Drawing up a roadmap

Reposted from gnome.org

One of the most important documents a project can have is some kind of elaboration of what the maintainers want to see happen in the future. This is the concrete expression of the project vision – it allows people to adhere to the vision, and gives them the opportunity to contribute to its realisation. This is the document I’ll be calling a roadmap.

Sometimes the word “roadmap” is used to talk about other things, like branching strategies and release schedules. To me, a release schedule and a roadmap are related, but different documents. Releasing is about ensuring users get to use what you make. The roadmap is your guiding light, the beacon at the end of the road that lets you know what you’re making, and why.

Too many projects fall into the trap of having occasional roadmap planning processes, and then posting a mighty document which stays, unchanged, until the next time the planning process gets done. Roadmaps like these end up being historical documents – a shining example of how aspirations get lost along the way of product development.

Other projects are under-ambitious. Either there is no roadmap at all, in which case the business as usual of making software takes over – developers are interrupt-driven, fixing bugs, taking care of user requests, and never taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. Or your roadmap is something you use to track tasks which are already underway, a list of the features which developers are working on right now. It’s like walking in a forest at night with a head-light – you are always looking at your feet avoiding tree-roots, yet you have no idea where you’re going.

When we drew up the roadmap for the GIMP for versions 2.0 and 2.2 in 2003, we committed some of these mistakes. By observing some projects like Inkscape (which has a history of excellent roadmapping) and learning from our mistakes, I came up with a different method which we applied to the WengoPhone from OpenWengo in 2006, and which served us well (until the project became QuteCom, at least). Here are some of the techniques I learned, which I hope will be useful to others.

Time or features?

One question with roadmaps is whether hitting a date for release should be included as an objective. Even though I’ve said that release plans and roadmaps are different documents, I think it is important to set realistic target dates on way-points. Having a calendar in front of you allows you to keep people focussed on the path, and avoid falling into the trap of implementing one small feature that isn’t part of your release criteria. Pure time-based releases, with no features associated, don’t quite work either. The end result is often quite tepid, a product of the release process rather than any design by a core team.

I like Joel’s scheduling technique: “If you have a bunch of wood blocks, and you can’t fit them into a box, you have two choices: get a bigger box, or remove some blocks.” That is, you can mix a time-based and feature-based schedule. You plan features, giving each one a priority. You start at the top and work your way down the list. At the feature freeze date, you run a project review. If a feature is finished, or will be finished (at a sufficient quality level) in time for release, it’s in. If it won’t realistically be finished in time for the release date, it’s bumped. That way, you stick to your schedule (mostly), and there is a motivation to start working on the biggest wood blocks (the most important features) first.

A recent article on lessons learned over years of Bugzilla development by Max Kanat-Alexander made an interesting suggestion which makes a lot of sense to me – at the point you decide to feature freeze and bump features, it may be better to create a release branch for stabilisation work, and allow the trunk to continue in active development. The potential cost of this is a duplication of work merging unfinished features and bug fixes into both branches, the advantage is it allows someone to continue working on a bumped feature while the team as a whole works towards the stable release.

Near term, mid term, long term

The Inkscape roadmap from 2005 is a thing of beauty. The roadmap mixes beautifully long-term goals with short-term planning. Each release has a by-line, a set of one or two things which are the main focus of the release. Some releases are purely focussed on quality. Others include important features. The whole thing feels planned. There is a vision.

But as you come closer and closer to the current work, the plans get broken down, itemised further. The BHAGs of a release in 2 years gets turned into a list of sub-features when it’s one year away, and each of those features gets broken down further as a developer starts planning and working on it.

The fractal geometer in me identifies this as a scaling phenomenon – coding software is like zooming in to a coastline and measuring its length. The value you get when measuring with a 1km long ruler is not the same as with a 1m ruler. And as you get closer and closer to writing code, you also need to break down bigger tasks into smaller tasks, and smaller tasks into object design, then coding the actual objects and methods. Giving your roadmap this sense of scope allows you to look up and see in the distance every now and again.

Keep it accurate

A roadmap is a living document. The best reason to go into no detail at all for  future releases beyond specifying a theme is that you have no idea yet how long things will take to do when you get there. If you load up the next version with features, you’re probably aiming for a long death-march in the project team.

The inaccurate roadmap is an object of ridicule, and a motivation killer. If it becomes clear that you’re not going to make a date, change the date (and all the other dates in consequence). That might also be a sign that the team has over-committed for the release, and an opportunity to bump some features.

Leave some empty seats

In community projects, new contributors often arrive who would like to work on features, but they don’t know where to start. There is an in-place core team who are claiming features for the next release left & right, and the new guy doesn’t know what to do. “Fix some bugs” or “do some documentation” are common answers for many projects including GNOME (with the gnome-love keyword in Bugzilla) and LibreOffice (with the easy hacks list). Indeed, these do allow you to get to know the project.

But, as has often been said, developers like to develop features, and sometimes it can be really hard what features are important to the core team. This is especially true with commercial software developers. The roadmap can help.

In any given release, you can include some high priority features – stuff that you would love to see happen – and explicitly marked as “Not taken by the core team”. It should be clear that patches of a sufficiently high standard implementing the feature would be gratefully accepted. This won’t automatically change a new developer into a coding ninja, nor will it prevent an ambitious hacker from biting off more than he can chew, but it will give experienced developers an easy way to prove themselves and earn their place in the core team, and it will also provide some great opportunities for mentoring programs like the Google Summer of Code.

The Subversion roadmap, recently updated by the core team, is another example of best practice in this area. In addition to a mixed features & time based release cycle, they maintain a roadmap which has key goals for a release, but also includes a separate list of high priority features.

The end result: Visibility

The end result of a good roadmap process is that your users know where they stand, more or less, at any given time. Your developers know where you want to take the project, and can see opportunities to contribute. Your core team knows what the release criteria for the next release are, and you have agreed together mid-term and long-term goals for the project that express your common vision. As maintainer, you have a powerful tool to explain your decisions and align your community around your ideas. A good roadmap is the fertile soil on which your developer community will grow.

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