Archive for the ‘Agile’ Category
Something which can often happen with agile software development teams is that in the desire to take everyone’s opinion into account for every decision we end up having a lot of meetings.
Toni wrote about this a while ago and described a situation where he’d managed to get rid of a meeting and just have a discussion after the stand up with the necessary people.
While this is a good idea I still think there are occasions where it’s not necessary to discuss every problem down to the minute details with the whole team.
For example, this week we needed to make changes to some migration files to deal with the fact that we’d removed a gem which a migration previously relied on.
3 solutions were suggested and each had good and bad parts to it so any discussion amongst a group of people was likely to result in a split opinion on what the best approach to take was.
In that situation I think it makes much more sense for one pair to take the problem, work out what they think is the best solution and then just do it.
If it turns out that wasn’t the best solution then we can change it in the future.
It can be quite difficult to persuade people that it’s not necessary to have meetings because the meetings are usually are about things which affect the team so it seems to make sense to involve everyone.
On the other hand I like to think of what people could be doing instead of attending that meeting.
If what they could be doing would be more valuable then perhaps they shouldn’t be in that meeting.
On the majority of the projects that I’ve worked on at ThoughtWorks we’ve held a showcase at the end of each iteration to show our client what we’ve been working on and finished over the previous one or two weeks.
The format of these showcases has been fairly similar each time but the people who attended has tended to vary depending on the situation.
As part of the project being worked on at ThoughtWorks University we’ve run a showcase at the end of each week which the whole team have been attending.
Toby pointed out that having everyone there didn’t seem to be the best use of people’s time since the majority of the developers in the room didn’t actually have any input during the showcase.
I’ve often felt the same in that situation although we used a similar approach on a project I worked on last year and it seemed to be quite useful for addressing the human aspect of the project.
The client was able to meet all the people on the team and equally the developers were able to gain some insight into the types of conversations that the analysts were having with the client.
In that particular example we had around 10-15 developers so there was quite a big gathering but on the other projects where we’ve had the whole team at the showcase there’s only been 3 or 4 of us.
On the last project I worked on we took it in turns to go to the showcase. I think it’s quite useful to have at least one technical person in a showcase as they’re able to give instant feedback on implementation details such as how difficult it will be to change the way a certain piece of functionality works.
A lot of the time we didn’t have any input but it was interesting that quite often we’d come out of those showcases with more understanding of what the client was trying to achieve with a specific feature.
If we don’t have all the developers in every showcase we do tend to have them all there for the first showcase at least as that tends to be the one where the most stakeholders will be present.
Overall though it’s a call to make depending on the situation and the difficulty in judging the value of attending the showcase seems to come about because a lot of the benefits of attending are indirect whereas staying at our desk and coding has a direct benefit to the project.
While some of the points that he raises are certainly valid I think they’re more evidence of pair programming not being done in an effective way rather than a problem with the idea in itself.
To take one example:
Generally people don’t think a lot while pair programming as the person who wants to think about the pros and cons will be considered inefficient (as he will slow down the coding speed). So, generally people show fake confidence on the effectiveness of the proposed solution.
While it’s certainly possible to end up with this scenario, I’ve also taken part in pairing sessions where we were able to think through a problem and come up with a design much more effectively than either of us would have been able to alone.
Something that I’ve noticed that I do too frequently is seeing a practice being executed in a sub optimal way and coming to the conclusion that there’s a problem with the practice itself.
For example I wrote a post about a month ago outlining some of the problems that we’d been having with retrospectives on some of the projects that I’ve been working on and at one stage towards the beginning of the year I was wondering whether there was even a lot of value in having a retrospective.
What was pointed out in the comments of that post and subsequently on threads on our internal mailing list is that to keep people engaged we should vary the way we run the retrospective rather than running the same format every time.
I’m told Esther Derby and Diana Larsen’s ‘Agile Retrospectives‘ has a lot of ideas on how to run retrospectives more effectively but I haven’t quite got around to reading it just yet.
