Software quality: why you shouldn’t ignore the small things

When your product to-do list (aka the product backlog) is very long, with “urgent” items or requests from your biggest or most demanding users, the natural path is to focus on the high value work.

New features that could bring in new users or retain existing ones. Major bugs. Quick wins.

Everywhere I’ve worked, and in fact in most software projects I’ve heard of, there’s always more to do than you can actually get through. You can’t do everything, so you have to prioritise what to work on next.

As part of gathering feedback from users, QAs, or your own product review cycles, you’ll sometimes identify issues or potential tweaks which, in the grand scheme of things, seem very minor. Perhaps there’s a small layout bug on iOS. A little-used setting doesn’t work for a small number of users. An old page that hardly anybody goes to doesn’t look right with a recent design overhaul. Or a page is retired and removed from the navigation links – but it’s still accessible if you visit it directly.

I’ve heard numerous excuses for not dealing with minor changes such as the above. It’s not important. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. We’re too busy. Etc. However, if you ignore all of these small issues, they can build up and collectively give users the impression that the product is being neglected.

It’s a broken window situation.

In The Pragmatic Programmer, there’s a section called Software Entropy that mentions broken windows. I’d like to highlight this quote:

Don’t leave “broken windows” (bad designs, wrong decisions, or poor code) unrepaired. Fix each one as soon as it is discovered. If there is insufficient time to fix it properly, then board it up. Perhaps you can comment out the offending code, or display a “Not Implemented” message, or substitute dummy data instead. Take some action to prevent further damage and to show that you’re on top of the situation.

If something’s broken, fix it. If it’s not used anymore, remove it. To help with this, gather feedback to see if users are finding pain points that you’re not aware of. Use analytics to see which parts of the product are being used.

Don’t ignore the minor things. While one small UX quirk might not make much difference if you fix it, lots of UX issues in the same area of the product can really annoy your users. Leaving this unresolved can make software feel awkward and frustrating to use, or just plain broken.

Is that the kind of product you want?

Music Monday: How I got into Trance

I love trance. I’ve loved it since I first heard it back in 1998. Twenty years later, here’s a quick look back at how it started for me.

A lot of the music I listened to while growing up came from my parents. My parents split before I was a year old; I lived with my mum, my brother and my sister. From quite a young age, I’d see my dad almost every weekend. I’m sure my parents played music with all of us in earshot, but I’d say that I listened to it the most closely of my siblings.

Many great albums followed. After devouring the entire discography of The Beatles and Dire Straits, plus a scattered group of albums from the likes of Mike Oldfield, Elton John, Bruce Hornsby, Status Quo, Genesis, and Pink Floyd, I was hungry for more.

It was my mum who played Jean-Michel Jarre – I don’t think it was ever a full album though, just a track or two from a compilation. Around the time I started my first part-time job and therefore earned a bit of money, I remember buying three Jarre albums: Oxygène, Oxygène 7-13, and Odyssey Through O2. I’m pretty sure I bought the first two together in late 1997 or early 1998; I spotted the third when it came out around the middle of 1998.

While I did enjoy the first two albums a great deal, it was Odyssey Through O2 that resonated with me the most. I played tracks 7-10 the most; this run of four tracks representing my first experience of a trance mix – although to be picky, track 10 is more of a breaks track. Still, this section of the album was always my favourite. I still enjoy it to this day.

(Sadly, Odyssey Through O2, isn’t on Spotify, but here’s the Oxygène Trilogy, at least.)

At this point, I was still at the stage of discovering music at the artist level. My parents had introduced me to several artists as I mentioned above, and this was an continuation of that. For now, I’d continue exploring each artist’s catalogue a bit more deeply, aiming to collect every album by many of the artists I enjoyed. However, I’d discovered something a little different with Odyssey Through O2 – something deeper than the artist-by-artist music exploration I’d been on up to that point.

Sometime in 1998, a friend was playing a CD that I recognised as being similar in style to Odyssey Through O2. Actually, it didn’t start that way, as the mix had a couple of tracks that weren’t as trancey as the rest – such as Da Hool “Meet Her At the Love Parade”. Next up was Three Drives “Greece 2000”, which was more up my street. However, the track that really did it for me was Energy 52 “Cafe Del Mar ’98”.

Bloody hell. This album was awesome!

