A mazeHere are some tips and tricks I have for navigating new software systems, which can sometimes be like navigating a maze. If you’re truly unlucky, it’s a maze, but you’re blindfolded and the walls are covered in randomly placed razors.

The first is to get a clear set of expectations. Will I own the system? Who owns it now? How long have they owned it? How often is it modified? When will it need to be modified again? Is it shaky or stable? Getting these questions answered helps me understand and refine further steps.

The next step is to gain access. There are a lot of different pieces of most modern systems, so access can mean different things. Here are some kinds of access which it may be worth seeking:

  • shell
  • version control
  • database
  • ftp
  • http
  • app level (admin, user)
  • documentation
  • project planning
  • different CI environments (prod, UA, staging)
  • build system
  • admin users
  • end users

After I have access, I like to look at the front end and the back end. By the front end, I mean the user interface. And by the back end I mean the data store. Just looking around and seeing what tables and pages an application has can help.

If the system in question is not entirely custom built, googling for the user guide for the default version of the application can be helpful. Finding that user guide and skimming through it can give me more high level understanding, as well as teaching me key nomenclature. Of course if there is any local documentation, that’s helpful too, but I read that with a skeptical eye, as it doesn’t always keep pace with the system.

I also like to look at logfiles. This can help me determine something as simple as if I’m on the correct server (if I reload the page and the access log file doesn’t change, I am looking at the wrong log file or am on the the wrong server). Even better if the system aggregates logs into something like an ELK system or papertrail.

Setting up a local development environment can help. Again, this lets me gain an understanding of the big picture components, and also lets me poke at various parts of a system, possibly breaking them, without affecting other developers or, worse, customers.

Asking questions is really important, but this can be hard because often the folks with the most knowhow are the busiest.

I also like to see what files or database tables change as I move through the system. With a modest sized database, I do this by taking a database dump before taking some action and then after. Then I diff the files, sometimes using sed to break the dump file apart even further (replacing all commas with commas and newlines, for example). If using mysqldump, you can target individual tables and make sure not to use extended inserts, as that makes diffing harder.

For the filesystem, it’s even easier. I touch a file (ts) and then take the action, then run find . -newer ts -print. This command will show me all the files the system has written that are newer than ts.

Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful to you as you navigate your next new system.

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