The train metaphor of software development

I’m sitting on a train from York so it seems a good time to share my train-leaving-the-station metaphor with the world. In truth, if you’ve worked with me in the last few years, or heard me speak at a conference I may already have shared it with you. But for the rest of the world, and with full embellishments….

Traditional software projects are like a train leaving the station. There is a big train sitting at Platform 9, we know its due to leave soon, but, well, you know what big long distance trains are like, it may well leave a little bit late. Still, to get a seat we need to be early so we are all rushing to the train.

Since we don’t know when the next train to this destination will go – actually, it is far from certain there will ever be another train – we want to be sure everything we need is on board. So we make sure we put everything we might need on the train. (Think of our requirements document.)

Eventually the train lumbers out of the station, overloaded. Quite possibly it leaves late because we were so busy loading the train, maybe one or two people even argued with the guard to delay departure a little bit so we could get more people and things on the train.

The train – our project – is like one of those trains you see in pictures of the Indian rail network with people crowded on and hanging out of the doors.

We all know the train is overloaded, we all know its going to arrive late, we even think it might miss the destination and arrive someplace else. But nobody wants to admit this.

(Particularly true if you have American management and British engineers because the Yanks view the Brits as being overly negative.)

At some point, beyond the half way mark it can no longer be denied that the train will arrive late. So action is taken. Things are thrown off the train to make it go faster.

By throwing things off the train we hope the train will arrive closer to the scheduled arrival time and the intended destination. However, in so much as there was rationale for putting all the things on the train there is less rationale applied to removing them. Things are thrown off the moving train because we can. (Somethings we can’t throw off because they are too connected to other things.)

In the extreme, those who put things on the train, and really know what is needed for the destination (BAs, Product Managers, etc.) never actually got on the train. Once they put the bits on the train they handed over responsibility to Project Managers to get it delivered. These guys are primarily concerned with dates and since they charged with delivering everything they don’t want to throw anything off.

Eventually, the train lumbers into the final stop – which may, or may not, be the intended destinations – with some random collection of things on board. Everyone gets off and breaths a big sigh of relief. Thank God that is over.

Then the news comes: there will be another train. We begin again.

This time though, we have all been burnt. We are going to make sure we have everything we need on the train, plus all the things we threw off the last train, and some more besides because we now understand the need for bargaining and we need levers.

Thats the traditional view. Now for the Agile view.

Instead of big trains we have a metro system – think of London tube, or better still Glasgow’s Clockwork Orange.

I leave the office at 6pm, go to the tube station and wait for a train. The sign tells me there will be one in 2 minutes, and another 2 minutes after that, and so on.

The train arrives and it is full. I have an option: Do I get on the packed, sweaty train and have an uncomfortable journey? Or do I wait 2 minutes for the next one?

I choose to wait. And while I’m waiting my phone rings. Some friends are in a pub nearby and ask if I would like a drink. I have an option: do I go and have a nice beer (valuable) with friends? Or do I value getting home more?

I go for the beer, something I would never do if there was only one train today. But knowing there will be another train, and another train, and another, means that I can go to the pub safe in the knowledge that I will still get home.

Need I say is? We need software development to be like the metro/tube system and not like the big occasional train.

Slides from Skills Matter – BA Role in Agile Software Development

I presented my “BA Role in Agile Software Development” talk at Skills Matter last night. There was a good turnout and the folks who came to the pub afterwards were all very positive about the talk.

The talk had a few small updates from its previous deliveries so if you’ve heard or seen it before there won’t be anything new for you.

Slides are now online on SlideShare and Skills Matter have a video of the event online too.

The Business Analysts role @ Skills Matter

I was down at Heathrow earlier this week, not taking a plane but giving my “The Role of Business Analysts in Agile Teams” talk again. It gets another outing in a couple of weeks time (22 July) at Skills Matter.

So, if you’ve not seen the talk, or know someone (a BA perhaps?) who would like it register on the Skills Matter website for “The Role of the BA in Agile Teams” talk. (Its in the evening and lasts a little over an hour, time well spent.)

http://skillsmatter.com/event/agile-scrum/the-business-analysts-role-on-agile-projects/rl-311

How to improve a team's velocity?

By way of wrapping up my velocity mini-series (Two ways to fill and iteration, Filling an iteration too well, and Velocity Targeting and Velocity Inflation) I’m going to end with some advice on how to improve a team’s velocity.

Bad news first: there are no silver bullets, there are no easy answers, there is no quick way of doing this.

There is no big fix, there are many, many, thousands, of little fixes which cumulatively add up. Each little fix improve your productivity (velocity) a little bit. Over time these add up to big improvements.

To use economic logic: this is about improving the supply-side. The supply-side argument (largely monetarist) suggests the way to solve unemployment is not to increase demand (Keynes style) but to loosen and liberalise the labour market. There is no single action which can do this, instead there are many small changes that need to be made to make the labour market more flexible.

But back to software…. how might you improve you velocity?

Well, Things to do to improve code quality is a good list to start with. Improving code quality makes teams more productive because they spend less time wading through swamp and scratching their heads.

Of these the thing that comes closed to a silver bullet is: Test Driven Development. TDD is something of a silver bullet, it does improve things BUT (big BUT) it takes time to learn to do it properly. Expect to take time, don’t expect it to happen over night, spend the time and money on training, coaching, setting up a continuous integration server and such. It will pay back, sooner than you think.

How on the heals of TDD is refactoring. In fact the two go together.

Adopting TDD and pursuing refactoring may throw up another problem which people would rather keep quiet about: developer skills levels. Some developers just don’t have the mastery of their tools required. A friend of mine who does TDD coaching tells me it usually ends up as OO coaching more than TDD coaching. So, invest in developer training, buy them books, send them on courses, bring in coaches, set up book study groups and other exchanges were developers can learn to do things better.

I would avoid adding more people to a team. We know, from Brooks Law, that at least the short run that will slow things down. But you can give existing people more time to actually do work. Try reducing the number of meetings you hold. If you have a regular planning meeting and daily stand-up meetings there shouldn’t be a lot of other meetings you need. Certainly there should be very few “all team” meetings.

And if your stand-up meetings are taking more than 15 minutes a day then look to shorten them. Any size team should be able to complete a meeting in 15 minutes if you approach it in the right way – see Three Ways to Run a Stand-Up meeting.

I often meet teams who feel that two weeks is too short a time to do anything useful, and they often question that frequency takes up too much meeting time. Rather than length an iteration it is better to shorten iterations. Teams get to review work in progress and take corrective action more often. There is less time for changes to disrupt planned work. It is good practice at both fitting work in short periods and at making planning meeting more effective.

In time, when you are good at iteration planning I might lengthen them, but it is rare I would let iteration last more than two weeks.

Next get serious about removing impediments. Too many teams live with impediment, accept them as a fact of life, something they can’t do anything about. Each impediment (or block if you prefer that name) reduces velocity a bit. If you want a higher velocity fix your impediments.

I don’t need to say it but I will: retrospectives. Do them, and action the ideas that come out of them.

Finally, just: Concentrate on doing a better job and the velocity, productivity and points will follow. The numbers are there to provide feedback, show you are going in the right direction. Don’t worry about the actual numbers, just keep improving.