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Preview: Dean Wilson@UnixDaemon: Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

on UnixDaemon: In search of (a) life

My name is Dean Wilson, is my personal site where I store my code, writing, rantings and anything else I feel warrants sharing with the rest of the `Net.


Job applications and GitHub profile oddities

Fri, 29 Sep 2017 18:37:35 +0000

I sift through a surprising amount, to me at least, of curricula vitae / resumes each month and one pattern I’ve started to notice is the ‘fork only’ GitHub profile.

There’s been a lot written over the last few years about using your GitHub profile as an integral part of your job application. Some in favour, some very much not. While each side has valid points when recruiting I like to have all the information I can to hand, so if you include a link to your profile I will probably have a rummage around. When it comes to what I’m looking for there are a lot of different things to consider. Which languages do you use? Is the usage idiomatic? Do you have docs or tests? How do you respond to people in issues and pull requests? Which projects do you have an interest in? Have you solved any of the same problems we have?

Recently however I’ve started seeing a small but growing percentage of people that have an essentially fork only profile. Often of the bigger, trendier projects, Docker, Kubernetes, Terraform for example, and there will be no contributed code. In the most blatant case there were a few amended CONTRIBUTORS files with the applicants name and email but no actual changes to the code base.

Although you shouldn’t place undue weight on an applicants GitHub profile in most cases, and in the Government we deliberately don’t consider it in any phase past the initial CV screen, it can be quite illuminating. In the past it provided an insight towards peoples attitude, aptitudes and areas of interest and now as a warning sign that someone may be more of a system gamer than a system administrator.

AWS Trivia - Broken user data and instance tag timing

Wed, 09 Aug 2017 18:42:16 +0000

Have you ever noticed in the AWS console, when new instances are created, the “Tags” tab doesn’t have any content for the first few seconds? A second or two before values are added may not seem like much but it can lead to elusive provisioning issues, especially if you’re autoscaling and have easily blamed network dependencies in your user data scripts.

A lot of people use Tag values in their user data scripts to help ‘inflate’ AMIs and defer some configuration, such as which config management classes to apply, to run time when the instance is started, rather than embedding them at build time when the AMI itself is created. In a stupendous amount of cases everything will work exactly as you expect. Instances will start, tags will be applied and user data will determine how to configure the instance based on their values. However, very rarely, the user data script will begin before the tags are applied to the instance.

If your script requires these tag values then you need to consider this rare but occasional issue and decide how to handle it. You can ignore it, as it’s very rare. If you’re using tags to assign config management roles or similar provide sensible defaults such as applying the base class. It’s possible to ensure that instances that don’t detect their tags fail their health checks and are marked as defective and terminated before they come into service. You can also stack the odds a little more in your favour by having tags reading happen a little later in your user data, run that apt-get update or AWS agent installing curl before fetching the tags for instance to give the tags more time to be applied.

Tagging is often a simple after thought but in the cloud you need a very firm understanding of which things are atomic units and which are separate services and can fail independently. Although tags may seem like a direct property of the instance they are actually handled (I think) by a completely different service, which can always fail. Understanding this split also explains why you can’t read tags and their values from the local metadata service. Which as an aside can, even more rarely, be unavailable. That was a fun afternoon.

I’ll leave you with a closing comment from the days when you could only have 10 tags. Tag values can be complex strings, for example, JSON objects. Possibly even compressed and base64 encoded JSON objects. Just putting that out there.

Over engineering a badly thought out terraform data provider

Tue, 08 Aug 2017 19:12:36 +0000

All the well managed AWS accounts I have access to include some form of security group control over which IP addresses can connect to them. I have a home broadband connection that provides a dynamic IP address. These two things do not play well together.

Every now and again my commands will annoyingly fail with ‘access denied’. I’ll run a curl, raise a new PR against the isolated bootstrap project that controls my access, get it reviewed and after running terraform, restore my access. This process has to be improvable right? I know, more code will fix it!

