Agile FAQ – Kicking off another Agile team

I recently gave some coaching to a big, well known, UK company get an Agile team started. Its interesting, this team have a few novelties all of their own, I’ll blog about that some other time. But they also have all the same questions and doubts that other teams have.

So here is a kind of Agile FAQ, the questions this team asked which all teams seem to ask sooner or later.

Q: What do we do about work items that are too big to fit in one iteration?
A: We will break the work down. We will break business requests into developer tasks. We will implement the minimally marketable feature the business agree to. We will talk to the business customer about what is required, we will implement the smallest thing that will work. It might be new, it might take some time to get the hang of it but it is doable.

Q: Should we have longer iterations? (Because our work items are so large)
A: No, if you have doubts you should have shorter iterations so that a) you see problems sooner, b) you get more practice at breaking work down.

Q: How will I know what to do if I don’t write a technical design?
A: Design is good but do not do more than is needed. Writing a document can be a useful learning exercise but there are other, and faster, ways to do similar things. Technical designs are best done at the white board with a colleague. If you need to document technical knowledge then document it after you have written the code/done the configuration.

There is no place for architects and software designers who are removed from the team. Design and architecture will evolve over time so needs guiding. This means experienced designers need to be involved (preferably coding) with the team daily.

Q: How will the business know what we are doing if we don’t write a functional design?
A: The business will be working with the team in planning meetings and will be seen the work as it is delivered.

Q: How do we manage dependencies between tasks?
A: Identify them and order the tasks accordingly. If need be break them down further.

Q: What if the business wants us to do A and B but not C?
A: Then do A and B but not C. The business pays the bills. If you need to do C for technical reasons – such as system quality – then do it. Don’t do C if its a feature the developers thing is worth having but the business don’t prioritise.

Q: What if the business wants us to do A then B but it would be quicker to do B then A?
A: Explain that to the business but respect their final decision. If they want B sooner then do it first.

Q: What if there is something technical which the business don’t understand and we need to do? The business won’t let us!
A: Explain it in terms the business will understand – this might require some learning and practise.

Q: Shouldn’t we have a detailed plan for future Sprints?
A: There is no point; requirements will change, your knowledge and understanding will increase and you will be better at estimating later. Only plan the next sprint in detail, you can sketch the work beyond that but don’t spend a lot of time on it.

You might sketch out what you expect to do in future sprints in “Release Roadmap|” but remember this will change as you go. Keep the roadmap under review.

Q: Should I include testing a documentation in my estimates? Won’t that make the estimates too large?
A: Yes. If that is work that needs doing it should be included. Not to include it would start to build an additional, hidden, backlog of work. Equally the customer should see the real price of the work, not the price you want them to see with more to come. And if the project manager gets a shock then so be it.

Q: Doesn’t Agile invite scope creep?
A: Yes but in general I find scope reduces on Agile projects. I call it running Scope Creep Backward.

Agile Governance model

The online Technology Management journal has published an article by me entitled “A new governance model for agile work.

In the article I argue that Agile based software development needs a new governance model. The old model, based on defined requirements is not applicable – simply because the requirements evolve when working in an Agile fashion. Instead a governance model based on the venture capital investment cycle is more appropriate.

Agile Coaching from Liz Sedley and Rachel Davies

I used to regular review books on this blog, somewhere along the line I stopped doing it – too many other things to blog about I guess. Plus, while I still read a lot I find it hard to find books which say anything news.

And, I increasingly find I’m reading books before they are published. My friends Rachel Davies and Liz Sedley have been beavering away at their book on Agile Coaching for over a year now. I’ve been reviewing the drafts as they go and I’ve seen it change and improve over time.

The book, Agile Coaching is now available as a Beta download from the Pragmatic Programmers press and the print version will be out in August.

For me the book is a book of two halves. As you would expect half of it is about coaching Agile teams. In that you’ll find that it covers similar ground to my own Changing Software Development – both are about introducing change. While I cover more management and background they cover more personal stuff.

The other half of the book is a nice, modern, discussion of how Agile teams work. Its not Scrum, Kanban, XP or any other method. It describes what you find. Its one of the best introductions to current Agile practices you’ll find. Plus, it incorporates a lot of experience which earlier books couldn’t.

Anyway, the waiting is over see for yourself.

I'm on Software Engineering Radio

For those who don’t know Software Engineering Radio is a series of pod casts about, well, software engineering. It was founded by Markus Völter and most of the team are other German software engineers. Don’t worry, its all in English!

Markus and the team are very well connected so they get access to most of the best people in the field.

So, its with a little awe that I am now joining in this collected wisdom. Yes, you can here me talking about Software Development as Learning on Software Engineering Radio. If you’ve ever wondered just what I sound like now’s your chance to find out.

The interview was recorded months ago and focuses on the material in my book (Changing Software Development).

SE-Radio is a totally not for profit organization so you might like to make a small donation if you find it useful.

Hawthorne effect disproved

Interesting piece in last weeks Economist which suggests the Hawthone effect doesn’t stand up to analysis. (For good measure the Financial Times covered the same story over the weekend.)

For those who don’t know, the Hawthorne effect is named after the Chicago telephone factory were it was originally observed. The researchers suggested that the act of experimenting on people changed their behaviour.

Back in 1924 researchers changed the lighting at the Hawthone factory and observed productivity increased. Then they reduced lighting and to their surprised it increased again. The conclusion of the study is widely cited to show that when workers know they are experimented on their performance increases. Another spin on the research suggests it is when workers feel valued their performance increases.

Now it seems the original data has been re-analysed using modern econometrics techniques. What it actually shows is the workers were more productive at the start of the week (lighting changes happened on Sunday.)

(Have a look at the Economist piece or the research itself to understand the subtleties I’ve glossd over.)

