Quality Metrics 101: Process Quality

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Process quality metrics make sure that software development practices build good, high-quality features. Healthy software processes identify and resolve issues as early as possible because later bug discovery means higher cost to fix. Quality starts at inception, when features are first brainstormed, and it carries through design, implementation, and testing. Every step in the development process should have quality checkpoints: acceptance criteria for planning, reviews for design and implementation, and reports for testing. Process quality metrics primarily focus on delivery speed or the effectiveness of feedback loops to make sure a team is responding appropriately to change.

Note: Standard software development methodologies often come with canned metrics. For example, Agile Scrum focuses heavily on velocity for determining a team’s capacity for work, while Agile Kanban focuses heavily on lead time and cycle time for measuring how fast work gets done. This article will not cover methodology-specific metrics – please refer to external resources to learn more about them. Instead, this article will cover generic aspects of process quality.

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Delivery Speed

Quality Aspect How fast are new features with high quality delivered to the end user?
Desired State ASAP – Deliver them fast without compromising quality.
Metrics People are impatient – they always want things as soon as possible. Fast delivery speed is thus crucial for businesses to meet client expectations and respond quickly to change. However, delivery speed is not the sole metric for success: it must be counterbalanced with safety measures. Delivery speed could be absolutely minimized by committing changes directly to production, but that’s a terrible practice because the damage risk is too high. The best strategy is to pursue the fastest speed without sacrificing too much coverage.

Time to Production – Time to production focuses on the time it takes for a developer’s checked-in code to become useful to end users. It’s a decent way to judge from a business perspective how quickly new stuff gets out the door. Measure the total time for each code check-in from when it is first committed to when it is deployed to production. Source control logs and deployment histories can be pieced together to measure the total time. It may be beneficial to split check-ins by feature area and to review distributions rather than averages. Short, consistent times are desirable. Long times reveal delays in testing, fixing, and deploying changes.

Pipeline Speed – Pipeline speed is a DevOps-y metric. Measure the total start-to-end time from triggering the build pipeline to the final deployment, and measure the time taken by each stage. This will give insights into bottlenecks, such as: system resource exhaustion, network delays, being stuck in job queues, tests that are too long, etc. Knowing each stage will indicate where the greatest optimizations can occur. For example, parallel test execution can significantly reduce total pipeline time. Use pipeline speed metrics to find efficiencies, not to justify cutting vital stages. Most modern continuous integration systems should provide time metrics.

Test Coverage per Time Period – There is always a tradeoff between test coverage and delivery speed. Assuming tests have optimally efficient execution times, higher coverage means slower delivery. Whenever time periods are fixed (such as CI pipeline limits or release deadlines), the best strategy is to maximize test coverage during the available time. For this purpose, coverage should be heuristically scored in terms of feature coverage priority (or the importance of the behaviors under test), not so much in terms of numerical code coverage. Then, for each test, divide the coverage score by the execution time. Sort tests by this ratio, and select the tests with the greatest scores until the total test execution time reaches the time limit. This approach guarantees that maximal test coverage will be achieved in the given period. It may also be advantageous to determine a threshold score for minimal coverage – if the maximum score for a given time period is below the minimal coverage threshold, then the time period should be increased. This metric is compelling if, for example, a CI pipeline needs more time for tests but managers are hesitant to slow down delivery.

Note: The metrics here cover speed after code is checked in, focusing on operational excellence. Metrics covering speed before code is checked in are important but are typically already covered by standard processes (like Scrum’s velocity). There are several ways to measure speed before code check-in: development time, backlog age, story completion rate, etc. Slow times before check-in indicate that a team is overloaded with work, lacks focus on priorities, or is being disrupted too frequently. However, one major caution for these metrics is that they are difficult to accurately measure, and they presume artifacts are logged precisely at event times. For example, if a story ticket is not created until a week after a new feature was first inspired, then the actual times measured will be inaccurate.