As an experiment in writing a custom data provider for Terraform, the real reason I did any of this, I decided to try and remove the IP address from the code base completely and instead make it a run time determined value. The, never to be merged, Icanhazip data source pull request that implements this is still available and shows how to add a simple data source to terraform. Becoming a little more familiar with the code base, and how to test it properly, thanks to Richard Clamp of the Terraform GitLab provider for lots of pointers on testing, were worth the time invested even with the rejected PR.

Was this data provider a good idea? No, not really. The HTTP data source solution proposed by Martin Atkins is a much better approach and requires no changes to terraform itself. The code is easy to follow:


# use the swiss army knife http data source to get your IP
data "http" "my_local_ip" {
    url = ""

# write it to a local file to prove everything's fine
resource "local_file" "my_ip" {
    content  = "${chomp(data.http.my_local_ip.body)}"
    filename = "/tmp/my_ip"

and it does exactly what my pile of Golang does -

$ terraform apply
Apply complete! Resources: 1 added, 0 changed, 0 destroyed.

$ cat /tmp/my_ip

The more time that passes since this little experiment, the more I think the whole idea was a terrible one. My use case, bootstrapping AWS access with security groups, is at best a very niche one. It assumes your bootstrap tool isn’t restricted and only works if everyone executes terraform from the same location. Was it a complete waste of time? Not really. I learned a lot about how data sources work and how I’d implement a sensible one in the future. I also know the Terraform PR reviewers are quick, courteous and good at spotting well meaning mistakes, which as a user of the tool itself is quite reassuring.

AWS security audits with Scout2

Fri, 04 Aug 2017 19:12:36 +0000

Inspired by a link in the always excellent Last Week in AWS I decided to investigate Scout2, a “Security auditing tool for AWS environments”. Scout2 is a command line program, written in Python, that runs against your AWS account, queries your configuration data and presents common issues and misconfigurations via a set of local HTML files.

The dashboard itself is simple, but effective, and displays a nice overview of all the checks Scout2 ran.


Installing the program and generating a report against your own infrastructure is remarkably easy and has no external requirements. In my experiments I decided to run it locally under a virtualenv against AWS using an existing profile.

cd /tmp

virtualenv scout

cd scout/

source  bin/activate

pip install awsscout2

# set up your access here

Scout2 --profile  --regions eu-west-1

In the above example I use a named profile from ~/.aws/credentials rather than specifying the values in environment variables. As an aside: I have two profiles defined for each of my AWS accounts, one with permissions to use all the list, read and describe functions but nothing that allows changes (which I used for this experiment), and another with more admin powers. If you’re running Scout2 in AWS you can use an IAM profile with the default Scout2 IAM policy.

Once you’ve run the tool there’s a pleasant little trick where the report is opened in your local web browser, unless you’re running under something like Jenkins, in which case you should specify --no-browser. Behind the dashboard there are per service pages with the configs that require attention, here’s a peek of the IAM services in my experimentation VPC.


Although I’ve not tried to extend Scout2 yet the default reports highlighted a couple of configuration details that I’ll have to think about, which shows that it provides some immediate value. It’s been quite an easy tool to set up and run and I highly recommend taking it for a spin.

A Terraform equivalent to CloudFormations AWS::NoValue ?

Sat, 29 Jul 2017 18:40:26 +0000

Sometimes, when using an infrastructure as code tool like Terraform or CloudFormation, you only want to include a property on a resource under certain conditions, while always including the resource itself. In AWS CloudFormation there are a few CloudFormation Conditional Patterns that let you do this, but and this is the central point of this post, what’s the Terraform equivalent of using AWS::NoValue to remove a property?

Here’s an example of doing this in CloudFormation. If InProd is false the Iops property is completely removed from the resource. Not set to undef, no NULLs, simply not included at all.

