When in doubt, do a Spike

Series: practices November 03, 2013

I’ve been kicking off a new project at work in the past week. We are in the so-called “Iteration 0” phase. Getting dev environments and build servers setup and all that.

Something about having an empty codebase makes me anxious. Since there are almost infinite ways to start, there is actually no way to start. Paradox of choice and whatnot.

This particular project is an Android app — something that I have some experience developing for, but nothing recent. One of my big goals for the first week was to get reacquainted with the framework and figure out how to structure the app at a high level.

A technique I lean on in these situations is the Spike.

Driving a nail through a log…err application

A spike is a quick prototype that covers the major functionality and hits all the layers. Think “end-to-end for a single slice of the app”.

In my case, our app interacts heavily with a JSON web API. My goal with this spike is to make sure I can make API calls, parse the responses into Java objects, and render that data as a custom view onto the screen.

The app will probably have close to 30 of these API-backed screens. I don’t need to build out every one in this spike, but I should make sure I can at least do one screen.

Code written for a spike is intentionally disposable. The purpose is to try to uncover early problems (and resolve them) and gain knowledge of new APIs or framework components. It is not production code so be very wary of straight copy-pasting the spike into your project.

Given the disposable nature, I don’t usually test drive the code in a spike. I don’t usually even write tests at all — unless I am doing a spike with the intention of getting familiar with a new testing library. I don’t worry about optimization or good naming practices or fret about putting class in the right packages.

Clearing the fog

I get a big sense of accomplishment (and relief!) when I finish a spike. In my case, I figured out a bunch of unknowns in the past few days. Stuff like:

But with this success also comes temptation. I just hacked out this code, resolving problems as I came across them. While the code works fine and isn’t awful, it is not up to the production standards that I want.

I think it is especially important to be diligent with code quality at the start of a project. The first Activity (or Controller or unit test or whatever) has to be a shining example because it is what everyone will look to for reference.

Even though I wrote 800 lines of code over the past few days, I will likely keep only one 30-line class and throw the rest away (metaphorically speaking; I always keep the spike around for later reference). The rest of the code will be redone as needed, with proper test coverage and design.

Isn’t that a waste of time though? Absolutely not.

On Monday, I didn’t have a clear direction for how to start building this piece of software.

Now I have vision and a plan. Next week — it’ll be time to do work.

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