Five Ways to Boost Innovation Across the Software Development Lifecycle

Written by: Nick Rendall
7 min read
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Software development nowadays is an incredibly competitive endeavor. If they are to survive and thrive in this scenario, tech organizations need to be continuously evolving and innovating. Introducing improvements into the SDLC—software development life cycle—is one of the most impactful ways in which software organizations can innovate since that allows them to ship high-quality code in a fast and stable manner.

In this post, you’ll learn five ways in which your organization can boost innovation across its SDLC. You might already know some of the tactics we’ll cover, while others might be entirely new. What matters is that these five tactics, when deployed together, can significantly revolutionize the way your team develops and ships software.

Employing Feature Flags as Part of Continuous Integration

Feature flags (also called feature toggles and feature switches, among many different names) are powerful mechanisms that allow engineers to turn features in their apps on and off—and here comes the really key part—without having to change and redeploy the code.

Continuous integration (CI), as defined by Martin Fowler in his famous article, is a software development practice in which each engineer integrates their work into the shared mainline at least once a day. The benefits of CI are numerous. But the gist of it is that by integrating more frequently, the team shortens the feedback loop, catching bugs earlier and reducing the likelihood of merge or logical conflicts.

CI presents a conundrum for engineers, though. How are they supposed to integrate when they have partially completed features or code that still isn’t working properly? Feature flags come in handy here. If an engineer needs to merge their code containing incomplete work, they can hide that code behind a feature flag, keeping it off by default, and merge the code normally.

That also helps engineers deal with interruptions. Interruptions happen often in a development team; it’s a fact of life. Higher-priority issues often appear, as do critical bugs. The ability to keep incomplete code or code that doesn’t work properly off by default helps developers to switch context in a more efficient way while not threatening the quality of the codebase.

Employing Feature Flags as Part of Continuous Delivery

Continuous delivery (CD) is the other half of the famous CI/CD duo. It consists of automating the delivery of the changes to the end user. By automating the whole pipeline, from the engineer’s first commit until the new code reaches the user, you end up with a process that’s reproducible, scalable, and not prone to human error. In short, the usage of CD results in more frequent and safer deployments. This is already good, but it can be great with the help of feature flags.

Feature flags can be used to greatly reduce the risk of deployment by enabling you to roll out features in a partial way. Progressive delivery is a continuation and natural evolution of the concepts of continuous integration (CI) and continuous delivery (CD). In progressive delivery, developers roll out features incrementally, first to a small, low-risk audience (such as internal QA teams) and eventually to real users in a controlled, measured manner. It’s a repeatable, automated way to test and learn in production using real behavior and feedback from users. Like canarying, A/B testing or blue-green deployment, the end goal is to ensure that higher-quality code reaches users fast.

To sum it up, since feature flags make it easy to hide portions of the application, their usage lowers the stakes of deploying code. Using feature flags allows you to decouple deployment from releases. You can deploy code anytime you feel like it—for instance, daily, or even several times a day—but decide to do a proper release only when it makes sense.

Creating Audit-Friendly Pipelines

You know the feeling. Every once in a while, you get that dreaded email. That’s right, time for an audit!

If your organization struggles when it needs to be audited, know that you’re not alone. Most of the time that happens because the necessary information is spread out across a large number of services and tools. The dev team lead—or whoever’s responsible for gathering that information—has to then painstakingly extract everything they need from myriad sources and bring it all together in a cohesive format. To avoid such problems, organizations need to be audit-ready at all times. That not only reduces risk but also makes the whole audit process way less stressful.

How can organizations implement CI/CD pipelines that are more audit-friendly? For starters, the entire toolchain needs to be integrated to avoid the waste of time and resources involved in gathering information from disparate sources. Another essential step is automating every phase in the SDLC. That ensures the window for human error is minimal and best practices are enforced in the pipeline through the use of automated gates.

Monitoring Developer Productivity

Gathering metrics about engineer productivity is often hard. And that’s due, again, to information being spread out across many different tools and systems. Add to that problem the fact that there are many possible engineering metrics you could be tracking, but not all of them are equally valuable. What are the metrics you should care about in order to improve your SDLC?

First of all, measure where the most development time is being spent. Engineers typically add value to a project by contributing new functionality to it. But they also need to split their time between other concerns, such as fixing bugs, repairing broken builds, working on security issues, and more. If they are spending a disproportionate amount of time on the second group of activities, that should immediately raise a red flag.

Also, it’s a bad sign if developers are spending too much of their time on unplanned work,. It could indicate they’re suffering from blockers and distractions that keep them from focusing on the work that matters the most. Alternatively, this could be a sign of miscommunication or poor planning: the team could be misestimating their capacity for each sprint, or poor prioritization could be causing urgent issues to be thrown at developers mid-sprint.

Finally, the speed, reliability, and efficiency of the whole development process must be tracked and improved. By tracking valuable metrics such as cycle time, you can diagnose areas in the software development process that have inefficiencies that cause the team’s velocity to go down.

Using Value Stream Management

Last, but certainly not least, we have value stream management (VSM). To understand what that’s about, we must first define value streams.

A value stream is a sequence of steps that occurs in an organization and contributes to delivering value to its customers in a continuous way.

Value stream management is the process of tracking and managing an organization’s value streams so you can follow the flow of value from when the idea appears until the functionality reaches the customers’ hands. What are the benefits of tracking value streams?

VSM can help you break down silos inside the organization. That results in better visibility, more efficient communication, and collaboration between different actors, teams, and departments. A great VSM platform can connect different teams, services, and tools, creating an effective single source of truth where metrics about all value streams can be monitored and improved.

With the help of a sound VSM strategy and tool, an organization can diagnose and solve bottlenecks in its SDLC, backed up by real-time performance metrics that indicate the real health status of the organization’s development process.

Conclusion

The tech industry is fiercely competitive. Because of that, organizations are constantly looking for ways in which to improve and get the upper hand.

Software development organizations would be hard-pressed to find a better way in which to stand out than improving their SDLC processes. After all, it’s through the SDLC that they’re able to not only generate value for their customers but also ensure that said value reaches those customers’ hands, in the form of high-quality software applications.

In today’s post, we’ve covered five techniques software organizations can start using today in order to make their development process more efficient and innovative. Alone, each of them is already valuable. Together, they can really revolutionize the way you develop and ship software.

For more information on how to make your software delivery process better, faster and more secure, check out Enterprises Need These Five Capabilities for Modern Software Delivery.

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