    "MySQL" : {
      "Type" : "AWS::RDS::DBInstance",
      "DeletionPolicy" : "Snapshot",
      "Properties" : {
        ... snip ...
        "Iops" : {
          "Fn::If" : [ "InProd",
            { "Ref" : "AWS::NoValue" }
        ... snip ...

While Terraform allows you to use the, um, ‘inventive’, count meta-parameter to control if an entire resource is present or not -

resource "aws_security_group_rule" "example" {
    count = "${var.create_rule}"
    ... snip ...

It doesn’t seem to have anything more fine grained.

One example of when I’d want to use this is writing an RDS module. I want nearly all the resource properties to be present every time I use the module, but not all of them. I’d only want replicate_source_db or snapshot_identifier to be present when a certain variable was passed in. Here’s a horrific example of what I mean

resource "aws_db_instance" "default" {
    ... snip ...
    # these properties are always present
    storage_type         = "gp2"
    parameter_group_name = "default.mysql5.6"
    # and then the optional one
    replicate_source_db = "${var.replication_primary | absent_if_null}"
    ... snip ...

But with a nice syntax rather than that horrible made up one above. Does anyone know how to do this? Do I need to write either two nearly identical modules, with one param different or slightly better, have two database resources, one with the extra parameter present and use a count to choose one of those? Help me Obi-internet! Is these a better way to do this?

Refreshing a keyboard and mouse - 2017

Sat, 29 Jul 2017 12:33:11 +0000

After having some work done at home I recently found myself in need of both a new keyboard and mouse on very short notice. Also wallpaper paste and electronics, not good friends. I’m very set in my ways when it comes to peripherals and over the years I’ve grown very fond of a Das Keyboard and, as a left handed mouse user, Microsoft IntelliMouse Optical combination. The keyboard should’ve been an easy replacement, unfortunately Das take a few weeks to be delivered, and these days are inching closer and closer to the 200 GBP price point. The cheap plastic, dead flesh feeling, standby with was starting to annoy me so I went for a browse through Amazon Prime and its next day delivery section and settled on a Cooler Master MasterKeys. You can see the two keyboards together here: The Cooler Master has a number of fancy features that I’ll probably never investigate but it does have nice Cherry Brown switches. They are comfortable to type on and make about as much noise as my old Das, which I think has Cherry Blue switches. I did start to investigate other options in a little more in depth before I placed the order but when keyboard reviews talk about on board CPU specs I started to zone out a little. It’s also half the price of the Das. I’ve been using it for a week or so and currently have no complaints. Other than one evening coding with the keyboard back light on full, which was bright enough to work by, and should make on call a little more pleasant for everyone else in the house I’m using it as a solid, dumb keyboard. Selecting a new mouse was more of an issue. In a nearly unforgivable move Microsoft stopped selling the IntelliMouse Optical quite a few years ago. I’ve always considered it to be the pinnacle of mouse technology (although I also consider all UIs after Windows 2000 to be superfluous so I’m not to be trusted) and so I spent a chunk of time trying to hunt one down. The second hand market has stupidly high markups and the idea of using a second hand mouse was a little unsettling so I had to find an alternative. That could be used comfortably in the left hand. The first attempt was a logitec M220, which I bought on the recommendation of a left handed friend. Who apparently has tiny, tiny hands. And bad taste in mice. I like a sharp click and the accompanying noise when I click, the M220 key presses are very soft and squidgy with no real click sensation. I found myself second guessing if the click had taken. It was also way too small for me to use comfortably. It felt like I was dragging most of my hand over the desk when I was using it. I very nearly surrendered and bought a Razor Death Adder, the mouse I used to play games with quite a lot a few years ago but the left handed model seems to have a lot less features than the right handed one so I hesitated and asked a few groups of techies for recommendations. A couple of people, who were kind enough to measure their hands for me, suggested a Roccat Kova, which should be fine for either hand and has very good, community supplied drives and config software for Linux. I’ve put all three mice in one photo here. If you can’t see the Logitech one it’s because Ghost Rider is holding it. The Roccat is a little smaller, has quite a few more buttons and has been very comfortable to use for the few weeks I’ve had it. I’ve tried to avoid getting too tweaky with it but I’ve remapped a few of the extra buttons to run certain commands and it’s been very solid, on or off a mouse mat. Some left handed mice are very uncomfortable for right handed users but I’ve had no complaints about the Roccat yet. I don’t know if it’ll last as long as the Intellimouse, which has seen nearly a decade of daily use, but it wasn’t too expensive, feels comfortable in use and means I can buy another one for the office. I know this post [...]

