Tools are not Practices

06 Aug 2016 . development practices . Comments #agile development

People conflating tools with practices is a common problem that I have frequently encountered in my career. Unfortunately, despite what some of these tools may promise, a tool can never be a replacement for truly understanding a practice. These beliefs prevent a deep understanding of practices that are designed to help teams improve, create higher quality code, and in turn create a higher quality product. That’s not to say all tools are problematic, but a thorough understanding of a practice is required to be able to make an informed decision about when and why to adopt a tool. Furthermore, it is important to know when to abandon a tool. It is impossible to recognize when a tool becomes an obstacle instead of an accelerator if you believe that the tool is the practice. There are other risks associated with tool adoptions which I discuss in my post, The Dangers of Development Tools.

I am going to describe a few examples that I have encountered. This list is by no means comprehensive. I have experienced some other examples of this phenomena and I may come back to these in a future follow up post.

Agile Development Practices

Agile is fast becoming a dirty word in our industry (I have a lot of ideas about why this has happened which is a topic for another day). This saddens me as the best experiences I’ve had in my career as a developer have been working on an agile, eXtreme Programming (XP) team. Working in that environment was an incredible learning experience. I grew and matured more as a developer in that environment than I had in any other team I had ever worked on. I had the best relationships with fellow team members and built high-quality code more efficiently than I ever had previously.

Unfortunately, many organizations claim they are agile without having any idea what the values and principles of agile software development really are. They cling to the idea that they can “customize agile” and believe that gives them a blank check to make up their own version of an agile development process. In a lot of cases these are examples of organizations clinging to command and control structures and trying to fit agile into a model where the organizational leadership continues maintain control and ownership.

These versions bear little resemblance to the practices that embody the values and principles of agile. Ron Jeffries writes about this in his post We Tried Baseball and it Didn’t Work. It is extremely important to really understand the principles and values of agile software development prior to customizing its practices.

The calling card for these types of organizations are ones that claim they “do agile” or are “little ‘a’ agile.” Fairly quickly it becomes obvious that these organizations are still command and control style organizations that have their own, home-grown practices that never challenge the organization to achieve any substantive change. Along with these misguided agile adoptions is usually the adoption of a team workflow tool. I am a strong believer that the best agile workflow tool is to not use one at all. In fact, I wrote about that in detail in my post, The Dangers of Development Tools.

These types of organizations claim they are agile simply because they use Jira, VersionOne, or some other workflow tracking software. Typically these tools position themselves as “Agile Tools.” All too often an organization is convinced it is agile simply because it uses an “agile tool.” In my experience, every case where one of these tools replaced a physical card wall it has slowed the team down. It shifted the focus of the team to metric collection and reporting status for use outside of the cross-functional team (i.e., organizational leadership). Unfortunately, focusing on status and metrics results in the team’s focus shifting away from building high-quality software and improving as a team.

Continuous Integration

Continuous Integration is an invaluable practice. It is one of the original twelve eXtreme Programming practices created by Kent Beck and Ron Jeffries while working on the Chrysler C3 project. Continuous Integration, like most practices, can be accomplished without the use of a tool at all. I often refer people to James Shore’s post Continuous Integration on a Dollar a Day that describes it in detail. There are some wonderful build tools that can help a team bootstrap their CI practices. These include build servers like Jenkins, TeamCity, etc. Unfortunately, these tools have also been called “CI Servers.” This often leads teams to mistakenly believe they are “doing CI” just because they are using a “CI Server.”

Several times in my career I have talked to teams who claim to practice Continuous Integration, only to find out they are actually doing just the opposite. They do their development on long-living feature branches (a practice that is not compatible with CI). They only integrate with the larger organization, working in the same repository, after several weeks or months of development. But these teams are convinced they are “doing CI” because they use a build server. Time and time again I encounter people who believe that simply having a build server is all that is required to accomplish Continuous Integration. To learn more about the practice Martin Fowler writes about it in this post.

Unit Testing

Another common misconception is unit testing. A lot of people are confused about what unit testing is and its intended purpose. I’ve written at length about what a unit test is in my article xUnit is not Unit Testing. Some teams believe they are writing unit tests simply because they are using an xUnit framework. Again, an xUnit framework is a tool not a practice. In fact, xUnit frameworks allow for the development of a wide variety of tests. I’ve written unit tests, integration tests, acceptance tests, end-to-end tests, and even UI-driven tests, all utilizing an xUnit framework and test runner.


Tools can certainly be a benefit to your team as long as you are adopting tools that are enabling you to move faster. However, it is important to truly understand a practice deeply before relying on a tool to accomplish it for you. Most importantly, be skeptical of your tools and be careful which ones you adopt. Tools have a way of solidifying practices that they support and prevent you from deviating from them. Tools can silently become a drag on your team instead of an accelerator and once they are embedded in your organization, they can be very hard to get rid of.