Code collaboration online: pros, cons, and best practices

What is code collaboration?

Code collaboration is the act of building software with multiple people. It’s a process that encompasses the entire software development life cycle, from requirements gathering to production deployments. Collaboration is facilitated by tools with features like version control, bug tracking, communication, and documentation.

Software development has been a collaborative process for decades, going back to the 1970s with Bell Labs’ Source Code Control System (SCCS). Since then, developers have employed many different systems like Git, Subversion (SVN), CVS, and Perforce. The increased popularity of code collaboration tools led to the modern features we enjoy today, like code sharing, code reviews, project tracking, bug tracking, commenting, and third-party integrations.

Today’s most popular code collaboration tools have evolved with the widespread adoption of cloud-based collaboration software, such as GitHub, Bitbucket, AWS CodeCommit, and Microsoft Azure DevOps. These tools include more modern communication capabilities that allow developers to discuss and coordinate work in real time.

In addition to helping people work together on a shared code base, code collaboration tools have improved code quality, standards, and testing.

The rise of the cloud-based development environment

Cloud computing wasn’t mainstream until the mid-2010s, which means code collaboration mostly happened within private, company-owned networks. Popular pre-cloud code collaboration tools in the 1990s and early 2000s were CVS/CVSNT, SVN, Perforce, and Microsoft Visual SourceSafe. Popular tools today, like Git, either didn’t exist, were immature, or lacked important collaboration features that software teams required. For example, early versions of Git were incapable of tracking and resolving code review comments.

As more companies migrated to cloud-based services in the early- and mid-2010s, so did the use of open source software. The need for public and private code collaboration became essential, leading to the creation of tools like Bitbucket and GitHub in 2008. Globalization and outsourcing of software development work were also crucial influences for the need (and rise) of cloud-based code collaboration.

Cloud-based collaboration tools offer several advantages over traditional, on-premise tools:

  • Easier to set up and use: No need to install or maintain software on local machines or servers.
  • Accessible from anywhere: No need for VPNs, SSH tunnels, or hard-to-implement configuration (unless, of course, you want to).
  • Built-in reliability, scalability, and security: Cloud providers have more incentives to stay online than internal tools.
  • Integrations with popular tools and IDEs: Log in with an IAM or OAuth token, connect directly to your IDE, or see others working in real-time—cloud-based tools have much more sophisticated tech with a huge number of tools.

Code collaboration online: benefits and challenges

Cloud-enabled online code collaboration has plenty of advantages, which is why they have practically replaced all on-premise tools. However, no tool or process is without its drawbacks. Let’s look at what’s great about online code collaboration and then explore the downsides.

Benefits of online code collaboration

There’s a long list of benefits to online code collaboration, but we’ll focus on three of the biggest ones.

Online code collaboration tools are designed for speed and adoption. They are much easier to access, use, administer and maintain than historical on-premise systems, which require proprietary tools (many of which weren’t free) and special knowledge for proper configuration. Whereas legacy tools like SVN required internal hostnames and port configurations, modern tools like GitHub are available via the public internet.

Cloud-based tools are also more reliable and secure than on-premise tools. They’re hosted by providers with millions of customers worldwide, meaning they have distributed infrastructure for global scaling. Before the cloud, scaling and implementation were handled by an organization’s internal infrastructure and IT teams. If teams in the US and India needed to collaborate on a repository, they’d need servers in each country and a dedicated private connection between the data centers. Service outages were handled by local IT people who had physical access to the servers and could solve “last mile” problems.

Agile software methodologies have driven cloud-based code collaboration. For example, teams nowadays iterate and deploy once every two weeks or multiple times daily. Before cloud-based infrastructure, that just wasn’t easy—and sometimes, it wasn’t even possible. Pre-cloud software development was slower and less efficient. The software industry was still adopting new techniques like CI/CD pipelines. Internet connection speeds were slower, meaning some companies still delivered software via CD-ROMs with online activation. It was a different time….

