Trying to integrate applications on your own can eat your project alive. A seemingly simple project may look harmless when you start, but in the end do-it-yourself software delivery tool integrations can devour your entire software process.
The problem may be that building simple integrations appears easy. How hard can an integration be? But let’s look at what typically happens with integrations down the road using the example of one developer’s story.
A developer needs to send defects from Zendesk to JIRA, so he builds a one-way integration based on a workflow action (just a trigger). Soon enough, he realizes he is now managing two tools, and keeping them updated has become a big issue—a very manual process and a huge time-sink. So he designs something to support two-way updates. But that’s just the beginning; each tool changes every few months and an integration that seemed so simple on the surface becomes very complicated.
Then our developer tries to modify a simple JIRA workflow. Again, it seems straightforward, but it’s not, because the tools involved are constantly changing. There are complexities with workflows, and organizations undertake endpoint system upgrades. As a result, one change to the tool breaks everything he’s done. On top of this, it’s difficult now for him to know the hierarchy or how one item relates to another.
He starts to consider some of the challenges he’s facing. He needs to consider how the description is written in each tool. They are all different, so how does he make sure he conveys the information correctly every time? And each “simple” integration seems to create more pain points, creating auditability and traceability problems. Meanwhile, he has to manage other tools that are continually added to the mix.
He’s taken a look at both API and custom-tool approaches. He’s found that API integrations are brittle or they become too popular and then have to be maintained for an entire organization. But the alternative—custom tools—typically fall apart quickly.
And what happens when our developer decides to leave the company? There’s no one left who knows how to maintain the integrations he created. Meanwhile, new tool replacements mean someone has to build new integrations—and the puzzle becomes even more complicated.
This short scenario illustrates the unexpected challenges developers face in creating and maintaining integrations. The cost of building and maintaining tool integrations in an always-evolving landscape is deceptively high. And when an integration fails and the organization suffers critical downtime, costs (and tempers) skyrocket.
Many of the common pitfalls are readily evident, such as rich text problems, but the following three areas may be the most challenging to developers addressing integration issues and can’t be easily avoided:
- Endpoint system upgrades and schema changes
- Workflow rules and differences
Endpoint system upgrades and schema changes: Much of the time, a different team from the one that developed an integration will perform the upgrade. Perhaps a new field was added. Regardless, simple changes to APIs can blow up an integration. API responses may change formats or the expected values for a field may change. When the team upgrades the system the URL may change, so avoiding duplicates is tough. So, too, is ensuring that the change is seamless. Changing some of the underlying features could result in unexpected behavior (and it will be hard to detect where the problem actually is). It may be that JIRA made API changes that caused custom select fields and comments to fail when using the “old way”; however, other features may continue to work as expected, making this failure silent.
Workflow rules and differences: Workflows are the complexities between systems. It is hard enough to reconcile teams, let alone the tools they use. Tools may require you to enter required fields, and this can constantly change. And workflows may not match up at all. How can you handle these differences without bouncing field values and allowing complex mappings to reconcile these? What happens when a system has a special action to change a status and fields are required at the same time, but the other system is open and doesn’t reflect this?
Because of these issues, it is critical to get the teams being integrated (e.g. testing and development) to discuss workflows and where the two teams align. These teams need to understand where workflows overlap so they can undertake proper integrations.
Relationships: These are not always apparent. As you grow and want traceability, you need to have synchronized relationships. How does this requirement trace to a test? How will you manage those relationships? The tools don’t match the way they manage relationships. Some allow one value, others multiple. Some allow relationships across projects and types, others are more restrictive. In addition to the rules of the system, how do you know what items to link once you have synchronized the artifacts? What happens if only one side of the link is synchronized or the items are not synchronized in the order that you expected?
Getting this all right requires intelligent systems that can look at one system and translate properly to another
Avoiding Integration Pitfalls
The first obvious step in avoiding pitfalls is to identify what they will be and when they’ll pop up. To do this, focus not just on the current problem, but also on the future. Consider the bigger picture, understanding that systems constantly change and teams work differently so there will be additional layers of complexity in any integration project down the road.
As such, my best advice is for development organizations to focus on the software their organizations are counting on them to deliver, not creating and managing tools to build that software. Put internal resources to work in IT areas where you can create competitive advantage for your company. And consider using third parties to address issues such as integrations.
About the Author / Shawn Minto
Shawn Minto is the senior director of Technical Services and Support at Tasktop and one of the original team members working with CEO and co-founder, Mik Kersten, on Mylyn prior to Tasktop’s founding. Shawn began his career at Tasktop as a software engineer, working on all aspects of the product and directly with our customers to support their needs. Currently he works with customers to understand their tool environments and offers suggestions on how to best leverage Tasktop through deployments and support. In his free time, he enjoys being outside, cooking, and renovation projects. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.