Eating dog food? It’s all in the preparation.

Monday, June 28th, 2010 by Jason Williamson

Altia provides HMI (human machine interface) engineering tools to companies in industries like automotive, medical, and white goods. When you’re providing interface software, it makes sense to use your own tools for “real” work, just as your customers would. Not only do you prove you know your own product, but you get an invaluable “user’s perspective” into the workings of your software. You get the opportunity to see where your tools shine and where they are lacking, allowing your team to plan for new features to make them better. Through our own “dog fooding” experiences, we have developed some valuable guidelines that we believe make the process go more smoothly.

First, it is important to only use released versions of the product. It is tempting to pull in the latest beta capabilities to a project, but this is a perilous course. There is a reason why that feature hasn’t been released. It hasn’t been through the full test cycle. You cannot risk the project schedule or quality of what is delivered. Producing quality on time is why you’ve been engaged in the first place. Another reason to stick with the released versions of your tools is that you should approach all of your consulting work with the idea that the customer will ultimately need to maintain the project. They need to know that the features and output used in the creation of the project are mature and trustworthy.

The next guideline addresses releases and your revision control system.  A revision control system is the repository where all of the versions of product source code are stored.  This often includes the “golden,” release versions of the product as well as in-development “sand boxes.”  We structure our revision control system such that release-worthy code for new features is kept in a nearly ready-to-release state as the next version of our product. That is, whole feature groups should be checked in together and tested to an extent such that only running the overall test suites are needed to create a product. That way, if a new feature absolutely must be used in a project, you have a lower barrier to an interim release.

Finally, it is very important to spend sufficient time architecting the project. When deadlines rapidly approach, it is tempting to take shortcuts to the end result. Since you know your software so well, you can be quite certain that these shortcuts will not be a detriment to the delivered product. However, this is almost always a shortsighted choice. When handing off the design to another person, especially a valued customer, a well-documented and rigorously-followed architecture is paramount. Your customers need to own and usually extend this design. There should be no “duct tape” in it. Who would want to receive that call to explain a kludge four years after the project has been delivered?

I encourage you to have a hearty helping of your own dog food. Not only do you serve up a result that will please your customer, but you learn by experience where you can make your software stronger and more capable. By developing with current releases, by keeping new features tested and ready to go, and by taking appropriate measures to architect the project, you make the eating of your own dog food a gourmet experience — and keep your customers coming back for seconds.

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