Testing multiple Puppet versions with TravicCI (and allowing failures)

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 13:01:25 +0000

When it comes to running automated tests of my public Puppet code TravisCI has long been my favourite solution. It’s essentially a zero infrastructure, second pair of eyes, on all my changes. It also doesn’t have any of my local environment oddities and so provides a more realistic view of how my changes will impact users. I’ve had two Puppet testing scenarios pop up recently that were actually the same technical issue once you start exploring them, running tests against the Puppet version I use and support, and others I’m not so worried about. This use case came up as I have code written for Puppet 3 that I need to start migrating to Puppet 4 (and probably to Puppet 5 soon) and on the other hand I have code on Puppet 4 that I’d like to continue supporting on Puppet 3 until it becomes too much of burden. While I can do the testing locally with overrides, rvm and gemfiles, I wanted the same behaviour on TravisCI. It’s very easy to get started with TravisCI. Once you’ve signed up (probably with github auth) it only requires two quick steps to get going. The first step is to enable your repo on the TravisCI site. You should then add a .travis.yml file to the repo itself. This contains the what and how of building and testing your code. You can see a very minimal example, that just runs rake spec with a specific ruby version, below: --- language: ruby rvm: - 2.1.0 script: "bundle exec rake spec" This provides our basic safety net, but now we want to allow multiple versions of puppet to be specified for testing. First we’ll modify our Gemfile to install a specific version of the puppet gem if an environment variable is passed in via the TravisCI build config. If this is missing we’ll just install the newest and run our tests using that. The lines that implement this, the last five in our sample file, are the important ones to note. To support testing under multiple versions of Puppet we’ll modify our Gemfile to install a specific version of the puppet gem if an environment variable is passed in, otherwise we’ll just install the newest and run our tests using that. The code that implements this, last five lines in our sample, are the important ones to note. #!ruby source '' group :development, :test do gem 'json' gem 'puppetlabs_spec_helper', '~> 1.1.1' gem 'rake', '~> 11.2.0' gem 'rspec', '~> 3.5.0' gem 'rubocop', '~> 0.47.1', require: false end if puppetversion = ENV['PUPPET_GEM_VERSION'] gem 'puppet', puppetversion, :require => false else gem 'puppet', :require => false end Now we’ve added this capability to the Gemfile we’ll modify our .travis.yml file to take advantage of it. Add an env array, with a version from each of the two major versions we want to test under, with the same variable name as we use in our Gemfile. --- language: ruby rvm: - 2.1.0 bundler_args: --without development script: "bundle exec rake spec SPEC_OPTS='--format documentation'" env: - PUPPET_GEM_VERSION="~> 3.8.0" - PUPPET_GEM_VERSION="~> 4.10.0" notifications: email: Now our .travis.yml is getting a little mode complicated you might want to lint it to confirm it’s valid. You can use the online TravisCI linter or install the TravisCI YAML gem and work offline. The example file above will trigger two separate builds when TravisCI receives the trigger from our change. If you want to explicitly test under two versions of Puppet, and fail the tests if anything breaks under either version, you are done. Congratulations! If however you’d like to test against an older, best effort but unsupported version or start testing a newer version that you&r[...]

