I think ‘Ruthless’ presents the right intent when automating repetitive tasks – it’s more than just aggressive or compulsive. My previous post talked about deployment repeatability primarily, but our goal is to improve the consistency of all processes that are repeated in the process of creating and maintaining system.
A sequence of actions performed manually multiple times is a surefire recipe for disaster. My tip:
- perform a task manually once – you’ll usually be exploring ‘how’ to do the task.
- perform the task a second time – write down in a text file the steps you took. If working at a command line (why aren’t you?) then go back through shell history and capture the exact commands and parameters in the text file. Check the text file into source control if you like.
- IF you perform the task a third time, then stop and use the text file to write a small script, and check it into source control. Delete the text file.
I recommend against upfront automation – always do something manually a couple of times, so you understand the failure points and consequences. Attempts at upfront automation seem always to lead to frustration.
Mark taught me an important technique – start by building a script that asks for input e.g. release numbers, branch names. Have the script default to an ‘interactive mode’ by confirming each step that it’s going to perform with a prompt “[execute]/skip/quit”. ‘skip’ is important – it allows me to skip steps which is really useful during development where you need to make quick changes and recover the process from a known point.
Encourage the team to use the script in this interactive mode, and fix anything that goes wrong. Eventually you can switch the default to the fully automated mode, but leave the interactive mode in place so that the script can be debugged.
This approach is great because it allows you to incrementally introduce automation, and to carefully watch the steps involved and introduce checks and verifications for anything that goes wrong.
A couple of times I’ve observed a team that has captured the steps to perform something in a wiki page – for example creating a new release support branch in source control, including updating a file signifying the major and minor version to be built. The wiki page will contain detailed steps, and include the lines to be copy/pasted into the terminal, with “<insert release number here>” annotations.
This just kills me – and I’ve seen these wiki pages over a page long. Put those commands in a script and check it into your source control!
It shouldn’t have to be said – check the automation scripts you write into source control. Share the love – make sure all of your team members use the same process to perform routine tasks, and that they can contribute fixes and improvements.
Pick a language that is good for this type of automation – usually an interpreted scripting language of some sort. Use something that might appeal to your operations group – you want them to share ownership of at least some of the automation, and be able to debug and submit patches. I personally encourage the use of Ruby as it has great library support (e.g. highline for interactive mode) and has some great specific build/deploy scripting tools like rake and capistrano.