Shipping a Feature

I recently did a small presentation for my team talking about what it takes to ship a feature to customers in a product like Office. This includes much more than getting the functionality implemented and tested. In fact, figuring out the design and implementing it accounts for about 20% of the work (from prototype to implementation, including tests). The remaining 80% is taking the feature from functional to shippable. In this post, I’ll go over some of these non-functional aspects of shipping code to customers.

Most of the aspects I will talk about rely heavily on telemetry. This is a consequence of today’s connected world. Software is shipped over the internet every month or every week (or every day), as opposed to every year or every other year. Connectivity also enables us to get signals on how the software is performing and adjust accordingly.

Reliability

Reliability can make or break a feature. It is the bedrock of quality. If the feature is unreliable and causes crashes or data corruption, nobody will use it. The most egregious of reliability issues is data loss - for example, if a user writes a paragraph and the application crashes before this paragraph gets saved anywhere, forcing the user to re-type it causes a huge loss of trust.

In terms of software engineering, beyond comprehensive testing, we need to have telemetry in place to report errors. There are several ways to quantify reliability. For example, a couple of common measures are the ICE and ACE scores.

ICE stands for Ideal Customer Experience. This measures the reliability of a scenario including all errors encountered during a user’s session. 100% means no session encountered any errors.

ACE stands for Adjusted Customer Experience. This is similar to ICE, except it only measures unexpected errors. In a complex system, some errors are expected, and the software can recover from them without impacting the user experience. For example, a background call fails but succeeds on retry.

Both measures are important - one measures the overall reliability of the system, the other measures the user experience impact.

100% ICE and ACE scores are ideal, but hard to achieve in a complex system. That said, shipping a feature should include setting a target ICE and ACE score (for example 99%), making sure telemetry is there to provide the signal, and working towards that goal as the feature gets exposed to more and more users (more on exposure below).

Performance

Performance is another fundamental aspect of any feature. Of course, the first rule of performance tuning is to measure. Shipping a feature includes instrumentation to measure various scenarios like time to load, time to render etc. Customers run the code on different types of hardware, and it is important to understand what the actual user experience is (in the 95th percentile).

Like reliability, we should set some goals, look at telemetry, and keep improving. Important to note that this is not a one-time thing, as software gets updated and functionality is added, performance can easily degrade. Performance numbers should show up on a dashboard and should be reviewed periodically.

Security

Microsoft created the Security Development Lifecycle for building better, safer, software internally. In 2008, this was shared with the rest of the world and it continues evolving. I won’t cover all security best practices as it would take way more than a blog post, but I will touch on a few points:

  • Threat modeling - non-trivial features should have a threat model - a data flow diagram which captures the various entities in the system and the trust boundaries. The Microsoft Threat Modeling Tool can analyze a threat model and list out potential attacks and suggested mitigations.
  • Adhering to standards and best practices - for example always connecting over HTTPS instead of HTTP, using cryptographically strong algorithms and so on.
  • Leveraging available tools to ensure a feature is secure. For example, running static code analysis to identify potential attack vectors and fuzzing inputs.

The bar for security should be very high, and a feature should never roll out to customers before ensuring it is secure.

Privacy

Customer privacy is extremely important. If our feature handles any customer data (data about the customer) or customer-owned data (data generated by the customer), we need to be very careful how we process it, store it, and who can access it. I talked extensively about data handling in my previous blog post, Changing Data Classification Through Processing.

Compliance

Compliance ensures we don’t open ourselves up to liability. An example of this is third party notices for open-source libraries - many open-source licenses require you to mention you are using the library. Another example is GDPR compliance - EU citizens can request to view all the data a company has on them, or request to be “forgotten” (have their data removed from the system).

Compliance also means our software adheres to various standards some customers might require. An example of this is data sovereignty: countries like Germany and China require data to be stored in data centers within their country. Another example is ensuring our software meets the requirements for certain certifications like SOC2, without which certain organizations wouldn’t be able to use it.