Of course, these tracks (and others on the album) became very well-known and massively overplayed over the next few years in particular. But imagine hearing them for the first time. This was one heck of a good mix.

Incidentally, that was the Paul Oakenfold mix of Essential Selection ’98 – guess what, that’s not on Spotify either. Dance compilations are the primary reason I haven’t completely moved away from CDs, much as I would like to. Anyway…


Once I’d figured out that I wanted to find more trance music, I asked my siblings (yes, them again!) as we shopped in HMV one day. We scanned through several compilations; I’d already picked up Essential Selection ’98, but wanted to get one more CD. I think my sister picked up an album, pointed to Binary Finary “1998” and said that was a good track; admittedly, we didn’t recognise the other tracks, but I took a chance and picked it up.

That album turned out to be Reactivate 13, which led to a long and somewhat obsessive relationship with pretty much anything on the React label. My 19-20 year old self made a prat of himself by flooding the React online forums with endless posts (and I rather stupidly used my real name); I think a few people there thought I was a bit of an idiot. But hey, the music’s what it’s all about, and I still have Reactivate 9, 10, and 12-18.

Here’s a playlist of my personal favourites mostly from Reactivate 12-17, with a couple from earlier volumes.

I was never a massive London clubber, but I did go to a few clubs, especially during trance’s heyday. I distinctly remember hearing several of my favourite trance anthems in either 1998 or 1999 at Camden Palace. And I could just about deal with the long, sweaty night, getting gradually more tired – not to mention hungry – as 6:00am approached, with the club drawing to a close, and the first trains starting to run in the morning. However, I was less keen on the volume of the music, and the ringing in my ears for the next 24 hours. On my first visit to a London club, the pounding in my ears was so intense, I felt like I was going to throw up within the first five minutes.

Despite that, London clubbing when trance was big was absolutely incredible.

I may be 20 years older, and I may not listen to trance as much these days, but I still love it. Maybe one day I’ll go back and do it all over again.

Music Monday: The Tibbs – Takin’ Over

A lot of my recent favourite tracks come from Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist, or one of a few other Spotify playlists that I keep an eye on and plough through whenever I’m in the mood for something new. This is how I discovered The Tibbs; the entry point being the track “Lies”, which I’d strongly recommend checking out.

Such is the nature of Spotify, I added the track to one of my own playlists, listening to it whenever it came up. With hundreds of tracks across a handful of lists, I don’t always check out an artist’s other tracks. However, on this occasion, I found myself listening to “Lies” so many times, I felt I had to venture further into the Spotify rabbit hole. I soon came across the album “Takin’ Over”.

It’s fresh, with mostly upbeat, funky tracks that are a joy to listen to. Current favourites include “Dog Days”, “96 Tears”, “Washed My Hands”, and “Cussin’, Cryin’ & Carryin’ On”, to name a few.

The whole album is sublime, and well worth listening through in its entirety (all 39 minutes of it).

As it turns out, I’m an idiot, because I could’ve discovered some of the band’s catalogue a couple of years sooner. I previously bought “Footprints in the Sand” following a recommendation from Juno Download – probably the “Recommends” section of the Funk genre. That’s worth a listen too, so I’ll leave you with that track too.

Use Makefiles to quickly run common commands

A tip I picked up from work is the use of a Makefile to set up short aliases for commands you run often, but that are a pain to type, or you can’t remember. I find this particularly useful as I code fairly intermittently these days, so it’s easy to forget the exact syntax of certain commands.

A good example is how to run unit tests. This varies from project to project, but is something you’ll probably want to do fairly often.

To start, create a blank file called “Makefile” and put it at the root of your project. Then insert the following code:



Change /bin/bash to the location of Bash, and modify the ./vendor/bin/phpunit line to do whatever you’d normally type in to run your unit tests.

You’ll need to replace [TAB] with a Tab character. Spaces won’t work. Make is strict in this regard.

Save and exit the file. Now open a Terminal, go to the root of your project, and type:

$ make unit-test

All being well, this will run your unit tests.

In the Makefile, “unit-test:” indicates the label you’ll need to run after “make” to run the command. You can add multiple lines and multiple labels – for instance:

[TAB]echo 'A'
[TAB]echo 'B'

[TAB]echo 'C'
[TAB]echo 'D'

If you have lots of commands, this method can get a bit messy. It’s handy for small projects where you only have a few things to include but can’t always remember them.