Another practice which I’ve been doubting is the Iteration Kick Off meeting which often seems to be a session where we read through every single story that’s coming up while the majority of the people in the room are completely disengaged. These meetings often dragged on for an hour or more.
Discussing this with a business analyst colleague last week he pointed out that he runs these meetings in a completely different way. His goal is to communicate what functionality is coming up so that any coding decisions can be made with that in mind.
That communication doesn’t necessarily have to be in a meeting, it could just be a conversation had over lunch. If it is a meeting then he’d look to keep it short and to the point.
The underlying trend behind all of these is that we saw a practice being done in a sub optimal way and came to the conclusion that there must be a problem with the practice.
I’m coming to the conclusion that it would be more effective to look at the goal the practice is trying to achieve first and see if we can change the way we’re executing the practice to achieve what we want.
If not then perhaps the practice is at fault and we need to look for another way to achieve our goal.
Ken Schwaber recently wrote a blog post where he compared the differences between the kanban, lean and scrum approaches to software development and although I haven’t had the same experiences as he has with the first two, one interesting thing he implies is that with a scrum approach we have slack time built in.
God help us. People found ways to have slack in waterfall, to rest and be creative. With Lean and Kanban, those hiding places are removed. We now have a progressive death march without pause.
The project that I’m currently working on has switched emphasis from being in pure delivery mode into a combination of delivery and handover and it’s been quite noticeable how much more slack we have in the system as a result.
I find it much more enjoyable when there’s a bit of slack such that we’re not churning out story after story.
It gives you the opportunity to explore the code base a bit more and try out any ideas that you have to see if they’re likely to improve the productivity of the team.
An example of this on our project is that we’ve had the time to introduce a calculation descriptions DSL that my colleague Dermot had written in his own time.
This has helped reduce the number of tests required in certain areas of the code base as well as making the code more intuitive and therefore easy to understand.
It can be quite difficult to create this slack time when the team is under big deadline pressure and working on anything which isn’t directly related to hitting that deadline isn’t considered valuable.
I’ve noticed that the typical slack in the projects I’ve worked on tends to be towards the end of the day if we finish a story late on.
That tends to disappear if the team is working late and people start to become too tired to notice that there might be a better way to do things.
It seems to me that it would beneficial to try and work some slack time into projects to allow for the type of innovation that allows us to come up with ideas that allow us to be more productive.
I’ve worked on two different teams this year which had quite different approaches to retrospectives.
In the first team we had a retrospective at the beginning of every iteration i.e. once every two weeks and in the second team we tried out the idea of having a rolling retrospective i.e. we put up potential retrospective items on the wall and when there were enough of those we discussed them in the standup.
The problem we had with the first approach was that we often had the same types of discussions in each retrospective and the same types of issues were raised each week so that it seemed almost pointless to even have it in the first place.
Several people ended up disliking the idea of even doing a retrospective in the first place because of this.
We came up with the idea of having a vote at the beginning of the iteration to decide whether or not we should have one with the idea being that if it didn’t seem necessary then we could skip it for one week but would definitely then have the next one.
I think this worked reasonably well although it’s slightly different to the approach taken by Rolf Knutsen which he discussed at XP2010 in his session on ‘Feedback and Retrospectives in Agile Projects’.
Rolf suggested that we should have a retrospective at a given time interval and just cut it short if we don’t have anything else to discuss.
I think I prefer Rolf’s suggestion as it’s too easy to come to the conclusion that we don’t need a retrospective especially if we think that they’re a waste of time.
I thought the rolling retrospective approach that we took on the second project would work much better as we could just address any problems as soon as they came up but it hasn’t worked quite that way from my experience.
Several issues which would normally be addressed in a retrospective seemed to go by unchecked and without being resolved.
Having a retrospective is a very useful way to put people in a reflective mindset where they look for things that aren’t being done well or that could be done differently whereas during the day we might not do that.