Little ruby libraries - Testing with Timecop

Thu, 01 Jun 2017 09:55:17 +0000

When it comes to little known rubygems that help with my testing I’m a massive fan of the relatively unknown Timecop. It’s a well written, highly focused, gem that lets you control and manipulate the date and time returned by a number of ruby methods. In specs where testing requires certainty of ‘now’ it’s become my favoured first stop. The puppet deprecate function is a good example of when I’ve needed this functionality. The spec scenarios should exercise a resource with the time set to before and after the deprecation time in separate tests. The two obvious options are to hard code the dates, which won’t work here as we’re black box testing the function or mocking the calls, something Timecop excels at and saves you writing yourself. require 'timecop' # explicitly set the date. Timecop.freeze(Time.local('2015-01-24')) ... # success: we've explicitly set the date above to be before 2015-01-25 # so this resource hasn't been deprecated should run.with_params('2015-01-25', 'Remove Foo at the end of the contract.') ... # failure: we're using a date older than that set in the freeze above # so we now deprecate the resource should run.with_params('2015-01-20', 'Trigger expiry') ... # reset the time to the real now Timecop.return This allows us to pick an absolute point in time and use literal strings in our tests that relate to the point we’ve picked. No more intermediate variables with manually manipulated date objects to ensure we’re 7 days in the future or 30 days in the past. Removing this boilerplate code itself was a win for me. If you need to ensure all your specs run with the same time set you can call the freeze and return in the before and after methods. before do # all tests will have this as their time Timecop.freeze(Time.local(1990)) end after do # return to normal time after the tests have run Timecop.return end I’ve shown the basic, and for me most commonly used functionality above, but there are a few helper methods that elevate Timecop from “I could quickly write that myself” to “this deserves a place in my gemfile. The ability to freeze time in the future with a simple Timecop.freeze( + 7) is handy, the auto-return time to normal block syntax is pure user experience refinement but the Timecop.scale function, that lets you define how much time passes for every real second, isn’t something you need every day, but when you do you’ll be very glad you don’t have to write it yourself. [...]

Announcing multi_epp - Puppet function

Wed, 31 May 2017 10:20:25 +0000

As part of refreshing my old puppet modules I’ve started to convert some of my Puppet templates from the older ERB format to the newer, and hopefully safer, Embedded Puppet (EPP).

While it’s been a simple conversion in most cases, I did quickly find myself lacking the ability to select a template based on a hierarchy of facts, which I’ve previously used multitemplate to address. So I wrote a Puppet 4 version of multitemplate that wraps the native EPP function, adds matching lookup logic and then imaginatively called it multi_epp. You can see an example of it in use here:

class ssh::config {

  file { '/etc/ssh/sshd_config':
    ensure  => present,
    mode    => '0600',
    # note the array of files.
    content => multi_epp( [
                          ], {
                                'port'          => 22222,
                                'ListenAddress' => '',


This was the first function I’ve written using the new, Puppet 4 function API and in general it feels like an improvement to the previous API. The dispatch blocks and related functions encourage you to keep the individual sections of code quite small and isolated but will require some diligence to ensure you don’t duplicate a lot of nearly similar code between signatures. I also couldn’t quite do what I wanted (a repeating set of params followed by one optional) in the API but I’ve worked around that by requiring all the files to check be given as an array; which works but is a little icky. I’ve not gone full “all the shiny” yet and included things like function return values and types but I can see myself converting some of my other functions over to gain the benefit of easier parameter checking and basic types.

So what’s next on the path to EPP? For me it’ll be to get my no ERB template puppet-lint check running cleanly over a few local modules and to double check I don’t slip back in to old habits.

Non-intuitive downtime and possibly not lost sales

Mon, 29 May 2017 11:18:44 +0000

One of the things you’ll often read in web operation books is the idea that while you’re experiencing downtime your customers are fleeing in droves and taking their orders to your competitors out of frustration. However this isn’t always the truism that people take it for.

If your outages are rare, and your site is normally performant and easy to use (or has a monopoly), you’ll find this behaviour a lot less common than you’ve been told. Most people have a small set of sites they are comfortable using and have gradually built up trust and an order history with. This is especially true if you operate in certain niches, such as being the fashion site, or have a very strongly defined brand.

