The Three Laws of Agile Process

As early as 2007 Agile practitioners, or at least people who blog about Agile, began to observe that we live in a post-agile world. I’m not sure what means but Agile is a conversation about the best way to manage the software development process that has been going on for a long time. Has it been too long? What comes after Agile?

Eventually all wisdom becomes dogma.  Many engineers feel strongly that we’re already there with the process for process’ sake when the scrum master moves into the cubicle next door. Fair or unfair it’s a criticism needs to be explored. However nobody has put forth a process to succeed Agile–one that builds upon it’s strengths and shores up it’s weaknesses. At this point in the history of software development were we to abandon Agile we might as well go to ouija boards and seances to plan our projects.

So in truth, we make it up as we go along. That’s what most experienced scrum masters mean when they say they are flexible about adapting the processes of Agile to the culture and business needs of an organization. Poor Agile implementations are only a few second-guesses away from good ones.

Perhaps it’s time to take what we’ve learned in the 10 years since the framers of the Agile Manifesto met in Snowbird and create something that fits even better with the technological and business climate of the Mobile-Cloud-Long Tail-Social-Search Driven-Virtual world we log into every morning.

I’d like to start with the very first value of the Agile Manifesto:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Do we still value people over process? Is it that simple? From this value the principles of customer satisfaction, working with business people, building projects around motivated individuals, face-to-face conversation, sustainable development, and team reflection are derived. Change this value and we change the equation for all of Agile. Do we weaken it? strengthen it? or replace it with something else?

Even with the unique challenges of developing software for servers you can’t touch and cell phones with fingerprints all over them we know what true process-for-process’ sake is like. We call that Waterfall but it was many more manifestations. It’s the paperwork you fill out in the emergency room and the electronic EULA you click “agree to” without ever reading.

So we have to keep it. In fact I would argue we have to make it much more imperative: A rule that is never broken which says it’s OK to break the rules!

I don’t mean we should give up our process at the drop of a hat (or the crash of a market). But we must give it up when our people will be rendered ineffectual. Issac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics can inspire us with a new rendering of what is, perhaps, the most important value of Agile:

  1. A process may not injure a team or, through inaction, allow a team to come to harm.
  2. A process must obey any orders given to it by a team, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A process must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

If it will keep our robot overlords from killing us it will work for keeping an overzealous Agile process in check!

Communication Flavors

Found a Bug

It’s not even funny how human networks and computer networks exhibit the same behaviors. I know we’re all patiently waiting for the singularity, for the event where computer networks become sentient and life as we know it changes forever. But given how the current example of networked sentient beings behave I fear that switching platforms (from organic to silicon) won’t improve anything. Collaborators will still compete, confuse, and confound each other, just at faster bit rates.

Dynamic network communication behavior is important to help us understand the 6th principle of the Agile Manifesto:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

At first glance the idea that F2F (face-to-face a type of peer-to-peer) communication is the most efficient and effective method of communication is non-obvious. After all, if I want to tell something to many people a broadcast is much quicker than a pointcast. Implicit in the idea of F2F communication is talking. (I doubt the framers of the Agile Principles want us to pass notes to each other.)

It’s not immediately clear that talking (realtime streaming) it is much more effective than detailed written instructions (store and forward). F2F communication means lots of clarifications, and repetitions when words and whole sentences can be lost due to network noise or an inattentive client.

The problem is that we are comparing F2F and written instructions in terms of abstract efficiency outside of the time-bound world we live in. This is a common error. We tend to think of our priorities and tasks as critters that live in independent time-space bubbles. Thus we don’t take into account logistics, dependencies, and elapsed time when estimating how effective or efficient a flavor of communication is.

There are not 24 hours in a work day. Really there are 4. The other 20 are taken up with sleeping, eating, commuting, and status meetings. That leaves 4 uninterrupted hours for work. Imagine if you baked this idea into your communications habit. You don’t have the time waste on writing or reading long, detailed emails and wiki posts. You need a communication strategy where you can cut to the important stuff. That means finding the right co-worker (peer) and talking to them directly.

