Smell if it’s well

We at the Softwareschneiderei are constantly searching for ways to gather feedback from our projects. We get feedback from our customers and their users, but we also get feedback directly from the code, be it through test results or code analysis. A great way to make your code speak for itself is to provide it some Extreme Feedback Devices (XFD).

IntroduciIMG_0574_smellng the Smell-O-Mat

One thing we always wanted to have was “code smells” that really smell for themselves. When we ran across an ultrasonic humidifier that can produce room-wide smells by dispensing essential oils, we found the right device for this feedback. We bought two humidifiers and labeled them “good” and “evil”. The hardest part was to find a smell everybody relates to “evil”, but won’t distract you too much from your work. Whenever our code analysis finds a new real code smell, the “evil” humidifier is turned on for some minutes. If an existing code smell is fixed, we get the “good” smell.

The effects

We do not produce code smells all too often. But once in a while, it happens. And this incident can now be perceived throughout the day just by breathing. On the other hand, fixing old smells is a source of refreshing air. Whenever the office atmosphere needs replenishment, all you have to do is to fix some code smells in our large code base (they do get rare!). Of course, most junior developers just open a window for that.

We chose grapefruit being our “good” smell, so our work area tastes mostly limony now instead of just “developer’s thoughts”, a fragrance that yet has to bottled.

The technical solution

Technically, the integration of the two humidifiers with our reporting infrastructure was very easy. Every XFD is controlled by an IRC bot that understands certain commands suitable for the device and hangs around at our central IRC server. As an humidifier only understands “on” and “off”, it could be controlled just like the ONOZ! lamp. We connected the humidifiers to a remote controlled power supply, switched it on and let the bot control the supply.

Our reporting infrastructure forwards its results to an aggregation software that interprets the numbers and produces IRC commands for the device bots. All of this is done with a combination of website scraping (Hudson as our continuous integration server has a wonderful XML API) and IRC messaging.

The history of XFD so far

Over the last years, we gathered XFDs for almost every human sense. We have visual effects, audible feedback using speech synthesis and even bought an USB rocket launcher for forced feedback needs. With the Smell-O-Mat, we can now deal with smelling, too.
The last human sense we have to address is tasting. Plans for the “coffee salter” were impeded by our sense of humanity. We keep searching.


Read more about our Extreme Feedback Devices:

Extreme Feedback Device (XFD): The ONOZ! Lamp

When two good ideas meet, there’s a chance for an even better idea to be born. This happened to us some time ago, when the ONOZ! Lamp came up.

(This is a free translation and revision of an earlier article written in german)

The first good idea

On April 1st 2004, Alberto Savioa published a blog entry about an idea of two lava lamps (green and red) displaying the current build state of a project. I was somewhat distracted that day, marrying my wife, so the idea came to us two years later. Mike Clark wrote his wonderful book “Pragmatic Project Automation” and included not only the idea of the lava lamps, but also detailed construction guidance.

The second good idea

One day, an email contained a little animated gif with two panic guys running around.

Investigation suggests Jonn Wood as the author. We thought the guys act exactly like us after a broken build (one of the worst things that may happen here), so the gif and the word “ONOZ” were integrated into our company culture.

The birth of another idea

After we read about the lava lamps, we wanted to own them, too. But only after inspiration from the animated gif, we were sure about our specific realisation. We merged the two states into one lamp (on/off instead of green/red) and did without the lava. A normal desk light would do the job now.
We even have a good justification for the omission of the green (lava) lamp:

  • it saves energy
  • no timer switch is needed for the nights/weekends
  • our team includes colorblinds

The last reason is a good one when you look at this simulation of colorblindness:
These are pictures of the original green and red lava lamps:

This is how it looks to a colorblind employee. These images were generated by Vischeck, a website trying to inform about colorblindness practically.

Not much of a difference. If you swap them around secretly, ten percent (the percentage of colorblinds in the male population) of your team will panic without reason.

The ONOZ! Lamp

With little investment, we build a system supervising the build state of all our projects. Every build process sends its result to a server that checks for failures. If a build failed, the lamp gets switched on over traditional X10 signals. We can’t overlook the sudden burst of luminance, we panic a bit and try to fix the build. The lamp turns off when all projects are back to normal.

The ONOZ! Lamp is just a lamp standing around, until something ugly happens. Then it turns into a glowing infernal of failure. We nearly failed to give it a correctly spelled name, too. We named it “ONOEZ! Lamp” first, which seems to be the only invalid spelling of this exclamation.

The effects

The ONOZ! Lamp works great. Its mere presence has a comforting effect, as long as it is off. Which is the case most of the time. When it fires, the effect is like an alarm stopping all work. And the operator giving the alarm is always alert and incorruptible: our continuous integration server.


Read more about our Extreme Feedback Devices:

Extreme Feedback Device (XFD): The Code Flow-O-Meter

This is a free translation and revision of an earlier article written in german.

Since March 2007, the Schneide uses another Extreme Feedback Device (XFD): the Code Flow-O-Meter.

So what is this thing?

We bought a portable fountain made of slate, filled in water (no additives) and connected the power supply cord with a X10 application module. Then we programmed a litte IRC Bot (using the ten-minutes-to-success java IRC library pircbot) that triggers the module. We were then able to control the fountain by speaking to it over IRC.

Afterwards, we piped the commit messages of our source repositories to a little script that determines the “impact” of the commit by measuring the amount of changes to the code. This sounds more sophisticated as it really is, the number of changed files was a good enough guess for it. This impact is related to a duration, the more impact, the longer the timespan. Now the script tells the IRC bot to activate the fountain for that amount of time.

This way, we have a direct but unobtrusive notification about what is going on in the repositories, as this is the most important location of our company (talking about the numerous safety nets we applied to it would require another blog post). Initially, we thought about playing an audio sample singing “alleluia”, too, but this became ridiculous soon.

But why do you want this notification?

One of the rules of agile (or good) programming says “commit early, commit often”. But as soon as every little commit gets examined by a continuous integration server, all automated tests and a large number of software quality metric tools, the liability to keep the changes local a little bit longer grows. “After all, it’s ready when it’s done, and this is soon enough to check in” was a common justification especially among the less experienced programmers. But that’s the best way to miss the early feedback. And early feedback is effective feedback.

So we installed our portable fountain as a counter-incentive against late commits and started a little game. The rule of the game is simple:
Keep the Flow-O-Meter running!
When you commit, the fountain flows. The size of your commit is not as important as the commit itself, so its better to commit often. If everyone does it, the fountain may flow the whole day.

The Code Flow-O-Meter may be regarded as a measurement device of “progress”. Things are in a state of flux as long as it is running.

And did it work?

Yes, definitly. The Code Flow-O-Meter has become our little pet. Everyone loves it because it’s friendly and comforting. Think of a tamagochi, but without the annoyances. You only need to change and commit something to feed it and get the reward, nothing more.

As an additional gain, everybody else loves it, too. When we show it to a customer, they first see an ordinary portable fountain. When we explain and demonstrate our working cycle (code, commit, review) to them, something magical happens. I tend to think they involuntary get the notion of something happening after the commit when the fountain comes to life. This may be the concept of a build server, otherwise being invisible and intangible, materializing in the fountain. When we continue to explain what happens after the build, like the ONOZ! lamp lighting up to indicate a failed build, it’s already clear to them that the process does not end with the waterflow. The Code Flow-O-Meter serves as a link between the developer’s local work and the build feedback arriving out of nowhere some minutes later.


Read more about our Extreme Feedback Devices: