What is Continuous Integration?
Bottom line: all digital products should be end-user focused. Not only does that mean that the app needs to look great and work well, but it also needs to be built solidly and updated with frequency and accuracy. These are considerations that have to be taken into account well before the app is ready for market. But, the challenge is often working to create the best app possible while also hitting the client deadlines.
Enter Continuous Integration (or CI if you want to be fancy), a process that will change how you develop apps all while being more efficient and effective.
So, what exactly is Continuous Integration?
In a nutshell, CI is the “software development practice where developers regularly merge their code changes into a central repository, after which automated builds and tests are run.” In essence, it’s an opportunity to have consistent validation of work done throughout the project instead of at designed endpoints.
Before we get into the details of CI, it’s important to understand what we’re solving for by putting Continuous Integration into place. At a high level, what we’re hoping to avoid is what’s known as “integration hell,” or the influx of a massive amount of disparate changes all integrated at once at the end of a project.
The risk that companies always run when multiple developers are working on a single project is competing code merges creating bugs in the application. This often happens when merges occur at the end of sprints or, heaven forbid, the end of the project. That lapse in time allows for bugs to accumulate and, when combined with other merges, creates a nightmare of a bug-hunting situation.
The most common result from such an outcome is a product or update that is delivered behind schedule and one very unhappy QA person. That means frustrated employees and unhappy users.
Frustration due to duplication of work
Another downside of waiting to merge until the end of a project is the risk that developers might unknowingly duplicate their efforts in the project. On bigger projects with multiple, complicated areas developers will often work on their sections without a lot of communication with their coworkers only to find that they’ve completed near-identical pieces of work. Due to the time-consuming nature of coding, this can be quite frustrating for your developers and has the very real possibility of delaying the project.
Overall lack of communication
As we mentioned above, on larger projects developers may default to work on their portion of the project in a silo. During that work, developers may move in different directions and won’t communicate as proactively as they should. Not only can this cause the problems we discussed above, but it also can create a feeling of isolation amongst your team.
Developers are working independently and not really sure what the others are working on where they are in their portions of the project
So How Can Continuous Integration Help?
Great question. Let’s dive in.
So again, CI is the practice of developers merging their code at regular points throughout the entire project. So, instead of waiting until the end of a sprint or the project, they will frequently commit their work to a shared repository. From a developers’ standpoint, that’s broken up into three stages that are repeated throughout the project—Build. Test. Merge.
Of all the different parts of the CI process, this is probably the most straightforward. It’s here that the developer works on the code for the application. On some projects, that is one developer. On others, it’s a team of developers working independently on several portions of the same project.
Once a developer is done with their set portion it’s time to test to ensure the build is solid and that there aren’t any bugs hidden in the code. Testing can be done manually or automated, depending on what your company has available and what your developers are most comfortable with. We recommend automated tests that run automatically by the CI server when code is submitted for review.
The beauty of CI is that since the developers are testing at more frequent intervals the changes that they are working from are smaller than if they waited. That means that any bugs that do pop up are easier to locate and remedy.
Once satisfied with the build, it’s time to merge the code to a shared version control system such as Git. Again, because this step is done more often throughout the project it reduces the chances of duplicate work, unforeseen conflicts, and an overload of bugs.
Then, rinse and repeat!
What are the advantages?
Identify and resolve conflicts early
One of the biggest advantages of Continuous Integration is that your team is constantly checking their code for bugs before merging. That means a collection of cleaner code throughout the entire project. In addition, because of the frequent nature of merges, your team will be in better communication, meaning fewer duplications of effort and a better-shared understanding of the codebase.
Developers are more productive
With clean code and the knowledge that the portion they are working on is theirs alone, developers can free themselves up to focus on what really matters—building the best product possible for the client and end-user. After all, any time spent chasing bugs or untangling similar changes is time not spent building out new value for your users.
Deliver your product and updates on time
At the end of the day, app development is a business. Because of that, it’s important that milestones are met throughout the engagement. Otherwise, you will lose the trust of your client, and that’s one of the hardest things to gain back. By utilizing Continuous Integration and solving problems early, you’ll find that your team is able to deliver a well-built app on time.
CI at the Ranch
The ideal payoff of a properly implemented CI solution is a satisfied client. That means a well-built digital product delivered on time and an experience that’s sure to wow the users.
While it’s a process that can take time to get right, it’s one that is worth the effort. At the Ranch, we’ve incorporated CI into our digital product development process not just to maintain a tight process, but to also ensure that the goals of our clients are met throughout the project—even if those goals change.
If you have questions about how we manage CI in our projects or would like to chat about a potential project, don’t hesitate to reach out!