Anyone who saw another Economist report from last year knows already that most published research is wrong. That study showed that most of the research published in the top journals is disproved within three years.

Which raises the question of whether less well known and influence journals are actually more reliable but lets leave that to one side for now.

Perhaps the only surprise about the Hawthone effect is that it took over 80 years to be exposed.

And what lesson are we to draw from what we now know?

Well, maybe, if workers are more productive at the start of the week then keep that first two or three days clear for core work. Push meetings such to the end of the week.

Time to end Foie Gras recruitment

I can never decide if I actually like foie gras as a food. The taste is always secondary to the thought of the force feed ducks. This production process has led to attempts to ban foie gras – as in Chicago a few years ago.

Personally I’d like to end a practice I’ve seen too many times in the software industry and which I’ve come to call foie gras recruitment.

Foie gras recruitment is the forced expansion of a development team beyond the ability of the team to absorb new people. It happens when an organization decides it needs more software produced and decides to do so by hiring lots of new developers.

For example, an internet company I worked with a few years ago. The company faced a rapidly expanding market and needed more from the development team. I was asked help them improve their development processes and practices (“get agile”). When I turned up on day-1 I found four new developers were starting that day and another the following week.

This was on top of the two new developers who had been hired two months previously. And as if that wasn’t enough the company was opening a US development office and had three new recruits starting there the following week.

Given that the original development team was only four strong that is more that is more than a 100% increase. Unfortunately it was too late for me to stop any of this, I just had to pick up the pieces.

This was not the first time I had seen this problem and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The reason why companies do this is because they feel the need to get more done. However the immediate effect of stuffing the development group with new people is to slow everything down. The more you force feed the group the greater the slow down. Hence foie gras recruitment.

Most developers know Brooks Law: “Adding developers to a late project will make it later.” This can be generalised as “Adding developers slows work down.”

This is because new developer need time to learn their way around the system, the tools, the process and practices. When they don’t know they have to ask. People need to tell them things. Those people are the current developers. So they get less done. The more people you hire the slower things go.

(A related problem is hiring just developers rather than a balance of developers, testers and BAs/Product Owners but we’ll leave that for another day.)

In my experience a new developer needs at least three months to become productive. In the book Organization Patterns of Software Development Jim Coplien and Neil Harrison suggest the figure is closer to one year.

I’m sure someone will say: “But if the business want that” or “If we really must deliver more we need more people” but the reality is: more means slower. It is one of those occasions were someone need to explain to “the business” that more isn’t what they think it is.

This gives rise to the latest Kelly’s Law of development: In the short term your development resources are fixed – they may only be reduced.

Of course in the long term you may need to increase your development team and you should hire new developers. The right way to do this a rolling programme of recruitment. Aim to hire, say, one new developer every six months.

The frequency with which you hire will depend on things like: your current team size (big teams can hire more frequently) and the structure, number and interdependency of the existing team(s).

In any company there will be some level of natural loss and you may well want to set you hiring level to allow for this.

In the short term, if you really need to improve your through put then you need to look inside the team at the process and practices and see what can be changed there. Even here it takes time to improve throughput.

So, good bye to foie gras recruitment, hello to a little and often.

Death and the Internet

Please forgive my slight departure from my usual posts on software development, Agile, patterns and so on. But I’ve had cause in the last month to think hard about what the internet means to us all.

I’m probably one of the last generation of Europeans to remember life without the internet. My first contact with e-mail was about 25 years ago when a friend and me looked after the school computers and got access to the first inter school e-mail system – The Times Network for Schools.

(Access didn’t last long once the school saw the phone bill. Just long enough for us to discover that none of the other local schools had not changed their default password.)

As my professional career has developed so has the internet. But I can remember time before the internet so I know the world could survive without it again. A different world yes but it would survive.

Last month the internet took on a dark side and my relationship with it changed. Death came to cyberspace.

I’ve been following the blog of that old school friend for a few years. Nothing that interesting but it felt like I was in contact with him. Then in late April his post read like this: “I am an alcoholic, I have been for nearly 10 years. At the weekend I attempted suicide. The police broke into my flat and saved me because someone saw my update on Facebook.” Presumably his Facebook updated read like “Dave is … attempting suicide with pills and beer.” Since then he’s been blogging every few days about his attempt to give up drink.

Think about that. A suicide attempt on Facebook. A confession of alcoholism in a blog. A public dairy of a recover attempt.

Sure you could say it was a very big plea for help. Publicity for himself yes, and maybe it was self indulgent but it also a sign of how we live out lives.

Then yesterday, a Facebook message from someone I didn’t know. I though it was spam and almost ignored it but I didn’t. It was that friend’s sister. She wanted to tell me he’d died.

I’ve long thought e-mail was the worst possible way to give people bad news but I was thinking of news like “Your project is late” this is an order of magnitude more.

Facebook was probably the only way she had of finding me quickly and I’m glad she did. But that changes Facebook for me. Until last month Facebook was about friends, pictures, smiles and so on. Its now changed.

I guess its like the telegrams we used to get: “Regret to inform you Bill Smith passed away STOP.”

And what is the protocol here? Do I go and delete him from my friends list? Or do I leave him there Zombie like? How long do I leave his blog on my reader?

Who tells Facebook to remove his account? Do they need to see a death certificate?
How long does Blogger leave his blog there before it is deleted by some robot?

Web-Archive will always have his posts and the websites he created.

Gradually he’ll be removed from friends lists, links to his blog will be dropped and the great garbage collector in the sky will remove his cyber-soul.

For now Dave still lives in cyberspace, he just hasn’t posted for a few days. Soon it will be a week, then a month, then a year. He’s already left more of a life history than most people who have ever lived, and its far more accessible. In 500 year historians will have a better understanding of everyday life because of the likes of him.