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Feedback Notification

Quality Aspect How quickly does a team identify problems?
Desired State Fast – Fast feedback helps teams resolve issues quickly before they become more costly.
Metrics Software development is the poster child for Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will. Problems will happen. Metrics targeting perfection (such as 100% pass rates or 0-bug counts) are foolishly impossible and hopelessly destructive. Instead, metrics should gauge feedback loops – how well a team handles problems as they arise. Feedback has two parts: (1) notification time to discover and report problems, and (2) response time to fix problems. Ultimately, the sum should be minimal, but separating the parts identifies bottlenecks. This section covers notification.

Code Review Effectiveness – Code reviews are often the second line of defense against bugs (the first line being the author themselves). They grant an opportunity for other experts to inspect code for problems before fully committing changes. However, measuring the effectiveness of code reviews can be tricky. A few metrics to consider are:

  • Percentage of code check-ins that undergo review, if the team notoriously skips reviews
  • Average review turnaround time, if reviews are ignored
  • Code change size in terms of line number or another similar unit, if reviews are too large for teams to handle effectively
  • Issues caught, whenever a review successfully identifies and resolves an issue

Issue Discovery Time – The sooner issues are discovered, the less costly they are to resolve. “Issues” typically mean defects in the product (e.g., “bugs”), but they could include problems with the environment, deployment, or tests. The simplest form of issue discovery time is the measurement from when a pipeline starts to the time the issue is discovered. More advanced measurements can track time back to the root cause, such as when code containing a bug was committed, but these may be difficult to gather or may be less accurate. Issue types should be analyzed as separate distributions. Look specifically for blocking issues that appear late in the pipeline, such as critical services being down, and add checks early in the pipeline to discover them ASAP.

Bugs per Phase – Raw bug counts, like test counts, are not helpful beyond soundbites, but the proportions of bug counts per phase are useful for determining test effectiveness. A well-engineered pipeline should have meaningful phases (or “stages” or “steps”) with feedback after each one. A typical pipeline could have phases for build, unit tests, integration tests, end-to-end tests, and production deployment. Ideally, bugs should be caught in the shortest time, at the lowest level, and in the earliest phase. For example, if the majority of bugs are caught by end-to-end tests or (gasp!) in production, then the lower-level tests might need stronger coverage.

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Feedback Response

Quality Aspect How quickly does a team resolve problems once they are found?
Desired State Fast – Again, resolve issues quickly before they become more costly.
Metrics Time to Fix a Broken Build – Build health is vital for successful software development, especially in continuous integration. After a build is broken, it must be fixed ASAP so that it does not block progress. “Fixing” a build means that the pipeline can run to completion with an acceptable test passing rate. Fixing a build may mean:

  • Fixing a bug in the product
  • Fixing a problem in the environment, deployment, or tests
  • Reverting a code check-in that caused a bug
  • Updating tests to somehow flag the failure

Subverting safety checks (like removing tests or skipping phases) is not acceptable because it doesn’t truly fix the build’s underlying problems.

Measure the time it takes from when a pipeline reports a broken build to when the pipeline produces the first subsequent working build. The distribution of these times will reveal the team’s dedication to build stability. Clearly, shorter times are better. When broken builds are caused by code changes, the author should favor reverting check-ins over attempting fixes for faster recovery speed.

Time to Resolve Bugs – While the time to fix a broken build focuses on immediate product stability, the time to resolve bugs focuses instead on ultimate correctness. Just because a build is fixed does not mean a bug is necessarily fixed – tests may mark it as an acceptable failure, or the code containing the bug may simply be reverted. The time to resolve a bug is the total time from when the bug was first discovered to when it is fixed or otherwise closed (such as being marked as invalid or won’t fix). Bug tracker tools should easily provide this data. Bugs should be separated by severity when analyzing resolution times. Bugs should be resolved quickly, with priority given to higher-severity bugs. Resolution time metrics indicate if bugs are addressed adequately and in the proper order. Long resolution times may indicate overloaded teams, tolerance of low quality, or the need for redesign/refactoring.

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