Zest Software and The Joel Test

A couple of years ago, Joel Spolsky wrote “The Joel Test”. Let’s see how Zest Software scores…

The Joel Test was devised to rate the quality of a software team. In contrast to other methods, it is designed to quickly provide some basic insight in how a team is doing. And although Joel used the words “highly irresponsible” and “sloppy” I though it was fun to see how we at Zest rate.

We mainly use agile development to create buildout based Plone applications. In answering the questions, I’ll focus on those type of projects.

(Disclaimer: obviously this represents my own view on the matter and is not necessarily the opinion of Zest or any of my co-workers.)

1. Do you use source control?

Yes! I cannot even imagine working without it. We mainly use Subversion but some of us are (or have been) experimenting with other source control software, like Bazaar , Git and Mercurial.

2. Can you make a build in one step?

Hmmm… tough one. We don’t really “build” in the traditional way. Since Python is an interpreted language, we don’t need to explicitly compile. For instance: restarting Zope is enough to use the latest code (and with plone.reload restarting isn’t even necessary in many cases).

But okay sometimes you’ll have to rerun the buildout to get/update all the dependencies. Rerunning buildout is a single step so I’ll count this as a yes.

3. Do you make daily builds?

In the way Joel describes this, it basically translates for us to doing a clean checkout, running the buildout and then running the tests. (Assuming the tests include integration tests which need the whole Plone/Zope stack.)

But no, we don’t do this. We did have buildbot running for a couple of projects to run the tests after every commit, but I have to admit we are not doing this often enough.

4. Do you have a bug database?

Yes we do. If we encounter a bug, we store it either in a (user) story or we put it in the issue tracker associated with the project.

5. Do you fix bugs before writing new code?

This depends on the project. Most of the time we try to estimate the time needed to solve the problem and report back to the customer if we expect that the fix will take a significant amount of time. Since in Agile development the customers set the priorities, they can decide that the bug is less important than getting a new feature in the next release.

For our own projects or community projects we do want to make sure we ship code as bug free as possible and in general we give bugs a high priority.

6. Do you have an up-to-date schedule?

For each project we maintain a list of features in our project management tool. Each feature (or story in XP terminology) has an estimate of how much time it will take to implement. So we can determine when the project will be done.

However, at each iteration meeting the customer could decide to add new feature, change the priorities, etcetera. So the schedule is in no way set in stone.

7. Do you have a spec?

Each story in the project represents a single feature. Since the set of features for a project isn’t static (new ones can be added, others can be dropped), we don’t write a lengthy document specifying every detail of a project. We tend to describe the feature in a couple of sentences in the story. By splitting it up in tasks when we start working on it, more details are added.

(By the way, not writing specifications and justifying that by saying “XP doesn’t need specs” is wrong in my opinion. You do need to have other practices in place to compensate the lack of written specs.)

Another characteristic of agile development: we only build what is requested. That is: we don’t try to accommodate for every possible future use case of a feature. We try to find a balance between iterative design and thinking things though enough to limit the refactoring needed when more use cases have to be implemented.

And since we have iteration meetings every (other) week where we demo and discuss the work done in the previous iteration, the customer has the opportunity to refine their ideas.

8. Do programmers have quiet working conditions?

No we don’t. Which is a good thing when sprinting on a project: by having all developers in the same room it is incredibly easy to exchange knowledge. Pair programming also helps here. In my experience if one of the partners gets distracted by the discussion (e.g. to answer a question) the other half of the pair can quickly get him focussed again.

When we are not sprinting though, it can be a bit hard to focus on your task. Especially if co-workers are discussing a project on which you aren’t working right now, but you are familiar with. (Perhaps I’m overly curious and therefore more easily distracted…) However, at the office we do have a place where you are isolated from the other developers and it is also possible to work from home.

9. Do you use the best tools money can buy?

If we need tools and our demands are reasonable, sure. It just happens that many of the tools we think are the best, are open source tools. (Although it also depends on the platform that is being used. I’ve got the feeling that the Mac users at Zest use more proprietary software than the Linux users.)

10. Do you have testers?

No we don’t. This doesn’t mean our software is deployed at random though. First of all we try to write automated tests (unit, functional and integration tests), although I do have to admit that this heavily depends on the quality level the customer asks for. But this is a different discussion.

Furthermore: usually the project manager tests the application to see whether it meets the requirements. Then we demo it to the customer. And finally: most of the times we first deploy the code to a preview server where the customer can play around to test it.

11. Do new candidates write code during their interview?

No, as far as I know we don’t require candidates to write code. (I certainly didn’t have to do it. :) ) But at the same time we also haven’t yet hired developers that didn’t meet up to our expectations. Perhaps we don’t have as high standards as e.g. Joel does, perhaps it has to do with the fact that we are a small company. I don’t know.

12. Do you do hallway usability testing?

It’s no excuse, but this is hard to do this if you’re in a small company. I think most co-workers are too “technology infected” by now to give a completely objective opinion. If you’ve been working with a system long enough (e.g. Plone) you get used to it’s quirks.

However, we do frequently request co-workers to give a second opinion about the (user) interface. And since we work in short iterations, the end-user also gets to work with the software shortly after writing it. So any strange behaviour should be detected quickly.


Perhaps I’m not being objective, but I think that some of the questions from the Joel Test don’t fit in our development process. I therefore don’t want to calculate a score but let you draw your own conclusions. I certainly found a couple of areas where we can improve…