A true co-worker is someone who knows you’re strengths and weaknesses, knows when you are joking, respects you, and doesn’t want to you see fail. Unfortunately, even if you have super social skills, you can only manage 5-7 relationships like those at a time, and most of these are with your family members. Most of the people you are working with either just don’t know you very well to be able to parse your text get the message without errors. You can’t simply write a detailed enough specification or requirements document to get though the noise.

Given the shortage of time and deep relationships you have to talk to co-workers F2F. You have to interrupt and be interrupted. What seems like a slow process, like a four hour F2F planning meeting, is actually much more efficient than a  100 page document.

Volunteer Scrum Master Handbook

Scrum Masters Handbook

I have to disclose upfront that I am more of an Agile guy than a Scrum guy. Which is to say I feel more at home discussing Agile in general than Scrum in particular. (I’m not even sure how to capitalize it–SCRUM or scrum?)

Over the years I’ve made my peace with Scrum and as I dig into it’s theory and history I find I have few real arguments with the brainchild of Schwaber and Sutherland. My arguments are not with Scrum but with Professional Scrum Masters.

Over past 19 years that Agile/Scrum have reshaped the process of software development many of the traditional roles of software engineering have drastically changed or simply gone away. Technical Writers, Business Analysts, and non-coding Development Managers aren’t needed much by self-organizing teams that talk directly to Product Owners and write up their backlogs on sticky notes. But the one big role that Agile/Scrum has made obsolete is the hard nosed, battle tested, two fisted, lock jawed, steely eyed, organization shaking, cat herding Project Manager.

Back in the day it was the Project Manager who got things done. The good engineers were taught to be sheep and good senior managers were turned into putty by the power of the Project Manager. Microsoft’s variety of Project Manager, the TPM, is still a legend in the industry. It was Windows Vista epic failure and not Agile/Scrum that finally dethroned the TPM.

So when an organization finally buys in to Agile/Scrum where do the people who filled the roles of the waterfall process go? Product Managers became Product Owners. Development Managers who could code became team members or even team leads. Spec writers and Business Analysts moved on. Often Project Manager became Scrum Masters–If the non-coding Dev Managers didn’t beat them to it first.

It is where I got my first bad taste of Scrum: Project Managers turned Scrum Masters who were still doing Project Management. These pseudo-Scrum Masters were the ones with the Microsoft Project plans detailing every sprint from here to release. They demanded status explained in non-technical terms during the daily standup. They stuffed the sprint backlog too tightly (or sandbagged it) and argued with Product Owners over priority. What a mess! It was all Bagile and Fragile.

At least with the non-coding Dev Managers who become Scrum Masters the social graces were respected and they generally stayed out of the way (lest a technical question come their way).

To combat the pseudo-Scrum Master I like to use the role of the Volunteer Scrum Master (VSM). This is just one of the team members (either a coder or a tester) who plays the role of part time Scrum Master. It’s a volunteer and rotating position which can be filled by anybody but the Product Owner. Most of the time the VSM writes code or tests. When the need arises the VSM laces up his boots and does Scrum Master things: Calls for help to scare away any chickens, reminds everyone to follow the process, and let’s me or the full time Scrum Master know that those servers need to be updated by Ops. The VMS removes impediments to the success of the sprint by communication not coercion.

It’s not a glamourous job. There’s no extra pay. There is no authority. You don’t get to wear a uniform or the keys to the executive washroom.

While the job of a VSM is simple and straight forward it can be hard for a new recruit to know where the Scrum Master job starts and ends. So I ask each VSM to think of his part time job as a journalistic one. Observe what is going in the scrum. Take notes. Report findings to the full time Scrum Master or one of the Engineering Directors.

Note: Team members should be responsible for managing themselves. A Scrum Master is not Mom or Dad or a Police Officer. The best way to remove impediments is to communicate them to someone who can address them.

