As a woman programmer, I have noticed there is something of a gender imbalance in my profession. It’s an issue that’s interested me for a while, not least because people often ask me about what we can do to improve the situation. For myself, I enjoy writing code and I think it’s a great career. The sexism I’ve been aware of has not made a big impact on my life, although I know not everyone has been so fortunate. Susan Fowler’s blog really shocked me earlier this year. I have had some bad experiences, but not like that.

I recently read this article about the history of women in programming, by . She shows this graph comparing percentage women in different university studies in the US. It’s quite stark:

The percentage of women studying Computer Science suffers a trend reversal in the mid 80’s, while the other subjects don’t. The explanation given, is that it’s about then that home computers began to appear on the market, sold as a toy for boys. I lived through that time, and yes, my family bought a ZX Spectrum in the mid 80’s when I was about 10 years old, and yes, my younger brother learnt to program it and I didn’t. Fortunately I managed to learn to program later on anyway.

All this got me thinking about my current situation. I live in Sweden, and it’s a very different culture than the US. For example, I was reading about the concept of ‘male privilege‘. One of the examples given is that men have the privilege of keeping their name when they marry, while women are questioned if they keep theirs. The thing is, in Sweden, this is not true. Either partner may change their name and it’s not remarkable for them both to keep their original names, or both swap to something entirely different. That’s something of a trivial example, but I do think it is a sign of a wider cultural difference. Privilege is experienced in a social context, and Sweden has a much more feminist society in many ways. (See for example this page about gender equality in Sweden)

So I became curious to see whether the same thing happened in Sweden – did the proportion of women computer scientists also drop in the 80’s? I discovered that the Swedish statistical authority collects and publishes data on this kind of thing, and you can search it via a web gui. I started poking around on it and soon I was hooked. Loads of really interesting data lying around waiting to be analysed!

Here is the plot I came up with, that is showing somewhat equivalent data to the graph on the US that I showed earlier:

(If you want to check my data, I got it from statistikdatabasen.scb.se, from the table “Antal examina i högskoleutbildning på grundnivå och avancerad nivå efter universitet/högskola, examen, utbildningslängd, kön och ålder. Läsår 1977/78 – 2015/16”)

Although the proportion of women in engineering is pretty low compared to the other subjects, it’s encouraging to note that the proportion has increased more than the other subjects. It’s now at a similar level to where doctors, lawyers and architects were thirty-five years ago. (I was disappointed not to find any data for Natural Sciences. I’m not sure why that’s excluded from the source database). Anyway, I’m not seeing this trend change in the 80’s, the curve is fairly smoothly upwards. I suspect the subject breakdown isn’t detailed enough to pick out Computer Science from the wider Engineering discipline, and that could explain it.

So I’ve done some more digging into the data to try to find if there was a turning point in the mid 80’s for aspiring women programmers. I think something did happen in Sweden, actually. This is the graph that I think shows it:

(I’m using the data sources “Anställda 16-64 år i riket efter yrke (3-siffrig SSYK 96), utbildningsinriktning (SUN 2000), ålder och kön. År 2001 – 2013” and “Antal examina i högskoleutbildning på grundnivå och avancerad nivå efter universitet/högskola, examen, utbildningslängd, kön och ålder. Läsår 1977/78 – 2015/16”, the SSYK codes I used are shown in the title of the graph)

If you look at the blue curve for 2001, you can see it peaks at age 35-39 years – that is, there were a higher proportion of women programmers at that age than other ages. If you were 35-39 in 2001, you were probably doing your studies in the mid to late 80’s. Notice that the proportion of women at younger ages is lower. The green and yellow curves for 2005 and 2010 continue to show the same peak, just moved five years to the right. The proportion of women coming in at the younger agegroups remains lower. The orange curve for 2015 is a little more encouraging – at least the proportion of women in the youngest two age-groups has levelled off and is no longer sinking!

So it looks to me like there was a trend change in the mid to late 80’s in Sweden too – the proportion of women entering the profession seems to drop from then on, based on this secondary evidence. I imagine that computers were also marketed here as a boy’s toy. I really hope that things are changing today in Sweden, and that more women are studying computer science than before.

For reference, I did similar curves for several other professions, using the same dataset.

So there are a lot of women lawyers out there, and the proportion looks to be continuing to increase.

Male nurses seem to have things worse than female programmers, unfortunately. Plus I can’t see any real trend in this graph – the situation is bad and fairly stable.

