Agile Insider reality bytes…


My Stories Are Bigger Than Your Story

Big Stories

Big Stories...

I've always found it a challenge when new teams are adopting scrum but have simply renamed their list of requirements as a product backlog.  Scrum provides a nice facade which shows a steady progress of churning through these requirements, but it makes it extremely difficult to measure the tangible business value. This is particularly the case where we have a scrumbut model, especially when done doesn't include production/release.

The progression from a list of requirements to user stories with acceptance criteria is usually the first step I recommend, but this is fraught with danger.  Requirements typically have inherent dependencies that don't translate well into stories and requirements are also usually solutions to problems rather than the problems themselves.  It is only by uncovering the underlying problems that we can start forgetting about the "requirements" and start providing tangible business value by solving business problems.

The first stab at cutting user stories usually results in very large stories with very vague, subjective acceptance criteria, if indeed there are any acceptance criteria.  As teams work on these large stories, the tasks they produce are also probably too big and vague and simply sit forever in the in progress column.  This is usually due to blindly trusting and following the scrum process.  At this stage I usually challenge teams to stop tracking tasks and instead focus on delivering the stories.  This is extremely uncomfortable at first since teams will be struggling to deliver big stories.  However, it only takes a sprint or two before the team start focussing on the stories and feel relieved that they don't get bogged down in 3 or 4 hour planning meetings to produce extremely detailed task breakdowns.  The tasks are still extremely important to capture and update, but this is more of a real-time activity and no-one gets penalised for adding new tasks, or removing tasks that are not needed any more...

This hybrid scrum/lean model provides much greater opportunity to start introducing new technical practises (e.g. test first, automated acceptance testing, etc) since stories are broken down at the last responsible moment and some stories are natural candidates (comfortable technologies, clearly defined, etc) for trying new things.

The next challenge I usually face is getting stories to a size that is acceptable for the team and the PO.  Applying the INVEST model works quite well here as does parking open questions through agreeing to raise future stories as required to limit the scope of the story in question to something that is estimatable.  At this point stories can become quite small (which is great IMHO) with perhaps only 1 or 2 acceptance criteria.  This for me is the sweet spot.  It means the story will probably fit in the 2 hr to 2 day window, it is well understood, it is easy to estimate, it is easy to test and a host of other great things...  However, it will also probably invalidate any existing (but also highly dubious) velocity metrics since the team will need to rebaseline...



I've witnessed scrum applied extremely well, when supported with some additional technical practises and good story discovery/acceptance criteria/backlog management, but more often than not in my experience scrum is applied as the smoke and mirrors over the requirements list to demonstrate progress and it's only when you hit the last sprint you realise that you can't integrate/release/deliver despite having completed 90% of the requirements before entering the sprint with only a couple of requirements to go (e.g. Oracle Auditing and Secure Messaging)...


Enterprise Agile – Evolutionary Standards

Low Tech Evolutionary Standards

At the risk of being lambasted by the agile community I will use the words enterprise and agile in the same sentence 😉

This article largely follows on from some previous entries and in particular my entry on user centred test driven development.

It is often a complaint that large organisations trundle along painfully and slowly.  Work can't start without following some process or other until you have sign-off.  Part of this sign-off will probably involve agreement to follow certain standards and guidelines, but if these standards don't yet exist how can we start???

To challenge this and present an alternative approach, why not make the "standards" part of the delivery itself.  Make it clear up front that rather than wait for the standards to be released (which would be the normal mode of attack in large organisations) you will actively work with whichever standard's body exists in the organisation to evolve just enough standards to support the actual work you are doing as you work through the backlog.

To make this work, COURAGE is imperative...  Someone has to have the courage to put a stake in the ground early, recognising there is a small risk this may change.  Developers should embed the standards into their automated testing as early as possible, this means that when and if a standard does change, there are tests in place which will assist developers in ensuring that all work to date is easily brought up to date...

The results of this is a design language that everyone can understand, when someone says they are writing a test which is looking for the jobs tag in the currently featured news article, everyone should know what that refers to in the wireframes, and also know how this will be identified and marked up in the implementation.  This allows tests to be written before any code and even for the final "Look And Feel" to progress alongside development.