Let’s review how the VCM fits into the role of the Scrum Master…

Responsibility Pro Scrum Master Volunteer Scrum Master
The Scrum Master is not the leader of the team In Theory Yes
The Scrum Master teaches the process Yes Has to learn it first
The Scrum Master has no authority and may not make commitments That’s idea but… Definitely yes
The Scrum Master surrenders control to the Product Owner Hopefully 100% Yes
The Scrum Master is an enforcer of rules Sure Nope
The Scrum Master sets up the meetings If she has time Nah, set up your own meetings!
The Scrum Master maintains the backlog and updates the Scrum board Busy work All team members should pitch in
The Scrum Master explains to management what the team is doing Bad idea (It’s the Product Owner’s Job!) Wouldn’t bother
The Scrum Master acts as a buffer When there is no other option Dials 911

As you can see the Pro Scrum Master has to be careful. As the Scrum canon defines her job there is some inherent contradiction with the job of Product Owner and even some chicken-like (i.e., management) responsibilities. The VMS has no such ambiguities. He’s just passing through–his sense of self-worth isn’t caught up with the role.

Using VSM enables an organization to limit the number of Pro Scrum Masters, minimize political struggle, and help the team members learn the game of Scrum (the best way to learn is to volunteer).

Here are some sources that help define a Scrum Master’s Role:

Agile Fables

Aesop_woodcut_Spain_1489

I love a good fable. The kind that Aesop used to write with animals acting out human morality tales. Of course, if you do the research, you quickly find out that Aesop didn’t write most (if any of the fables) we ascribe to him and like Shakespeare he probably never existed. I don’t let reality like that spoil my appreciation for Aesop’s work.

For Scrum Masters, Project Managers, and fans of Getting Things Done there is nothing like the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. The slower, but diligent tortoise wins the race over the quicker, but arrogant hare. The only problem Agile process lovers have with this fable is that it’s not true! The tortoise (Waterfall) always loses to the Hare (Agile).

But we have a paradox: Most chickens (managers, stakeholders, investors) and even some pigs (engineers) agree with Aesop! The tortoise always beats the hare because the tortoise makes a plan and executes it well, even if he is a bit slow. (If the tortoise fails it’s because a chicken yells at her to hurry up and so she speeds up and screws up. Call it the “Fable of the Spineless Tortoise and Impatient Chicken.”)

To resolve this paradox I’d like to tell the “Fable of the Tortoise, Hare, and Monkey.”

A Hare one day ridiculed the Microsoft Project plans and change control documents of the Tortoise. The latter, laughing, said: “Though you be swift as Google Go, I will beat you in a race to deliver working software.” The Hare, deeming her assertion to be simply impossible, assented to the proposal; and they agreed that the Fox (VP of Product Management) should choose the requirements, and define the release. On the day appointed for the race they started together. The Tortoise never for a moment stopped, but went on with a slow but steady build cycle straight to the end of the course. The Hare, trusting to his native widgets, cared little about unit testing and user feedback, and lying down under his desk after long night of coding, fell fast asleep. At last waking up, and logging on as fast as he could, he saw the Tortoise had reached the goal, and was demoing to the Fox.

But the story doesn’t end yet…

By the time the Hare caught up with the Tortoise and the Fox he saw the Tortoise slam her laptop shut and slump away. The Hare asked for an explanation. “Why didn’t he Tortoise win?” The Fox explained that what the Tortoise delivered was very late to market and the requirements were were out of date. “But,” the Fox said, “Happily for all, the Monkey has delivered working working software that meets most of our customer’s high priority needs!”

“Monkey? Where the hell did the Monkey come from?” Exclaimed Hare.

“Ah yes,” sighed the Fox, “While you were crashed out under your desk, the Monkey came and delivered a working prototype. I told her that it wasn’t quite right so the Monkey went away and came back a little while later with a revised prototype. It took a few tries but eventually the Monkey got it right and won the race. In fact the Monkey’s working prototypes helped me understand what I was asking for. You see when I gave the requirements to you and the Tortoise, there were a few stories I missed and during the race a new competitor entered the market. Even if you hadn’t fallen asleep you would not have won as I had to keep moving the goal. Our customer, Mr. Zeno, is a hard man to please!