The proportion of women police officers levelled off for a while but they’ve managed to turn things around, and it is now increasing again.

So programming is the only profession I discovered that has this decreasing trend of women participation, even if it has now levelled off. Let’s hope that changes to an upward trend soon – my daughters will by applying to university in about ten year’s time…

 

 

Note: this was originally posted on Praqma’s blog

The life of a consultant has drawn me back, but perhaps surprisingly, this time it’s not a return to my one-person firm. Rather than reinvigorating Bache Consulting, I’ve decided to join Praqma, the Continuous Delivery and DevOps Company. I was pretty happy at Pagero. I’ve successfully run my own business before. Some of my friends think I’m crazy to leave a good job with a great team working with exciting technologies. Others think I’m crazy to not want to be my own boss again.

So why Praqma?

Code that gets used

Writing code is really good fun. Writing code that people actually use is even more fun. That’s one of the reasons I like setting up Continuous Delivery pipelines for a development organization. Anything you change gets used almost straight away, and you get feedback from people around you all the time. It’s a fantastic feeling when you implement something that means the whole development team can move forward more quickly, confident in the quality of what they’re producing.

The kind of work I’m talking about is setting up build and delivery pipelines using a CI tool like Jenkins or Go.CD. It’s automating all the installation steps needed for a new machine in a staging environment. It’s moving all the code into a modern DVCS like Git, and setting up automated processes to help keep the master branch in a working state.

In my experience, this kind of work gives you the opportunity to raise the productivity of so many other people, it can have far more impact than if you stayed in your cube hacking on a product by yourself.

Amplify your effect

Another activity I really enjoy is facilitating and teaching. Preferably that kind of teaching that you do from the back of the room, where your job is to set up situations where learning is inevitable. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years facilitating Coding Dojo meetings, and more recently I’ve started doing more Mob Programming with teams. My aim is usually to get people to experience effective development practices like Test-Driven Development (TDD), and understand the difference it makes.

Again, the focus is on raising the productivity of other people, this time through coaching and training. Actually, I’m not directly raising anyone’s skill level. What I’m trying to do is to activate people’s innate motivation to want to get better at their job, and showing them a way to do that. It goes hand in hand with making the technical environment they’re working in conducive to good practice by having good automation infrastructure. TDD makes a lot more sense when you have a CI system to run the tests, and information radiators that show you when the build is broken.

Raise your game

So I’ve just joined Praqma, which is a consultancy focused on Continuous Delivery and DevOps. I now have a host of colleagues who are also really skilled with this kind of technical coaching role I just talked about, and know how much fun it can be. We’re really good with tools like Jenkins, Docker, Artifactory and Git, we set up Continuous Delivery pipelines, and we coach developers in how to use them. What we’re finding though, is that once we’ve got all that set up, the next step usually involves improving the automated testing in the pipeline. We need to be there coaching developers in TDD, and getting automated system tests set up.

That’s where I’m hoping my joining Praqma will help us all to raise our game. Starting with the consulting work Praqma already does, which of course lays the foundations with Continuous Delivery, we can start doing more coaching in test automation. I have long experience of that, teaching TDD in particular. I have much less experience of some of the other things that Praqma does though. What I’m hoping is that by working together with the other consultants at Praqma, and collectively sharing our toolboxes, we can all have more fun and achieve more for our clients. I don’t mind working alone at a client, I’ve done it before, but having colleagues is so much better. We’re going to have a blast!

Join us

Praqma is expanding throughout Scandinavia right now, with offices in places like Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm already. I’m starting the office in Göteborg. If the kind of technical coach role I’ve just described appeals to you, I’d be delighted to tell you more, do send a mail, emily.bache@praqma.com, or a tweet, I’m @emilybache.

We’re not only looking for senior people with lots of experience, by the way. If you have the right attitude and willingness to learn, that can take you a long way. We’re looking for people to join Praqma at all our offices, please send your resume and a covering letter to jobs@praqma.com. Of course I’d be particularly pleased if you wanted to join me in Göteborg.

I was in Finland recently, at the European Testing Conference. I both attended the conference and presented a workshop about “Approval testing with TextTest“. I won’t say any more about that, since Ben Linders did a brilliant write-up already that was published on InfoQ. There were several other highlights, and I wanted to just share a paragraph or so about each.