I hadn’t appreciated this benefit of a retrospective session and had felt that problems were often being saved up for a retrospective even if they could have been addressed earlier.
Fabio previously wrote about the idea of the future retrospective box to ensure that we don’t forget anything that happened early on in an iteration when we come to a retrospective but that still doesn’t address the problem of only addressing problems in the retrospective!
It seems like a combination of having a pre scheduled retrospective with problem solving on a day to day basis is what we need so I’d be interested to know how others have addressed this.
I’ve previously written about the danger of using velocity as a goal but on almost every project I’ve worked on at some stage we do actually end up chasing a points total.
Something I find quite interesting towards the end of an iteration is that if there is a choice of two stories to pick up then the project manager will nearly always press for one which can be completed within the remaining time in order to get the points total for that iteration higher.
This might even mean that we pick something which is lower priority because we might not finish a higher priority but larger story in time.
This would mean that the points for that card would not be recognised until the next iteration which would mean that in the current iteration the points total would be lower than expected.
Most of the time this doesn’t make a great amount of difference and if it helps take some pressure off and create an impression of ‘success’ then it seems a reasonable trade off to make.
It does still seem less than ideal to have that type of decision dictated by such a limited metric though.
Dermot pointed me to a blog post by Tim Ross titled ‘Are burndowns evil?‘ where he discusses this in more detail and although I agree with the points Tim makes, it often seems that a product owner ends up with the impression that the project is ‘failing’ or that we are ‘behind’ if the velocity ‘target’ is not being met each iteration.
It seems to take product owners who are new to a more agile approach a bit of time to get used to the idea that achieving the points total isn’t the most important thing to focus on and that it’s more useful to focus on other things which actually give them value.
I’ve worked on projects where we’ve got to the stage where the points total is a side show but it takes quite a bit of time of consistently delivering before we can get that level of trust.
On the project I’m currently working on we have several stories around writing the code that does various different calculations based on user input and then shows the results on the screen.
The original assumption on these stories was that we would be looking up the data of the business rules from a local database. The data would be copied across from a central database into that one for this project.
After some discussion about one of the stories, Christian pointed out that the only reason that we needed to have that data in the database was so that it would be configurable in production without having to make code changes and redeploy the application.
I’d been working with the assumption that these stories could only be considered done when the data was coming from the database but we’ve extracted the ‘configurability of data’ out into another story which the business can choose to prioritise if that’s more valuable than other features we’re working on.
It didn’t even occur to me that we could pull this type of thing out but it seems like a useful approach as part of our drive to deliver the core functionality of the application as quickly as possible.
If we then need to go back and put in the configurability of the data, the lookup of that data is all hidden behind an interface so we shouldn’t see too much pain by choosing to delay doing that.
Grant Joung wrote a post a while ago about velocity goals and whether they’re a good or bad idea, a topic which seems to come up from time to time on agile teams.
My colleague Danilo Sato previously wrote about the dangers of using velocity as a performance measure because it’s something that’s directly within our control and can therefore be gamed:
Value should be measured at the highest level possible, so that it doesn’t fall into one team’s (or individual’s) span of control. People tend to behave according to how they’re measured and if this metric is easy to game, it will be gamed.
Velocity doesn’t satisfy my criteria for a good performance measure. Quite the opposite, it’s a very easy metric to game
Danilo suggests that we should look to use metrics which are outside of our immediate control but which we can score high on if we focus on doing a good job. He cites the ‘net promoter score’ (that measures how much your custumer is willing to recommend you to a friend) as an example of this.
Dan North gave a really good presentation titled ‘Our obsession with efficiency‘ where he covers similar ground and touches on the gaming of performance measures.
From my experience having velocity as a goal doesn’t make any difference to the motivation of the team which is often cited as the reason for referring to it as a target.
In all the teams I’ve worked on people are giving their best effort anyway so they can only really have an impact on the velocity by doing one of the following:
- Working longer hours
- Cutting corners on quality (by less testing perhaps)
- Finding a smarter way of working
With the 1st idea we now have an inaccurate representation of how much work we can actually complete in a given time period so our future planning is now made more difficult unless we insist that people work long hours all the time which is a recipe for disaster.