Of course, you're always free to continue in the traditional model and wait for three months until the standards body within the organisation produces a 300 page guidelines document before even starting that killer new feature that will storm the market...  Or make totally random guesses, which are much more likely to be wrong, and be safe in the knowledge you have the traditional saviour of projects - Hope and Prayer!!!


The Real Value of Test First is the Thought Process

TDD found the simple solution ;)

TDD found the simple solution 😉

Test Driven is a loaded term and means different things to different people.  I much prefer the term Test First which clearly states that the test comes before the implementation.  However, for me, the value is not necessarily in creating an executable test, but in the thought processes that Test First brings out.

One of my colleagues at emergn is constantly reminding me that when presented with a solution you need to ask yourself what is the problem. This is what lead me to question TDD and it's variants.  If you search the web for Test Driven Development, you'll uncover a wealth of information from many of the authors in my BlogRoll, as well as many variants on a theme. I think the wikipedia entry is a particularly good summary of Test Driven as it is currently understood by the community but for the real meat and bones you need to look at the articles from the thought leaders behind the practises.

However, when I look at this wealth of information, I'm now faced with the question...  OK, these are all solutions, but what is the fundamental problem they are solving?  Is it

  • Code quality/design is poor
  • Code is overly complex/difficult to test
  • Unused functionality within the code
  • Too many bugs

It is only when we understand the underlying problem fully that we can then evaluate the applicability/suitability of a particular approach.  Indeed, it is this lack of a clearly defined problem which makes it impossible to determine which approach is best, since we can't define any tests up front...  This is actually a little bit of a paradox, but highlights for me one of the most important points about TDD.  TDD is a solution to too many problems and in certain cases is not a very good solution.

Testing should be about proving functionality, but unfortunately we too often see TDD trying to address non testing issues like design and code quality.  Of course, code needs to be testable, but it is not the responsibility of the Testing to enforce this, it is the responsibility of the design, but this is (unfortunately IMHO) the missing piece in most methodologies...  Indeed, the approach of writing the "Simplest Possible Thing" to pass a test is possibly my biggest bug-bear with TDD.  This approach often means you can pass tests with no functionality other than hard coded return values, now that has to be the biggest process smell ever.

I'm going to stop using TDD, or Test Driven now and use instead the term I prefer which is Test First.  For me, this means that before I do anything, I will determine ahead of time how I would test it.  The immediate benefit (a.k.a value) I get from determining how to test something is I'm also starting to think about (dare I suggest design) things like apis/design/interaction/responsibilities.  This is not the same as BDUF (big design up front), instead it is just enough thought at just the right moment to (hopefully)  prevent a disaster.  I can then apply some cost/benefit analysis with a pinch of risk analysis to assign a value to actually writing all the tests that TDD would have forced you to write, or just a small percentage to cover the important or more complex functionality.

Of course, in many cases I will actually create executable tests for many of those uncovered during this thought exercise, but will I go through the whole Red/Green/Refactor cycle, possibly not.  For me the Red/Green/Refactor is like micro context switching.  I prefer a slightly longer period of focus and therefore I may write quite a few tests at the same time before applying that context switch to go into coding mode.  This of course is my personal preference and undoubtedly would be scorned upon by the dogmatic TDD zealots, but if this is what makes me more productive, and without a baseline problem statement I challenge them to prove that this is not the best way to do your testing.

Test First allows me to

  • Understand the problem I'm trying to solve
  • Think about how I will solve it (just enough design)
  • Uncover any unknowns or risks hidden in the initial problem statement
  • Produce high quality code which has just enough tests

Many of the Test Driven approaches do indeed address many of the initial problems stated earlier, but are they the only solution to these problems?  Indeed, are these problems actually just symptoms of even deeper problems?  If the problem is simply that your code is very tightly coupled and difficult to test then the best ROI will probably come not from TDD but from up-skilling your development team on fundamental design principles (unskilled developers was the real problem in the first place and TDD can't solve that).