Mob Testing is what happens when your development team decides to work together on testing tasks as a Mob. I took part in a workshop where Maaret Pyhäjärvi facilitated two different mobbing exercises, one where we automated some UI tests using Selenium, and one where we practiced Test-Driven Development on the FizzBuzz kata. I have already done some Mob Programming and this felt very similar, except the focus was on developing tests rather than production code. It seems to have similar benefits – you have access to all the knowledge of everyone in the team, and you can learn things you didn’t even know to ask about. It makes pairing seem like a slow way to share good working practices.

JUnit 5 is on the horizon, and has several useful improvements over the previous version. Generally the syntax clutter is reduced, and the way you create parameterized tests has been overhauled. The most significant change though, (especially for people like me who work on developing other testing tools), seems to be that they’re designing the test-running engine to be separated so you can re-use it to run other kinds of tests. Any infrastructure that works with JUnit will then be able to run these other tests as well. In principle it opens up JUnit’s success as a platform, to be re-used by other test frameworks. Thanks Nicolai Parlog for this useful summary of the next generation of one of the most widely-used tools in the Java world.

Joel Hynoski has worked at many of the tech giants in our industry, including Google, Twitter, Apple, and now Lyft. He spoke about some of the engineering challenges they had overcome, specifically in the area of testing. One thing I liked was their tool that detects flaky tests, and puts them in ‘jail’. (A flaky test is one that sometimes passes and sometimes fails, when run against the same code. They are a pain and can be a huge waste of time.) When a test is in ‘jail’, that means it’s no longer run in the build pipeline, so it doesn’t block new releases. It instead gets flagged as needing maintenance. They then have a SLA that says how long a test is allowed to remain in jail before an engineer needs to look at it and fix the flakyness – a day or two I think.

I can feel a little in awe of someone who has worked in those kinds of famous engineering organizations, working at web-scale with some of the best developers in our industry. What I found most encouraging about talking to Joel, was that he was very down to earth about the problems these organizations face. They still battle with legacy code, despite it often only being a few years old. They have trouble creating reliable automated tests. The developers don’t always trust the test automation. They still have production bugs and hotfixes…

Alex Schladebeck spent the first ten minutes of her presentation giving a splendid rant about the bad reputation of UI testing. To summarize: (criticisms she hears about UI tests -> her responses)

UI tests give slow feedback -> and valuable feedback, doesn’t have to be after every build
need more infrastructure/machines -> yes, deal with it
they’re the top of the test pyramid -> they are in the pyramid! you can’t ignore them. They find different stuff than unit tests. Consider your context.
they’re flaky -> they’re not as bad as they used to be! Could be your app isn’t designed for testabilty? Could be your test design is poor?
they cause lots of work when small changes in your app -> that happens in development work too! Also, happens more if you design them badly.

She then went on to give some excellent advice about how to design your UI tests. It was mostly about layering your test code in different levels of abstraction, and getting a good collaboration going between developers and testing specialists.

Conferences are about meeting people and the organizers of this conference had very deliberately scheduled sessions to encourage this. We had a ‘speed dating’ session where you talk to about 8 random people for five minutes each. We had a ‘lean coffee’ session, where all the speakers were each asked to facilitate a discussion table. I thought this worked particularly well as a way to find people with similar interests, and get them to talk about their experiences. The hands-on workshops were all at the same time, so you had to go to one and not just attend talks all the time. There was also an open space scheduled when it would not clash with any other kinds of sessions. I thought all this together made for a pretty welcoming conference where you were bound to get to know new people.

Overall I had a really good time at this conference and I’d recommend it to both testers and developers with a strong quality focus.

Note: This post first appeared on Pagero’s blog

One of the questions that Kent Beck asked when he was developing the eXtreme Programming development methodology, was what happens if we turn the dials up all the way to 10? Take a practice we know is good, and do more of it? Practices like Test-Driven Development and Pair Programming are what he came up with, starting from manual testing and code review.

In the same way, Continuous Delivery is what you get if you turn the dials to 10 on your annual release cycle. You get to the point that you are pushing out new code to users, many times a day.

“Shortening the release cycle like this has a lot of advantages, especially around risk and quality.”

LOWER RISK AND HIGHER QUALITY WITH SHORTER RELEASE CYCLES

Shortening the release cycle like this has a lot of advantages, especially around risk and quality. Basically, you’re decreasing the batch size, a well-known tenet of lean manufacturing. If each new release contains fewer changes, then you have fewer places to look when things go wrong, so finding bugs is easier. You also lower the risk that any individual batch has a defect in the first place. By having an engineering setup that allows you to make code changes at the drop of a hat and push them out to production easily, you facilitate getting fixes out quickly.

So the upshot is quality problems surface sporadically instead of all at once, and are more easily dealt with. It’s an attractive prospect for us, especially with the growth in traffic we’re experiencing. Every time we have a defect in production, it affects a proportion of our customers, and the number of customers is increasing all the time. If we had a small bug a year ago that affected one or two customers, today the same bug might affect tens or even hundreds.

FROM MONOLITH TO MICROSERVICES FOR GREATER FLEXIBILITY

At Pagero, historically we’ve been pushing out a new version of our product “Pagero Online”, about once a month. We’ve been able to sustain that since about 2007. So when we began looking at Continuous Delivery, about three years ago, we were starting from a fairly good position. We’ve experienced steady growth in transactions through our cloud platform since the start, and it was in early 2014 we started switching over our architecture from a clustered monolithic JEE instance, to distributed microservices (see my previous article).

We needed to do this, in order to scale out our system horizontally, and handle the increasing traffic. One of the other benefits of microservices though, is you can deploy services independently of one another, and if you do it right, you can deploy new code without stopping traffic to the site.

“One of the other benefits of microservices, is you can deploy services independently of one another.”

FROM MONTHLY SERVICE WINDOWS ON SUNDAYS…

Our old monthly release cycle was based on having a ‘service window’, usually on a Sunday morning, where we could stop all the traffic, take a backup of the database, roll out the new version of the monolith, then bring everything back up again. You’ve got the database backup to fall back on, if something goes wrong with the update. You can easily roll everything back to the state it had before the service window.

…TO SEVERAL ROLLOUTS A WEEK

So of course, initially the microservices we had were fairly peripheral to the main function of our platform, and it wasn’t a huge risk to roll out new code without the safety of a service window. So we built deployment tools that allowed us to do that. All our microservices run with at least two instances, so an update consisted of taking each instance down in turn, replacing it with the new version. If something goes wrong, it’s not hard to roll back to a previous version. It’s a little more problematic to restore previous state, but generally we have good mechanisms to re-submit failed transactions once the service is working again.

So these days we roll out new versions of our microservices several times a week, when new features are ready, and rarely have any difficulties with this. The need to roll back does occur occasionally, but more often we can ‘roll-forward’ and deploy a newer version with a fix.

“These days we roll out new versions of our microservices several times a week, when new features are ready.”

MANY REASONS TO CONTINUE ON THIS PATH

With our former monolith, the situation is a little different though. Any changes that touch the database are deemed too risky to deploy without first taking a backup, and that currently requires a service window. We’ve got so used to frequently pushing out new versions of the microservices, and seen the benefits of that, that we’d like to do the same with the former monolith.

We also have good business reasons for wanting to release without having a service window – for a start our traffic is growing at such a rate, we can ill afford any downtime. Perhaps more importantly, as we get customers in more parts of the world, a Sunday morning is no longer a ‘quiet’ time of the week when it’s relatively ok to suspend our service. In some Arab countries where we do business, Sunday is the first day of the working week.

THE SHIFT TO CONTINUOUS DELIVERY HAS STARTED

Now we’ve gained some experience with Continuous Delivery of our microservices, it’s time to do the same with the whole Pagero Online platform, including our old monolith. So I look forward to being able to soon report that we’ve got the dials going all the way up to 10 and we are deploying any part of our system at any time.

 

Please note: this article was originally published on Pagero’s site.

At Pagero we are very proud of the technical architecture of our flagship product, Pagero Online. We’re successfully handling more document transactions than ever, as we see an ever increasing demand for e-document services. In this article I’d like to tell you a little about the journey we’ve taken, from humble beginnings almost ten years ago, to the present day and beyond. I’ll be talking a little about the technology stack we’ve chosen, including the business and technical reasoning behind our choices. If you’ve ever worked on a high availability, cloud based platform handling millions of events, or aspire to do so, you could be interested in our story.

This spring I was at the Craft conference in Budapest, which I thoroughly recommend by the way. There was a full program, with lot of great sessions, and interesting speakers. I did notice, browsing the program beforehand, that there were a lot of talks about Microservices, and Docker. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the best deployment options, how to manage distributed data, building, testing, logging… This is clearly the hip and trendy way to build systems these days. I found this quite gratifying, since at Pagero we’ve been using a Microservices architecture for some time now, and have been using Docker in production since early 2014. It’s become our everyday life, not some hyped trend that we just heard about. Our reasons for going with Docker and Microservices are firmly rooted in the needs of our business.

Let me explain. Pagero Online is a cloud-based platform for exchange of electronic documents between businesses, for example invoices and orders. The point is, our customers can send their documents to us in whatever format their internal system produces, and we will deliver it in the format the recipient finds easiest to process in their internal systems. It’s clearly a valuable service, since we have an impressive year on year growth in document transactions.

The growth illustrates the challenge we’ve been meeting successfully for several years now – to scale our cloud system to handle ever increasing traffic. It’s of course a great problem to have, and we in the R&D department have worked hard to keep everything running smoothly throughout. The architecture we had when we started, is not the architecture we have now.

IN THE BEGINNING

Back in 2007, Enterprise Java Beans were the thing to do, and we felt confident we were building a future-proof, scalable system, using a JBoss container talking to a PostgreSQL database. Moore’s law meant that we could initially scale just by buying a bigger machine now and then. As time went by, we needed more, and started using the clustering capabilities built into the J2EE platform – i.e. several instances of the same code, receiving requests via a load balancer. At some point in about 2012 we realized this approach could no longer handle the increase in traffic that we were experiencing. We could no longer just add new instances of the same code, the slowdown from the communication overhead between them would be greater than the speedup from the increased CPU power. We needed to give more CPU power to just a few parts of the code that were doing the most intensive processing, without also hitting the communication bottlenecks.

ENTER MICROSERVICES AND DOCKER

Everything was pointing to a need to break apart our monolith into more manageable pieces. Microservices and Docker seemed the perfect match to our problems, so we spent the next year or so building the infrastructure needed. In February 2014 we deployed our monolith, packaged in a Docker container, together with some essential services for monitoring, service discovery, and message passing, (with protobuf over Rabbit MQ). Over the following months, the whole of our R&D department completed a course in the Scala programming language, and we built and deployed several more services for new features in the system. It worked! Since 2014 we have been able to quickly grow to about twenty services a year later, and sixty today.

We’ve realized the Microservices architecture enabled organizational streamlining too. Over the years our development team has grown from a handful of developers in the same room, to about 30 people split across three time zones. By breaking up the codebase, we can also divide up the development work more efficiently. We now have half a dozen ‘devops’ teams each responsible for a handful of Microservices. Both new and seasoned developers are more productive when working in these smaller codebases.

SCALING THE DATABASE

It was in around mid-2015, however, we started to see where the bottleneck had moved to, now the application code was performing better. Our trusty PostgreSQL database was handling a good many more gigabytes of data than ever before, and some transactions were getting a little slow. We concocted a plan to split it up too, just like we were doing with the monolith of code. We settled upon Cassandra and worked out how we were going to safely migrate all the document data out of Postgres, and into this distributed data store. The rest of the data will remain where it is, but just taking out the documents should free up a good deal of space, and release the main bottleneck. We of course need to do this without disrupting our service in any way, so one way to reduce the risk is to run the new Cassandra database in parallel with the existing Postgres, duplicating all the data. Only once we’ve done extensive testing, and we can see it’s working ok, will we remove the redundant copy

That’s kind of where we are now, we have just started this parallel running, and initial results are looking good.

THE BIG BREAK-UP

The next challenge is to continue to break apart our monolith of code, and create new services out of the pieces. Although all our new features are being built in Microservices, we still have the heart of the system in the former monolith. We’ve seen so many benefits to having Microservices, we’d like all our code to look like that. In some ways it’s a more daunting prospect than breaking up the database. This is a large quantity of tried and tested code that has been running in production for many years – breaking it up is not something you can do over a weekend!

We have to make this big change without any interruption to our production service, and we’ve thought carefully about what our strategy should be. One way to do a big risky change is to split it into a series of less-risky, smaller changes. The idea is that after every step in the break up, to run a battery of automated regression tests. The shorter the time the tests take to run, the smaller increments we can work with, and less risk of breaking anything. I’m personally pretty excited by this prospect. We’ve spent several years now building and improving our automated tests for Pagero Online, to the point where we feel pretty confident in taking on this challenge.

The other part of the strategy is to do the same as we have with the database migration. We’ll run both the old and new versions of the service in production for a while before we cut over to the new one. This should find any issues missed by the automated tests, without affecting any of our production traffic.

It’s going to be a real proof of how good our testing and deployment routines are. What kind of tests and deployment tools we’ve built, now that’s a topic for another blog post. If I’m lucky, I might even be telling you about the hip and trendy hot technologies that will be all over the agenda of the next Craft conference :-).