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Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Merits of a Distributed Workflow

Long-time Parrot contributor kid51 posted a nice comment on my previous post about Git and SVN. He had some issues with the proposed distributed workflow I suggested. As my reply started to grow far too long for the stupid little blogger comment edit box, I realized I should turn it into a full blog post.

I've been pretty conflicted myself over the idea of a release manager. On one hand releases are boring which means anybody can do them and they don't require a huge time commitment. On the other hand, there is hardly a lot of "management" that goes on in a release: The release manager has some authority to declare a feature freeze and has some ability to select which revision becomes the final release; but that's it. Sure release managers also try to motivate people to perform the regular tasks like updating the NEWS and PLATFORM files, but my experience is that the release manager ends up doing the majority of those tasks herself. I really feel like we need more direction and vision than this most months, and the release manager is a good person (though not the only possible person) to do it.

Our releases, especially supported releases, have had certain taglines stemming back to PDS in 2008. The 1.0 release was famously labeled "Stable API for developers" and the 2.0 release was labeled "ready for production use", when even a cursory review shows that these two releases hardly met their respective goals. A release manager with more authority to shape that release, and more authority to shape previous releases as well might have done more to change that. A development focus, be it for weekly development between #ps meetings or for a monthly release, only matters if somebody is focusing on it and motivating the rest of the community to focus as well. That person either needs to be the architect or some other single authority (though playing cheerleader and chief motivator constantly would be quite a drain on that person) or the release manager. The benefit to using the release manager to motivate the team and shape the release is--even though it's more of a time commitment for the release manager--that we share the burden and no one person gets burnt out month after month.

A tiered development system has a number of benefits. Bleeding edge development can occur unfettered (as it happens now in branches). From there we can pull features into integration branches where we assure all the assorted changes and new additions work well together. Development releases can be cherry-picked to represent the stable baseline features that we want people to play with and rely on, and long-term supported releases would represent only those features which are tested, documented, and worthy of being included under our deprecation policy. I don't think end-users of our supported releases should ever be exposed to features marked "experimental", for instance, or any feature at all that we don't want covered by our long-term deprecation policy. If any feature included in a supported release must be deprecated and cannot be removed or fundamentally altered for at least three more months, we should be particularly careful about including new things in a supported release, and there should be some level of gatekeeper who is able to say "this thing isn't ready for prime time yet". That person, I think, should be the release manager.

Compare our system for dealing with new experimental features (Goes into trunk, maybe with mention in #ps but with very little fanfare, and is then automatically included in the next release unless somebody removes it), to a system where features are added to a development branch, vetted, tested, documented, and then pulled into a release candidate branch only when it's known by the community to pass muster. I think that's a much better system and would lead us to releases with higher overall quality and stability.

All this sort of ignores your point, which is an extremely valid one, that switching to Git represents more than just a small change in the commands that a developer types in to the console. Yes, it's a small difference to say "git commit -a" instead of saying "svn commit". Yes, it's a small personal change for me to commit locally and then push. The far bigger issues are the community workflow and even the communtity culture changes that will occur because of Git. These things don't need to change, we could lock Git down and use it exactly the way we use SVN now, but I don't think any of the Git proponents in the debate want it that way.

I would much rather plan for the changes in work flow and even build enthusiasm for them primarily than sell the small changes in tooling and then be swept up in larger culture changes that nobody is prepared for. I think we should want these changes and embrace them, in which case Git is just the necessary vehicle, and not he end in itself.

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