After a period of a few months of short but recurring outages we went back over our traffic logs and ran some queries to see how badly we’d been impacted and help us create our business case for more resources. The results were a little surprising for the more ‘conventional wisdom’ trusting members of the team.


Instead of seeing a reverse hockey stick graph of our customers deserting us in our hours of need before stabilising at a lower than before constant we saw that while orders did drop off during production outages, as you’d expect from a dead system, as long as recovery times stayed in the range of minutes, and very rarely a small number of hours, we always saw the daily order volume and sales totals bounce back to within a few percentages points of a normal day. In some cases we even saw brief periods of higher than usual levels as everyone finished their pending transactions as soon as we returned.


After witnessing this we had a few discussions and made some minor changes while waiting for the larger issues to be resolved. For example one aspect to consider is that if you can architect your failures to help users preserve even some of their effort you heavily increase the odds of them finishing. Keeping services like baskets and wishlists active make it increasingly likely they’ll return to complete their transaction with you. Once they’ve gone to the effort of finding their newest ‘must have’ you have a small amount of grace points to spend while you’re getting everything back to normal before they’ll discard their own time investment and move on.

It seems that as an industry we’ve managed to train our users to accept small amounts of failure, especially if your customers favour mobile devices on cellular networks. While i don’t want to try and convince you that downtime has no impact I do think it’s worth going over the numbers after your incidents to see what the slightly longer term impact was and how far away from a normal day your recovery curve gets you.

I should also note that this doesn’t cover security issues. Those have very different knock on effects and are typically orders of magnitude worse.

Smaller Debian Docker tips - apt lists

Fri, 19 May 2017 18:23:47 +0000

One of the hidden gems of GitHub is Jess Frazelle’s Dockerfiles Repo, a collection of Dockerfiles for applications she runs in containers to keep her desktop clean and minimal. While reading the NMap Dockerfile I noticed a little bit of shell I’d not seen before.

I’ve included the file itself below. The line in question is && rm -rf /var/lib/apt/lists/*, a tiny bit of shell that does some additional cleanup once apt has installed the required packages.

FROM debian:stretch
LABEL maintainer "Jessie Frazelle "

RUN apt-get update && apt-get install -y \
	nmap \
	--no-install-recommends \
	&& rm -rf /var/lib/apt/lists/*

ENTRYPOINT [ "nmap" ]

Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to see how much of a saving that line provides. First I built the Docker image as Jess intended:

sudo docker build -t nmap-rm-lists -f Dockerfile-rm-lists .

> sudo docker images
REPOSITORY           TAG      IMAGE ID       CREATED             SIZE
nmap-rm-lists        latest   9a4a697649f9   10 seconds ago      131.1 MB

As you can see in the output this creates an image 131.1 MB in size. If we remove the rm line (and the \ continuation character from the line above) and rebuild the image we should see a larger image.

sudo docker build -t nmap-with-apt-lists -f Dockerfile-with-apt-lists .


> sudo docker images
REPOSITORY           TAG      IMAGE ID       CREATED              SIZE
nmap-with-apt-lists  latest   d8459f6f2b93   About a minute ago   146.6 MB

And indeed we do, the image is just over 10% larger without that little optimisation. That’s going to be quite a nice saving over a few dozen container images. While looking through some of the other code in that repo I saw mention of a debian:stretch-slim image so I thought it was worth running an additional experiment with it as the base. Making the small change from FROM debian:stretch to FROM debian:stretch-slim in our Dockerfile, with the rm -rf /var/lib/apt/lists/* command also present, results in a much smaller image at just 86 MB

> sudo docker images
REPOSITORY           TAG      IMAGE ID       CREATED             SIZE
nmap-rm-lists-slim   latest   8fa72fad3929   About a minute ago  86.78 MB

For completeness (Hi Wes!) if we leave the lists in and use the debian:stretch- slim image we have a significantly larger image at 102 MB. This helps show that even with smaller base image the removal of the apt list files is still well worth it.