Our feature needs to be compliant before shipping it to customers.

Accessibility

The Microsoft mission statement reads as follows:

Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

Making our software accessible to people with disabilities is very important. Here are a few aspects we need to consider when shipping features users interact with:

  • Contrast ratio - the contrast between foreground colors and background colors needs to be good enough so everything is legible for people with vision impairment.
  • High contrast - operating systems provide high-contrast modes for the visually impaired. Features need to be tested in high-contrast mode to ensure they are still usable.
  • Screen reader support - UI elements need to be annotated so screen reader software can describe them correctly.
  • Keyboarding - some users navigate exclusively using keyboard shortcuts, so a feature needs to implement common keyboard shortcuts.
  • Focus - a feature needs to properly handle focus switching. This includes tab order, making sure focus doesn’t get trapped on a single control or subset of the controls etc.
  • Touch - touchscreen devices without keyboard usually have larger touch targets. We need to make sure our feature works well on touchscreens too.

World readiness

World readiness means our feature can ship in markets across the world, and usually entails two different aspects: globalization and localization.

Globalization means our feature works in different cultures, with different (OS-level) culture settings, without requiring additional, culture-specific changes. An example is the date format. In US, the date format is mm-dd-yyyy, while in Europe it is dd-mm-yyyy. Japan uses yyyy-mm-dd. When displaying dates, we should format them using the current culture’s format, not assume and hardcode any specific format.

Another important aspect of globalization is to ensure the symbols used as icons make sense for everyone. For example, using a starry wizard hat to represent a setup wizard works in Western cultures but might not make sense all around the world.

Localization deals with translating UI strings into all the languages in which the feature ships. From a developer perspective, UI layout is important here: in some languages, words are on average longer than in English, so text might overflow its boundaries when translated. For example, “Add job” in English becomes “Auftrag hinzufügen” in German.

We also have right-to-left languages like Arabic and Hebrew. We need to ensure our layout works as expected in such languages.

Feature gating

In a mature product like Office, making changes feels very much like rebuilding an airplane in flight: we can add and modify features, but breaking anything is catastrophic. One best practice of shipping features in such conditions is using feature gates. A feature gate is a toggle that determines whether a code path should be exercised or not. This allows us to release a build containing a half-developed feature. If it is not quite ready to see the light of day, the feature gate is closed, and the code never runs in production.

Once the feature is ready, we can toggle the feature gate and start running the code. In case we notice any issues, we can flip the feature gate back off and mitigate customer impact while the issue gets resolved.

Once the feature is mature and has been exercised by customers for a while, we can go back and clean up the feature gate.

Flighting

Feature gates are a simple on/off switch. Flighting changes is a more mature version of progressive exposure. We usually have a set of rings through which we release. For example, we could have a dogfood ring, for the team to try out the code themselves, before shipping further; we could have a beta tester ring, for customers who sign up to get preview features; finally, we could have a production ring, containing all other customers.

We should be able to progress a feature through these different rings, and within the rings, only expose a percentage of customers to the feature.

Flighting infrastructure needs to exist for this. From a feature development perspective, we need a roll out plan defining what telemetry signals we want to see to be comfortable increasing exposure of our feature.

Experimentation

Finally, we need a way to measure whether a feature is successful or not and determine whether iterating on it improves things or makes them worse. First, we need to define what success means - what metrics are most important for our product. Once we have these, we can run an A/B test when introducing a new feature or iterating on an existing feature. We have a control group seeing the old behavior and a treatment group seeing the new behavior. We can then look at the key metrics we defined and see how they look for both control and treatment. Did the new code move the needle?

Summary

Shipping a feature takes a lot of work beyond the initial functional implementation. In this post we looked at some of these various aspects:

  • Reliability
  • Performance
  • Security
  • Privacy
  • Compliance
  • Accessibility
  • World readiness
  • Feature gating
  • Flighting
  • Experimentation

All of these need to be taken into account when we ship code to our customers.