mr mr cote

Educational, Investigative, and Absurd Writings by M. R. Côté

Project Isolation

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The other day I read about another new Mozilla project that decided to go with GitHub issues instead of our Bugzilla installation (BMO). The author’s arguments make a lot of sense: GitHub issues are much simpler and faster, and if you keep your code in GitHub, you get tighter integration. The author notes that a downside is the inability to file security or confidential bugs, for which Bugzilla has a fine-grained permission system, and that he’d just put those (rare) issues on BMO.

The one downside he doesn’t mention is interdependencies with other Mozilla projects, e.g. the Depends On/Blocks fields. This is where Bugzilla gets into project, product, and perhaps even program management by allowing people to easily track dependency chains, which is invaluable in planning. Many people actually file bugs solely as trackers for a particular feature or project, hanging all the work items and bugs off of it, and sometimes that work crosses product boundaries. There are also a number of tracking flags and fields that managers use to prioritize work and decide which releases to target.

If I had to rebut my own point, I would argue that the projects that use GitHub issues are relatively isolated, and so dependency tracking is not particularly important. Why clutter up and slow down the UI with lots of features that I don’t need for my project? In particular, most of the tracking features are currently used only by, and thus designed for, the Firefox products (aside: this is one reason the new modal UI hides most of these fields by default if they have never been set).

This seems hard to refute, and I certainly wouldn’t want to force an admittedly complex tool on anyone who had much simpler needs. But something still wasn’t sitting right with me, and it took a while to figure out what it was. As usual, it was that a different question was going unasked, leading to unspoken assumptions: why do we have so many isolated projects, and what are we giving up by having such loose (or even no) integration amongst all our work?

Working on projects in isolation is comforting because you don’t have to think about all the other things going on in your organization—in other words, you don’t have to communicate with very many people. A lack of communication, however, leads to several problems:

  • low visibility: what is everyone working on?
  • redundancy: how many times are we solving the same problem?
  • barriers to coordination: how can we become greater than the sum of our parts by delivering inter-related features and products?

By working in isolation, we can’t leverage each other’s strengths and accomplishments. We waste effort and lose great opportunities to deliver amazing things. We know that places like Twitter use monorepos to get some of these benefits, like a single build/test/deploy toolchain and coordination of breaking changes. This is what facilitates architectures like microservices and SOAs. Even if we don’t want to go down those paths, there is still a clear benefit to program management by at least integrating the tracking and planning of all of our various endeavours and directions. We need better organization-wide coordination.

We’re already taking some steps in this direction, like moving Firefox and Cloud Services to one division. But there are many other teams that could benefit from better integration, many teams that are duplicating effort and missing out on chances to work together. It’s a huge effort, but maybe we need to form a team to define a strategy and process—a Strategic Integration Team perhaps?