FAWM 2018: a good excuse to write new music

Last year, I wrote 16 tracks as part of FAWM, an annual songwriting challenge where the goal is to write 14 tracks in 28 days.

This year, I’m a couple of days late posting my first tracks (compared to last year, anyway), but I’ve made a start. Here’s my FAWM profile with links to the new tracks.

I was really pleased with the tracks I wrote last year, which I used for a new album – “Ten“. That album is exactly as it was once FAWM 2017 ended. I didn’t add or remove any tracks, reorder the sequence, or edit any of the music.

When I got started this year, I was a bit rusty. It took a few tries to come up with the first track (Synthrock), which I wasn’t completely happy with – but with a time-based challenge, there isn’t a lot of time to procrastinate. So I thought it best to finish the first track, and get on with the show. I’m happier with the second track (Psionetrics) and this should help keep my motivation up.

I find that FAWM is a great way to write new music – I only wish I hadn’t had ten years away (between 2007-2017).

On becoming a Scrum Master

I got my first job in tech back in December 1998. In my career so far, I’ve worked in pure coding roles, I’ve worked as a tester, and I’ve had a couple of more varied roles.

A few years back, I was working long hours for an extended period of time, and I completely burned out. While I continued coding so as not to lose the skill, it quickly became something I no longer enjoyed doing.

This year, I came to realise that my coding days are coming to an end. I’ve fought it for some time, but I’ve recently come to accept it. I’ve also had the opportunity to move into a Scrum Master role at my current workplace, which has helped a lot.

My new role has made me realise that while I may have enjoyed coding in the past, the thing I enjoy most – and that I’m good at – is delivery, aka getting shit done.

Being a Scrum Master, a Delivery Manager, an Agile PM or whatever I might call myself today or in the future, isn’t my only skill – but it is what I’m particularly good at.

I don’t know if I’ll be blogging about delivery a lot, a little, or at all. I don’t blog particularly often these days. But that’s mostly due to a lack of focus on my part. I like to do a lot of different things. As a result, I can’t focus on being the best at anything.

I’m far from the best coder. But I was always good at getting shit done. When I look at my past jobs, I don’t want to shout about what tech I used, how I solved complex problems, or how I designed my solutions. I’m far more interested in what I delivered – and the fact I got the job done – than how I did it.

I’ve worked with some amazing developers in my career. Many of those developers are great at getting things done. Some consider technology options at length, and maybe are hesitant to make a decision in case it’s the wrong one. Some may obsess over doing things perfectly. There’s definitely a place for planning rather than jumping straight in and making a mess of things. However, it can be taken too far.

Anyway, delivery is what I do. It’s what makes me tick. It’s the area I can help with the most.

And I’m glad to have finally figured this out. It only took me 19 years.

Music updates, 24th Sept 2017: New playlist, All tracks page

I’ve been tidying up my personal site, updating the layout to work better on mobile devices, and adding a bit of new content.

Earlier in the year, I did a big update to the site to move away from static pages and put some of the content into a MySQL database. I didn’t blog about it at the time, as the visible changes to my site were virtually non-existent. However, those changes made it easier to work on the updates I’ve been working on today.

New playlist – Best of Symmetry

In March 2016, I released a pair of albums – Symmetry 1 and Symmetry 2. Although I was happy with how these turned out, there are quite a few tracks I skip when listening to the albums now.

To solve this, I’ve selected 10 of my favourite tracks from the 22 on these albums, and created a new playlist: Best of Symmetry.

All tracks page

If you’ve ever wanted to see a complete list of all my tracks, well, look no further! I’ve added a new All tracks page that lists my tracks in alphabetical order.

I may improve this further by listing the album that each track appears on. For now it just shows the year of release. There’s quite a difference between the tracks I released from 2005-2009 and the tracks from 2016 onwards, so it might be a bit jarring to listen to the tracks in the order shown.

There are 172 tracks listed – I hadn’t realised there were so many. The list does include remixes, which will increase the overall total. I may do more in the future to highlight remixes or list them separately.

Future change: New tracks?

One other thing I’d like to is include new tracks that do not yet have an album.

