Agile Insider reality bytes…


Dusting off Rework

My current contract ends in a few more days so I'm taking the opportunity to dust off my worn copy of Rework by 37 signals.  I have to make a long overdue thanks to Craig Davidson, an outstanding agile developer I encountered in a previous engagement.

It's not a traditional agile book by any means, but the facts that are presented within the book resonate strongly with my agile values and I find it has helped me immensely to keep grounding myself between contracts.  I am now constantly surprised just how many paper-cuts I have personally accepted at each engagement and am equally surprised at my own personal level of intolerance now.  I'm actually thinking of requesting a discount from the authors since I now use this book as a gift I give almost routinely...

I challenge anyone not to find the book invaluable at challenging their own current view of the world.

So, once more, and I must apologise profusely for the tardiness, thank you so much Craig...


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!!!


Keeping It Simple – Regression vs Acceptance Testing

Another emergn coach asked me the other day how I distinguished between an acceptance test and regression tests.  For me there is a very simple rule...

  • If I write the test before I write any code, it's an acceptance test.
  • If I write the test after I've written the code, it's a regression test.
  • If I write code to make an acceptance test pass, it is now a regression test.

Keeping it as simple as this keeps you out of trouble, I've seen so many people try to retro-fit acceptance tests after they've written code only to write a test which is based on what they've written rather than what they should have written.  It's a subtle but important point that writing a test for stuff you've written (which might be wrong since you haven't got an acceptance test) means you are potentially writing a test that the system always does the wrong thing...


Functional Debt

Thanks to Ward Cunningham, we now have a wonderful metaphor "Technical Debt" which explains the common problem of skipping a little bit of design or missing out that little bit of refactoring to meet a deadline.  Whenever we cut corners there is a very good chance we are taking on more and more Technical Debt.

Money to Burn? Invest in Functional Debt

Money to Burn? Invest in Functional Debt

But is there a flip side to this?  I think there is and the term I would use is Functional Debt.  This is tied firmly in the YAGNI camp and relates to functionality that is developed without a need (or worse still a test).  Applying too much design, or developing generic frameworks with no business reason to do so inevitably leads to a solution which is over-engineered.  Of course, over-engineering as a term has been around for a long time, but I prefer the term Functional Debt, because this ties it back to money in a similar way to Technical Debt.

Debt is a term that evokes emotion and is easy for people to identify with and it is this capacity of the term to clarify the issue with a certain practise.  Over-engineering as a term doesn't evoke the same response and certainly doesn't suggest a loss of money in the same way that Debt does.

There are of course direct, easily measurable costs involved in creating unused functionality and that is the development costs, however, there are many more subtle costs that are easy to overlook.  There is the missed opportunity costs associated with not doing the right thing.  There is the project overhead costs in maintaining code that is not used.  There is the project overhead costs in increased complexity and time for the standard day to day activities of testing and refactoring.  There is the increased maintenance costs since it is now harder to understand the code for support personnel...

One of the biggest causes for Functional Debt I have seen is a lack of customer (business) involvement or direction.  Left to their own devices, IS departments naturally build overly- complex solutions to simple problems.  Without a business value attached to a piece of functionality (actually to a problem that is solved by a piece of functionality) it is only too easy for the IS department to burn money like there's no tomorrow.