Challenges of online code collaboration tools

Great as online code collaboration tools may be, they’re not without fault or opportunity for improvement. Here are some of the challenges developers may encounter when working with today’s cloud-enabled collaboration tools:

  1. Asynchronous coordination: Working remotely or in different time zones can make it challenging to communicate and coordinate with team members. The complexity of software projects can make it challenging to stay up to date on the status of the project and can lead to misunderstandings or confusion.
  2. Evolving interfaces: Cloud-based tools can change overnight with no input from customers. A provider may do something trivial, like changing a button into a link, or something significant, like redesigning the user interface. Or the provider may A/B test functionality and experiences, making functionality confusing or inconsistent for developers who just need to get their work done.
  3. Security: When cloud-based providers host large codebases for many customers, there’s risk of bad actors having access to proprietary code or intellectual property in private repositories. No matter how secure a developer’s code may be, if the collaboration tool provider gets hacked, it can be bad news.
  4. Lock-in: Cloud providers depend on monthly recurring revenue from their customers. Sometimes they will take advantage of user acquisition and create a walled garden, making it difficult to move your own assets (e.g., code, comments, tickets, integrations).
  5. Integrations: As developers take on more tools, change IDEs, or reconfigure their automation, there’s always a chance that the collaboration tool doesn’t support an integration. It may be lacking an API call or an intentional blacklisting of a competitor’s product. Whatever it is, the provider may not provide support for integrations in the developer's best interest.

Despite these challenges, many developers have found that the benefits of online code collaboration outweigh the challenges. It enables them to work effectively with team members located remotely or in different time zones.

Best practices for code collaboration online

There’s no standardized way to work collaboratively online with other developers, but there are undoubtedly healthy patterns and best practices that can be followed. Here are some of the few we recommend:

  1. Use version control: It may seem like a no-brainer (or even a non-starter), but effective collaboration means having a way of versioning code and releases. Not only should developers use version control, but they should ensure that the version control system they adopt meets all the requirements for the collaborative work they’ll be doing.
  2. Have a code review process: Code reviews ensure that at least one other team member inspects all code changes before merging. Having another set of eyes on the code ensures bugs are caught (and fixed) and that code changes adhere to coding standards.
  3. Use a project management tool: Code collaboration is great, but have you ever tried building complex software without due dates or expectations? Tons of great project management tools can help software move from ideation to a real-world product. Some PM tools even integrate with code collaboration tools like GitHub.
  4. Use communication tools: Slack and Microsoft Teams are two of the leading communication platforms for software teams today. They’re useful for keeping teams aligned, real-time discussion, voting, paired programming, and audio/video calls.
  5. Automation where it makes sense: We love automation and have built an entire documentation platform around it. But, we know automation doesn’t make sense everywhere. Automate repeatable work that’s the best fit for computers.
  6. Adopt and maintain coding standards: Without coding standards, a repository will have as many coding styles as there are contributors. With coding standards, there’s a baseline expectation for whatever is specified, whether loops, comments, use of brackets, or even spaces vs. tabs. Set standards, maintain them, and make them part of your code review.
  7. Track issues: Every piece of software is going to have some bugs. Sometimes they’re tracked in project management tools, which might not be equipped to track software-specific tasks. If you’re serious about high-quality code, use tools that focus on code quality and software development.
  8. Be consistent: For online code collaboration, it’s important that there’s only one project management tool, one communication tool, and one way of automating—you get the drift. Consistency is key to collaborative success.
  9. Write and maintain great documentation: The bigger the dev team, the more code changes daily or weekly. It’s absolutely essential that these changes are understood and documented so they can be appropriately maintained.

Use Swimm to share knowledge when collaborating on code

Swimm is an emerging tool for knowledge sharing and online code collaboration that leverages code-coupled documentation. With its tightly-integrated ecosystem, Swimm can track whether code changes introduce documentation-breaking changes. It plugs right into CI/CD pipelines, ensuring documentation is as important as the code it describes. We call this approach Continuous Documentation, and it’s changing the way developers are working across the industry.

Online code editors and sophisticated documentation systems are the next big frontier for code collaboration online. Get ahead of the industry by trying Swimm, the world’s only Continuous Documentation platform. Sign up for free today