my ultimate development environment:

Get into the office on Monday morning at 9; I'm a big fan of working from an office on a "normal" schedule (it's not important to me that everyone else do this though).

I'll take a look at the issue tracker, and find the top priority outstanding bug. I like to get started with a bug fix, rather than feature work, I couldn't tell you why. Work on the bug for a while, and submit a pull request. No matter how small the fix, it doesn't go directly to master.

Now the fix, plus tests of course, wait for code review. Submitting a PR automatically triggers the CI system. It checks that tests pass, code passes style checks, and that docs compile; I've already run all these locally of course, but now the code review UI shows my team mates that everything is green.

I get some feedback on the patch from a co-worker, maybe even more than one. I do some polish work on the patch, and then resubmit it. Tests run, and pass, and my coworker hits the merge button, since it looks good to them now.

And now the magic starts. First, the CI runs again. This time, in addition to running tests, it also creates a build artifact. Once the CI is done, the deployment system takes the artifact and deploys to production.

For a few minutes, either myself or the person who performed the merge keeps half our eye on the project's metrics and exception tracker; someone would automatically be paged if anything bad actually happened, but we want to be on top of it.

Now I'm properly warmed up for the day. Next I'll see if there's any patches that need review, and do some code review. Once I've made sure none of my co-workers are blocked waiting for a review, I'll go through open issues that need design or architecture input, to contribute my 2 cents. Finally, I'll get back to the feature I'm working on and try to make some progress.

After lunch, we'll have a weekly team meeting. Everyone will share their goals for the week, we'll make sure everyone knows who is on-call for the week, and the team lead will let us know if there's any new features or product changes coming up on the horizon that we'll need to start planning for.

After the meeting (which took about 30 minutes), it's back to juggling code review, working on my own patches, and giving and asking for design feedback on open issues.

And that's my ideal development environment!

I often get questions on why various pieces of it are important to me, so I'll try to explain.

I've previous written about why code review is important to me. It's really the bedrock of the workflow, everything goes through code review before it hits production.

The point that often gets the most push back is the continuous deployment. Many folks hear that and think, "Won't you be deploying tons of bugs to production?!?" The answer is: yes, we will deploy bugs to production. If you're deploying less frequently, you're still going to be deploying bugs. You don't spend nearly enough time or money to be bug free. Instead the focus is on, how do we minimize the impact of bugs.

Deploying in smaller increments makes deployment safer because it the unit of deployment is easier to audit, and because it makes identifying the bad commit easier. It also makes rollbacks easier. Moreover, it makes developers happier, first by reducing the stress that comes with unsafe deployments, and also by removing the wait to get your patch in production. It also puts automation at the forefront, making it easier to maintain the system.

Next is the issue tracker. The issue tracker is the source of truth for all tasks that need to be accomplished by the team. It's used to express dependencies, and folks can always look at it to find work they need to do. Tasks are decomposed as much as possible into units of work that can be executed. For example a tree of tasks might look like:

Finally, there are the communications mechanisms for the team. Many folks will hear "weekly meeting" and wonder where the daily stand-up went. The more folks in a meeting, the harder communication is. Instead of having regular synchronization points, I prefer teams where individuals reach out to their team mates regularly, many times through the day, to discuss shared work and ask for help, using something like IRC or Slack. The issue tracker and code review system are also points of collaboration which help team members keep up to date on what others are working on. Teams should be no larger than 6-10 people, and as teams grow larger their areas of responsibility are split, often by refactoring code into disparate services.

Elements of my ideal work environment are taken from many different places I've worked, as well as Open Source communities I've participated in. Underlying many of the idea here is an emphasis on regular communication and collaboration between team members. Every patch that makes it into production is a joint effort of many people, and reflects a dedication to team work and a commitment to developing great software.


Hi, I'm Alex. I'm currently at a startup called Alloy. Before that I was a engineer working on Firefox security and before that at the U.S. Digital Service. I'm an avid open source contributor and live in Washington, DC.