Prepare for the unexpected

In most larger projects there are many details which cannot be foreseen by the development team. Specifications turn out to be wrong, incomplete or not precise enough for your implementation to work without further adjustments. New features have to work with production data that may not be available in your development or testing environment.

The result I often observed is that everything works fine in your environment including great automated tests but fails nevertheless when deployed to production systems. Sometimes it is minor differences in the operating system version or configuration, the locale for example, may cause your software to fail. Another common problem is  real production data containing unexpected characters, inconsistencies in the data (sometimes due to bugs) or its sheer size.

What can we do to better prepare for unexpected issues after deployment?

The thing is to expect such issues and to implement certain countermeasures to better cope with them. This may conflict with the KISS principle but usually is worth a bit of added complexity. I want to provide some advice which proved useful for us in the past and may help you in the future too:

  1. Provide good, detailed and persistent debug output for certain features: Once we added a complex rule system which operated on existing domain objects. To check every possible combination of domain object states would have been a ton of work, so we wrote tests for the common cases and difficult cases we could think of. Since the correctness of the functionality was not critical we decided to rather display slightly incorrect information instead of failing and thus breaking the feature for the user. We did however provide extensive and detailed logs whenever our rule system detected a problem.
  2. Make certain parts of your communication interface to third party systems configurable: Often your system communicates to different kinds of users and other systems. Common examples are import/export functionality, web service APIs or text protocols. Even if most of the time details like date and number formats, data separators, line endings, character encoding and so forth are specified it often proves valuable to make them configurable. Many times the specification changes or is incorrect, some communication partner implements the protocol slightly different or a format deviates from your assumption breaking your application. It is great if you can change that with a smile in front of your client and make the whole thing work in minutes instead of walking home frustrated to fix the issues.

The above does not mean building applications with ultimate flexibility and configurability and ignoring automated tests or realistic test environments. It just means that there are typical aspects of an application where you can prepare for otherwise unexpected deviations of theory and praxis.

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