With the 2nd we will eventually suffer when there are more defects later on in our process and we have to come back and re-work those bits of the system.
The 3rd is good but then again I don’t imagine that we would need to have a velocity goal in order to start doing that – we should be working smart by default.
I recently came across an interesting paper titled ‘Goals gone wild‘ which suggests that goal setting can actually be detrimental and that we should be more careful about how we use them:
The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but nonspecified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors. We argue that, in many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.
Setting velocity as a goal is a prime example of what the authors call a narrow goal:
With goals, people narrow their focus. This intense focus can blind peopleto important issues that appear unrelated to their goal
As Danilo points out what we really want to do is to get some features that our users want to use into production with as few defects as possible so that they actually work.
Our underlying goal might therefore be to make the lives of our users easier through their use of the website we’re building.
This is much more difficult to measure which is perhaps why the number of points completed becomes the focus when in reality that’s not what anyone cares about. It seems more to signify a lack of trust between the two parties.
In reality I haven’t noticed that people on the teams I’ve worked on pay that much attention to whether velocity is considered a target or not. People just do their job and we pretty much always have the same velocity each week regardless.
My colleague J.K. has written an interesting blog post where he describes a slightly different approach that he’s been taking to writing stories to help move the business value in a story towards the beginning of the description and avoid detailing a solution in the ‘I want’ section of the story.
To summarise, J.K.’s current approach involves moving from the traditional story format of:
As I... I want.. So that...
To the following:
As I... I want.. By...
I quite like this idea and I’ve noticed that even without using this story format technical solutions are sometimes described as the business requirement and we need to look beyond the ‘I want’ section of the story card to find the real value and locate assumptions which have led to the story being written in that way.
To give a recent example, a colleague and I picked up the following story:
As the business I want a HTTP module to be included on the old site So that I can redirect a small percentage of traffic to the new site
We assumed that other options for redirecting traffic must have already been analysed and written off in order for this to be the suggested solution so we initially started looking at how to implement it.
After a bit of investigation it became clear that this was going to be quite an invasive solution to the problem and would involve re-testing of the whole old site (since we would be making a change there) before it could be put into production. That would take 2 weeks.
Speaking with Toni and Ashok about the problem it became clear that it should be possible to control whether traffic was going to the old or new site by changing the configuration in our load balancer, Netscaler.
Discussing this further we found out that this had been tried previously and hadn’t quite worked out as expected which was why it hadn’t been considered as an option.
We spent some time talking through using Netscaler with the network team and agreed to try it out on a performance environment and see whether it would balance traffic in the way that we wanted which it did.
We still need to make sure that it works as expected in production but it was an interesting example of how solutions can be excluded based on prior experience even though they might still be useful to us.
I’ll certainly be more aware of noticing when a story details a solution and try and look for the actual requirement after this experience.
I’ve spent most of my time working on agile software development teams over the last few years so for the most part each pair is only working on one story, keeping the work in progress low and allowing them to focus on that piece of work until it’s completed.
My pair and I ended up in a therefore somewhat unusual situation last week where we were attempting to work on three things at the same time and weren’t doing a particularly great job on any of them.
It wasn’t immediately obvious to me that we were doing this since the two extra tasks that we were working on were related to deployment issues on different environments.
However we eventually started making mistakes and in rushing to rectify those made even more mistakes since we were still trying to concentrate on three different things.
It became much more obvious at this point that we needed to just pick one of the items and focus on that until we were done which also served as a reminder that it’s good to use the story board as an indicator of what everyone is working on.
In this case two of the tasks we were working on weren’t on the story board otherwise it would have been more obvious to the rest of the team that we shouldn’t have been working on two of them.
I’ve never really noticed the problems of context switching before so it was interesting to get such a stark example to remind me of its dangers.