REPOSITORY             TAG      IMAGE ID      CREATED        SIZE
nmap-with-lists-slim   latest   26e65d974ae6  8 seconds ago  102.2 MB

While an Alpine image would be even smaller it’s nice to see this kind of size saving on Debian based images that look a lot closer to what I’d normally run in my VMs.

Nicer Jenkins Views - Build Monitor Plugin

Sat, 08 Apr 2017 13:25:28 +0000

While migrating and upgrading an old install of Jenkins over to version 2 the topic of adding some new views came up in conversation and the quite shiny Jenkins CI Build Monitor Plugin came up as a pretty, and quick to deploy, option.

Using some canned test jobs we did a manual deploy of the plugin, configured a view on our testing machine, and I have to say it looks as good, and as easily readable from a few desks away, as we’d hoped.


The next step is to apply the true utility test, leave it in place for a week or so and then remove it and see if anyone notices. If they do we’ll add some puppet scaffolding and roll it out to all the environments.

Tales from the Script

Wed, 01 Mar 2017 19:54:46 GMT

A number of roles ago the operations and developer folk were blessed with a relatively inexperienced quality assurance department that were, to put it kindly, focused on manual exploratory testing. They were, to a person, incapable of writing any kind of automated testing, running third party tools or doing anything in a reproducible way. While we’ve all worked with people lacking in certain skills what makes this story one of my favourites is that none of us knew they couldn’t handle the work.

The manager of the QA team, someone I’d never have credited with the sheer audacity to pull off this long con, always came to our meetings with an earnest face and excuses about the failure of “The Script”. We, being insanely busy modern technical people, took this at face value; how would you run all the regression tests without a script? “There was a problem running the script”, “the newest changes to the script had caused regressions” and similar were always on the tip of their tongue and because the developers were under a lot of time pressure no deep investigations were done. Everyone was assumed to be doing their best and what a great QA manager they were in protecting their people from any fallout from the failures. On it went, all testing was done via “the script” and everything was again good. Or so we assumed.

In one of our recurring nightmare incident reviews, this one after something we’d previously covered had come back for the third time, a few of us began to get suspicious. We decided to build our own little response team and do some digging for the sake of every ones sanity. Now, this was before the days of GitHub and everyone being in one team of sharing and mutual bonding. We knew we’d have to go rooting around other departments infrastructure to see what was going on. Over the course of the next few days the group targeted one of the more helpless QA engineers and began to help him with everything technical he needed. He had the most amazing, fully hand held, on-boarding the department had ever seen and we, in little bits and pieces, began to pierce the veil of secrecy that was the QA teams process.

One day, just before lunch, one of the senior developers involved in our investigation hit the mother-load. The QA engineer had paired with them on adding testing to “the script” for a new feature the developer had written and suddenly he had a full understanding of the script and its architecture.

It was an Excel spreadsheet.

It was a massive, colour coded, interlinked Excel spreadsheet. Each row was a separate test path or page journey. Some rows were 40 fields of references to other rows to form one complete journey. Every time we did a release to staging they’d load up the Excel document from the network share and arrow key their way through row upon row of explicit instructions. Seeing it in use was like watching an insane cross between snake and minesweeper. Some of the cells were links to screen grabs of expected outputs and page layouts. Some of them had a red background to show steps that had recently failed. It was a horrific moment of shared confusion. A team of nearly forty testers had ended up building this monstrosity and running it for months. It was like opening up a word doc and having Cthulhu glare back at you. So we did the only thing we could think of, went to lunch and mostly sat in stunned silence.

