A JISC-funded Managing Research Data project

Posts tagged tools

Today I’ve been kicking around the ICT office with Alex, figuring out how to make Jenkins (our wonderful CI server) build and publish the latest version of the CWD with all the bells and whistles like compilation of CSS using LESS, minification, validation of code and so-on. As part of this we managed to fix a couple of bits and pieces which had been bugging me for a while, namely the fact that GitHub commit notifications weren’t working properly (fixed by changing the repository URI in the configuration) and the fact that Campfire integration wasn’t working (fixed by hitting it repeatedly with a hammer).

This brought me to thinking about how our various things tie in together, so I set about charting a few of them up. After a while I realised the chart had basically expanded into a complete flowchart of the various tools and processes that hang together to keep the code flowing in a steady stream from my brain – via my fingers – into an actual deployment on the development server. Since it may be of interest to some of you, here’s a pretty picture:

This is (approximately) the toolchain I currently use for Orbital, including rough details of what is being passed around

The beauty of this is that the vast majority of the lines happen completely by themselves — I get to spend my days living in the small bubble of my local development server and dipping in and out of Pivotal Tracker to update stories. The rest is magically happening as I work, and the constant feedback through all our monitoring and planning systems (take a look at SplendidBacon for an epic high-level overview) means that the rest of the project team and any project clients can see what’s going on at any time.

As part of Orbital’s development we need to keep what we’re doing on track, and ensure that what is produced is actually what people are after. We’re building the project using agile development methods, which mean that instead of generating a load of documentation and exacting requirements up front and then building software, we generate a basic set of requirements, start developing and then return to look at new or changed requirements at regular intervals.

Keeping tabs on this kind of thing requires a management tool, and in our case we’re using the wonderful Pivotal Tracker, and here’s why.

Pivotal allows us to break down user requirements (gathered through a variety of means, including meetings, surveys, observation and so-on) into discreet bundles called ‘stories’, each of which represents something that a user needs (or wants) to be able to do with the final product. An example may be “project administrators must be able to assign roles to project users”, or “users must be able to manually add a data point”. By creating these stories it starts to become clearer what actually needs to be done.

From there we can start to fully analyse each of these stories, providing them with information such as a ‘score’ of how difficult to achieve each story will be, or including sub-tasks for actual development purposes. Stories can be assigned to various people based on who needs to be involved, and go through a clearly defined workflow of being started, being finished, being delivered in a product version and being approved by the customer.

On top of this management of user stories we can also pack out Pivotal with higher-level package deliverables and deadlines, along with bug reporting and general project chores. Once we’ve got all these things into the Tracker we’re able to re-order them as priorities shift, giving us an instant overview of what’s happening in the current iteration (a 2-week long development cycle) as well as what’s going to be happening in future iterations. At this point, Pivotal Tracker comes into its own with something called ‘emergent planning’.

Emergent planning takes a look at how we’re actually performing in terms of crunching through our list of user stories and dynamically adjusts which stories we’re going to be tackling in upcoming iterations. If we’re doing well we begin to see more points worth of development per iteration, and if we’re slipping then Tracker gives us fewer. Since we’ve told Pivotal what needs to happen before certain deadlines are met (when we ordered stories and tasks), and since Pivotal knows roughly how fast we’re working, it’s easy to see if we’re predicted to hit or miss development milestones.

Want to see what we’re up to? Our Pivotal Tracker project is open for you all to see.

This week sees the formal two-day launch event for the JISC Managing Research Data programme 2011–2013 (the programme which is funding Orbital). It’s being held in the National College for School Leadership, next to the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus.

Unfortunately, after schlepping it from the furthest fringes of Lincolnshire (and then having to go back home for the evening), I was only able to attend a couple of hours of day 1. But it was worth it.

I arrived just in time for a workshop about a number of research data management tools developed/provided by the Digital Curation Centre (DCC). Dr Mansur Darlington, who’s acting as external assessor/consultant to the Orbital project, was also in this workshop and contributed greatly to the discussions. (My Orbital colleagues Joss Winn and Nick Jackson attended the [parallel] workshop on various JANET, Eduserv and UMF SaaS/cloud storage services.)

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