In the past I’ve always followed the process of releasing tracks on albums, mainly because I don’t have a logical place to list the tracks that aren’t on an album. But that could be easily addressed with either a “New tracks” page or a “Non-album tracks” page.

There aren’t a lot of these tracks right now, other than “Top Brass“, which is on my Soundcloud page. I do have a few tracks in progress, and would prefer to share them as I complete them, instead of holding them back for an album.

For now, I need to get some of my current “in progress” tracks finished so I can share them. In the meantime, I might add one or two more playlists.

Always be shipping

Building software is fun.

It’s great to develop something from nothing, or extend something to do more than it did before.

I think coders want to build things the best way they can. But in practice, that doesn’t always happen. Shortcuts can be taken, perhaps due to time pressures, or major requirements popping up late into a piece of work. Sometimes, you need to make changes to software that are quite different to what it was built for to begin with.

But software changes, and we can’t always anticipate how it’s going to change. In fact, we probably shouldn’t worry too much about how it might change in ways we simply don’t know about yet. (It’s a bit different if it’s your product, such as a hobby project, and you know some of what you’ll be adding later – and can build for those things accordingly.)

Perfect code

We shouldn’t be aiming for perfect code. Equally, we shouldn’t be happy with crappy code, but that’s not the point here.

Delivery – shipping a product or feature – is vital. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your code is if you never ship.

It definitely matters if you build a mess of a system that will be painful to work with in the future. But we shouldn’t be agonising over making everything perfect before anything is shipped.

I know there are developers who will find some of my code from years ago and say “what was he thinking?!” And to be honest, if I read it today I’d probably think something similar. I’m sure I could think of ways to improve the code I worked on back then that I didn’t think of at the time.

But the important thing is that the code shipped, we could monitor how things went in production, and we could get stuck into other projects.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is a wonderful thing. Some of my favourite projects have been framework migrations. I’ve migrated from a proprietary framework to Zend v1; I’ve migrated from a basic home-grown set of PHP classes to an MVC framework; I’ve managed a migration from Drupal to Laravel. More recently, I’ve worked with a team who have been migrating from a FuelPHP monolith to a service-oriented architecture.

With large-scale migrations or any major refactoring, breaking off components of the application and migrating them piece by piece is an excellent way to minimise risk, keep momentum going, and avoid a seemingly infinite end date. The concept of “dropping” a massive new upgrade on a given date for an entire customer base is extremely risky, and runs the risk of being rolled back if it all goes pear-shaped.


There’s a phrase I have in my head at all times as a reminder of why “big bang” launches are so dangerous:

It is difficult to know when testing is complete.

Testing is not something you start and finish. Testing is an ongoing process, a discipline, that can incorporate a selection of the following at various times:

  • Automated unit tests
  • Automated integration tests
  • Manual exploratory tests
  • Manual functional tests
  • Manual or automated regression tests
  • Manual UI tests
  • Non-functional tests (a large category)

Testing helps to highlight everything from catastrophic failures to tiny UX quirks. But having tests doesn’t mean your big bang implementation will be fine – especially in a big, complex system.


In Scrum, the output of a sprint is a potentially shippable product increment. Whether you ship or not is up to you. But the point is that you can ship if you want to. This capability should be available to the Product Owner.

When a development team thinks they have 6-12 months, or years, to deliver a project (or maybe there’s no end date at all), it’s can be very tricky to keep the team focused. Agile accepts that requirements change frequently. This in itself is not an instant issue. However, when you have a long-running project that isn’t shipping anything, and constantly changing requirements, especially when development is already in progress – that’s a recipe for disaster.

Always be shipping

There’s a lot of different things I’ve discussed in this post, but it boils down to one simple thing. Always be shipping.

Stop adding a day here and there to perfect something that already works fine (and has unit tests that pass).

Start getting stuff out the door.

How to minimise CRUD front-end code duplication in Laravel 5.4 / Twig

CRUD (Create/Read/Update/Delete) is something that developers do quite a bit of. Frameworks can help with this, but there’s still a fair amount of code you’ll need to write for every CRUD screen you put together.

One particular area is the difference between Create and Update. For many of the projects I’ve worked on, Create and Update are often very similar. They aren’t identical, but if there’s enough overlap between them, you can minimise duplicate code with the following setup.

Continue reading “How to minimise CRUD front-end code duplication in Laravel 5.4 / Twig”