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Communication is not collaboration!

Given how the individual unit of deployment has gotten increasingly smaller, such that the unit of deployment is usually a microservice, it would be tempting to think that individual developers are more able to control how well the code they write (the service they deploy) will work in production. In fact, though, almost the opposite is true. Instead, as the number of services in an environment increases, whether or not one service will work correctly in a production environment has more to do with how well it works with other services rather than the quality of the code.

This makes collaboration between developers even more critical than ever before, but the packaging of code in microservices actually makes collaboration more challenging. Developers don’t collaborate by working together on a shared codebase — instead they work completely independently on services that could easily be written in different languages, providing the illusion of complete independence.

In most organizations, ensuring that services work together is a largely informal process. It’s managed by walking over to a colleague’s work station and asking what updates they’re working on or what version libraries they’re using. In a remote work environment, teams rely on Slack messages or Zoom calls to solve issues relating to services interaction. This creates a lot of friction for something that is a critical part of the software development workflow. Failures in service integration can and do cause problems in production.

Pay Attention to Service Communications

A perfectly crafted microservice is not going to run in isolation in the production environment. Compatibility issues between each service and upstream and downstream dependencies are just as likely to cause bugs, downtime and poor performance as problems with the code deployed in a container.

The only way to catch compatibility issues before production is for developers to work together and communicate about the updates they’re working on and how those might impact interdependent services. In the current system, however, this level of collaboration introduces a lot of friction in the development workflow, reducing the individual’s and the team’s velocity. Since developers are generally evaluated based on velocity and code quality — but not necessarily on how well their services work with other services — if the friction remains, developers will be tempted to deploy without fully understanding how dependencies will be impacted.

Since CI/CD pipelines are generally not set up to test how well services communicate with each other, problems with service fit that aren’t addressed at the development stage generally aren’t found until either a canary deployment goes wrong or there are problems in production.

Replacing Tribal Knowledge

One of the other reasons companies need to focus on developer collaboration is that remote work has made it even harder to communicate tribal knowledge. In my experience, no development team has been able to completely wean themselves off of tribal knowledge. Even teams with extensive technical documentation often had or have experienced team members who maintain a unique understanding of the application’s business logic and can share that knowledge when needed.

Tribal knowledge also relates to service integration and communication — often, insights about how services work together isn’t well-documented, even if each individual service is well-documented. Often, the easiest way to see how they would work together is not to have the two developers responsible for each service work together, but rather to have a senior developer take a look. Especially as development teams work remotely, that type of review isn’t feasible.

How to Help Developers Collaborate

Most teams have ways for teams to communicate — they have a Slack setup, they have internal forums and video conferencing solutions. But they often don’t realize that these communication platforms aren’t really collaboration platforms — they are not providing a way for developers to actually work together on interdependent services the way they might if working on a shared codebase. Communication isn’t enough for true collaboration to happen — developers need a way to work together and see how colleagues’ changes impact their own services.

Facilitating true collaboration, the kind you would get from two people looking at the same screen and coming up with solutions together, is more challenging than making it easier for developers to talk to each other. Without true collaboration, teams will continue to have trouble with communication between services — and there’s no Slack for that.

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