Things I think about when starting a new project that, surprisingly, many people appear not to.

I switched projects at work and now I’m going through the struggle of trying to figure out how to build other people’s projects. It’s always a struggle, of course: a lack of familiarity always makes things harder than they should.

But there are some common things that I realized that don’t seem to be as universal as they should be.

So here are some things I think about when I start work on a brand new project, that I wish other people would also prioritize.

How will you debug the project?

Seems weird to put this at the top of the list. But there are quite a few web applications being built where, in the list of things people worry about, “debugability” isn’t even in the top 5. Oh, sure; they think about configurability (how will I configure the tool dynamically?), and logging (how will I get information about problems off a server that is locked down from me?), and management (how will I remotely manage something that has elements of it locked down from me?). But for whatever reason, the simple ability to reach up in the toolbar, and press the ‘debug’ button and have their product (in one automated process) build, locally deploy, launch, and stop on a locally set breakpoint doesn’t even appear in the top 10 of things people seem to worry about.

All too often debugging a web application seems to be “oh, sure; just kick off Maven with some magic combination of things, then copy this file there, and run that script–oh, and connect your debugger to the running process.” Some of those steps, of course, are more lore than they are documented processes. And it’s a terrible substitute for just checking out the project, and hitting the “debug” button.

I’m a huge fan of spending a few days and figuring out which integrated tools you need to allow for one-button debugging within Eclipse, my personal favorite IDE. Remote debugging should only be used as a last resort, in order to attach to a running remote process, in order to diagnose a problem with a deployed application. But ideally all debugging should be done by just hitting the little bug icon.

In fact, I’d suggest this is the first thing that should be done when setting up a project, before figuring out how you’re going to deploy the project, before figuring out how you’re going to package the project, or before you figure out which libraries you intend to use. And this should be the first thing on the top of your mind as you incorporate new technologies.

Because, in my opinion, if you check out a project onto a brand new computer, and it doesn’t just get sucked into the IDE, ready to be debugged in one step by pressing the debug button, your build is broken.

How will you bring new team members up to speed or replace them?

In part this is a technical question, and it has to do with documenting your processes. How does a new team member check out the sources from the source repository? Which tools does he need to install in his IDE in order to run your project? Where can he get the latest documentation?

If you’ve made sure that, once the IDE is installed, checking out the source from the source repository simply “works” (see the step above), then you’ve saved yourself a lot of documentation time.

But any document is also a product that must be debugged and maintained. So who will maintain that document? Who will debug the document (run through the steps to make sure they’re clear and correct)?

And if you’re in a shop which supports multiple IDEs, then you have an extra step you must perform: first, figure out how you will allow multiple IDEs to co-exist and operate on the same source base. And second, maintain the projects across different IDEs. Now that could be as simple as having a culture of constant communications when new files are incorporated into a project. But it does mean the project files will need to be maintained as well as the sources–and it does mean the documentation will also need to be maintained as the project evolves.

How will you distribute the resulting product?

For whatever reason, in the three web shops I’ve worked for, web distribution was always treated a bit cavalierly: since we maintain the severs, naturally we don’t need to give as much thought towards distributing the resulting product as we do if we’re distributing a CD-based product or an App Store distributed product.

And while this is true on the surface, every web shop I worked for also has an operations team and a support team who are expecting a “run book” or other documentation on how to install the product and how to maintain the product.

In other words, they’re asking for a software user’s manual.

Just like the ones we used to print for a CD distributed product.

So you can’t escape the following questions, even if you work for a web shop.

How will you distribute your product? What installer will you use to install the product? What are the distribution products, and who will maintain those distribution products? What about the documentation; who will maintain it? Who will test the installation process? Who will make sure that on first boot it’s obvious what to do?

And how will you alert the user when things go wrong, and how will you tell the user what to do when things go wrong–and when to call you for support, and when to handle things themselves?

How will you get diagnostic information back when things go wrong? And what form will that diagnostic information take? Is it sufficient to help you pinpoint the failure?

It’s surprising to me how little thought seems to be given to these basic questions. What’s even more interesting to me are the number of developers who treat these questions with disdain: I know a few who are proud of the fact that their “IDE” is vi and their debug process is printf(). Okay, if that is what chimes your bells–but most of us are more interested in tightening the edit/compile/debug cycle and in making the project more manageable for real human beings.

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