And I almost forgot the best part of the story, the Excel spreadsheet? It was named “The_Script.old.xls”

Development Diaries and Today I Learned Repositories

Sun, 26 Feb 2017 15:14:34 GMT

One of the difficulties in technically mentoring juniors you don’t see on a near daily basis is ensuring the right level of challenge and learning. It’s surprisingly easy for someone to get blocked on a project or keep themselves too deep in their comfort zone and essentially halt their progress for extended periods of time. An approach I use to help avoid this stagnation is the keeping of a “Development Diary”. A development diary, which I’ve heard called by many other names, is simple in concept and can be just as easy to implement. It’s the commitment to write down something that you’ve learned in your role each and every day. Over time it becomes a collection of small wins and achievements and shows that even little learnings have a big cumulative impact. While the daily aspect isn’t essential, and I’ve had people on more “Business as usual” focused teams reduce the frequency to as low as once a week, I think that while you’re at a more junior point in your career it should be easier to find new things to take note of than the awkward part in the middle where you’re doing the same thing for the fifth company. One of the best diaries I’ve had the pleasure of reading was by a non-native English speaker and nested amongst the usual technical content was the occasional gem, an explanation of an idiom they’d heard and tried to work out before looking it up. The best technical implementation of a development diary I’ve seen recently was a simple git repo of directories. A single post, written in markdown, was added each day. It served as a great little git learning project for the junior (pull request reviews, branches and merging in to master) and provided an excellent single location to both look back over and see how much they’d learned over the last five months while providing them with starting material for their more formal quarterly reviews. Watching this diary grow as a mentor provides some helpful insights in to how the person is doing. You can see what they consider interesting, if their focus is narrow or ranges over entire parts of the work and, if nothing is added for longer periods of time, can provide an early warning. I’ve found that not having anything to add for longer periods of time is a red flag and highlights that something is happening that requires more attention. It could be the person’s either blocked at work, has something else on their mind or isn’t being challenged. None of which are ideal for anything beyond short periods of time. As an aside while I’ve had the most success using this in a one-to-one basis with juniors I’ve tried it a few times across an entire team when doing a discovery phase for a larger piece of work. I’ve found it a lot harder to achieve consistent buy-in in this environment. Especially when external contractors and companies are involved as it requires a fair amount of trust and honesty between all involved for it to be useful. When used in this way the willing involvement of the more senior technical people and how the juniors consider them seems to be the best indication of whether it’ll have a positive impact or not. In a more nurturing and sharing team the seniors are willing to show what they didn’t know without risk of losing credibility and the juniors are open to show their progress without being judged harshly. In a less functional team the juniors are very hesitant to risk embarrassing themselves and the seniors hate the idea of showing weakness or gaps in their skills. Something I’ve had a lot less success with is nearly the reverse of a “Today I L[...]

Terraform Version Restrictions

Sat, 26 Nov 2016 19:42:10 GMT

One of my favourite forthcoming Terraform 0.8 features is the ability to restrict the versions of terraform a configuration file can be run by. Terraform is a rapidly moving project that constantly introduces new functionality and providers and unless you’re careful and read the change logs, and ensure everyone is running the same minor version (or you run terraform from a central point like Jenkins), you can easily find yourself getting large screens of errors from using a resource that’s in terraform master but not the version you’re running locally.

The new terraform configuration block allows you to avoid these kinds of issues by explicitly declaring which versions your code requires -

    $ cat resources/

    terraform {
        required_version = "> 0.8.3"
        # or specify a lower and upper bound
        # required_version = "> 0.7.0, < 0.8.0"

    $ ./terraform-8 plan resources

    The currently running version of Terraform doesn't meet the
    version requirements explicitly specified by the configuration.
    Please use the required version or update the configuration.
    Note that version requirements are usually set for a reason, so
    we recommend verifying with whoever set the version requirements
    prior to making any manual changes.

    Module: root
    Required version: > 0.8.3
    Current version: 0.8.0

While it’s not a shiny new piece of functionality I think this change will be greatly welcomed by terraform module authors. It shows a further step in maturity of both the tool and its emerging ecosystem and I can’t wait for it to become widely adopted.