Just in case you’re not into reading between the lines here’s my analysis of this fable (since I wrote it my analysis should hopefully be accurate).

The Hare lost the race because he had to fight the Law of the Handicap of a Head Start. This principle states that pioneers and innovators lack a clear signal. They are out in front, they have no one to follow, and so their advantage becomes a handicap. Often the first movers are stuck building their software on immature technology that becomes obsolete before it is finished. The United States has this problem with its Internet and telecommunications infrastructure. We got there first but now we are lagging in connectivity. The Hare development process, starts out fast and light but never stops to get feedback–its one big long sprint. A lot of code is written. Little of it is ever used.

The Tortoise lost the race because we no longer live in the world of the 4th century BC. Slow and steady hasn’t been a winning strategy for a long time. The goal keeps moving. Actually the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno wrote his own fable where he counters Aesop. In Achilles and the Tortoise, the Hare-like Achilles can’t catch up to the Tortoise (who has been given a head start) because every time Achilles reaches the spot where the Tortoise was, the Tortoise has moved on. This is the problem of accomplishing an infinite number of tasks in a finite amount of time. Somehow we do it every day (but if you really think about it your brain hurts). The Tortoise development process, creates dichotomies every step of the way: Design, Development, Test, Release, Post Release, et etc. Dichotomies are full of infinite regressions and thus are never finished.

The Monkey won the race because he used an Agile development process. First the Monkey took a prioritized subset of from the list of infinite tasks (and every project has a never ending number of bugs and feature requests) and delivered them to the Fox (Product owner) as working software. It was was rough but the Fox had the results in plenty of time to give feedback and course corrections. Thus the Monkey was not subject to the Law of the Handicap of a Head Start. Second the Monkey kept repeating these short sprints of implementing the high priority tasks and getting feedback on a real working system so that as the goal moved she could quickly change course. The Monkey development process, done right, treats every sprint as a whole, where no dichotomies are created. The software is released to the user, it does what it does, feedback is gathered, and the process is repeated until a winner is declared.

Managing the De-Motivated

cute-sad-kitten

It still amazes me how a process created by engineers for engineers can make so many engineers so unhappy.

I’ve seen all kinds of responses to Agile from engineers. Some are immediately enthusiastic. Others are cautiously optimistic. Many are amused and cynical. And some are down right hostile. Over time the responses polarize and the body of engineers undergoing an Agile process split into two camps: Those for whom Agile is working and those for whom it isn’t.

I’d like to point out that I’m not talking about Fragile (Waterfall Agile) or Badgile (just a plain bad Agile implementation). Fragile and Badgile don’t work for anyone, not the Agile fanboys nor the management types that mistakenly create these processes. (If your boss says, “Agile yes, but we must have controls!” then you’re headed down the road to sadness.)

Unfortunately in my experience there are really good engineers out there for whom Agile in all its manifestations, from Scrum to XP, just doesn’t work. I’ve done a fair amount of work to figure out why and what to do about it. I’m going to use Scrum in my examples but this isn’t a problem of flavor. However you enact the principles the problems are the same for this segment of the engineering population. Also note this isn’t a generational thing. Agile-challenged engineers come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, IQs, and ages.

The top four reasons why Agile doesn’t work for some engineers:

  1. You have to like to talk to people. Engineering as a profession self-selects for people who find human-machine interactions more interesting then human-human or human-animal interactions. People who like to talk to people become salesmen or lawyers not programmers. But for some engineers human-human interaction is down right painful. If you are not into face-to-face communication Agile is not for you.
  2. You have to need and accept help. I love to remind people that intelligence is a side effect of evolution not its goal. (The gold of evolution, if there is one, to enable a species to adapt to a changing environment. Intelligence is just one experiment in adaptation and probably not the most successful one since it’s only worked for one species.) I’ve found that some really intelligent engineers are so smart that it’s difficult for them to accept help (like a prioritized backlog or a bug report) from people they view as obviously less intelligent. You can call this arrogance but then would Mozart have accepted help on his symphonies?
  3. You have to embrace change. Many people from all walks of life have difficulty handling change—rapid or slow. They just don’t like the idea that the world they have finally gotten used to and mastered no longer exists. Some of these change-adverse people happen to be engineers. You can spot them easily. They are programming in languages and paradigms that are no longer on the leading edge. I often have to say to them: Yes, you can still write desktop applications but nobody under 40 is going to care.
  4. You have to like focusing and working on a schedule. Whether your sprint in two weeks or two months isn’t important. What is important is that you stick to it—even it means, and it usually does, modifying your work to fit the time window. For the Agile-challenged engineer this is a blasphemy akin to chopping eight inches off the left side of the Mona Lisa. They see their software as a whole that isn’t finished until it is finished. Scrum’s timing boxing technique is admittedly arbitrary. The creative process cannot be bounded by deadlines without losing its integrity. At least that’s their argument. I see it differently, and can give lots of contrary arguments, but rational argument has little impact on personal preferences. These engineers find sprinting to be stressful where the Agile-friendly engineer finds sprinting to be liberating.

At the end of the day it’s a waste of time to force people to do something they simply don’t want to do. Unenthusiastic people need to find something they are truly enthusiastic about. There is nothing wrong with the Agile-challenged. They are master craftsmen, they are very smart, they are mavens, and they are artists. So what is an Agile organization to do with them?

The first thing to do is get them out of Agile. These engineers are wasted on Scrum and will simply quit and make a lot of other miserable on their way out. Smart unhappy people can make a lot of mischief!

The second thing to do is to create a lab, give them a mission, and turn them lose. It’s interesting to note that many of famous labs in the history of computation have been notoriously bad at implementing and productizing their creations. Xerox Parc invented most of what we use when we use personal computers yet it is in decline. It’s too bad that Xerox Parc didn’t merge with Apple or Microsoft, organizations that are good at creating markets and feeding them incremental improvements. Instead Apple and Microsoft developed R&D labs of their own so that they have a never-ending fountain of new ideas and home for their dreamers.

You can’t and shouldn’t manage the lab with Agile techniques and you must not staff it with Agile-friendly engineers. The engineers who thrive under Agile get lost in lab, their ideas can’t compete with the Leonardos and Michelangelos.

In the end the secret to managing the de-motivated is finding a place for them in the organization where they are motivated to be. Agile is great but it cannot be applied to all problems.

In Search of the Motivated

search10in10K

I’m doing a lot of hiring right now. So much that I’ve had to form a hiring scrum and treat it like an engineering project. The scrum is doing a great job. We now have a systematic way to write job descriptions, assign interviewers, evaluate resumes, perform phone screens, and conduct interviews. All this to find the needle in the haystack: The motivated individual.

There are other requirements: The ability to code with grace and manage with charm is appreciated. Good manners and excellent communication skills a plus. Experience with open source, P2P networks, and super-scalable n-tiered web stacks don’t hurt your chances.

But all that means nothing without the man on a mission to drive it (or woman on a mission. I hear there are female programmers out there. There should be a lot more. Something is wrong with the world when less than 25% of programmers are women. We need to fix that).

Why is motivation so important? Let’s turn to the Agile Manifesto to find out. Principle 5 states:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

This principle is in the form of a imperative. No reasons are given and a lot is asked of management. Shouldn’t the framers of the manifesto give us a few hints as to why we chickens should obey this command? It’s almost as if they expect us to know the basis for this principle a priori. Anyone with even a few months of experience in software development knows why the motivated individual is so important that you give him (or her) the keys to the executive bathroom, a company car, and the employee-of-the-month parking spot:

  • Unmotivated people, no matter how good they are at coding, managing, manners, communication, open source, p2p, or n-tier architectures get nothing of consequence done.
  • Motivated people, work wonders no matter how poorly they code, manage, or communicate! And if you find highly motivated l33t hax0rs then the world is your osyter iPad.

I don’t know of any organizations that don’t strive to hire the motivated. They put up all sorts of road blocks to filter out the underachievers. 12 hour interviews, brain teasers, reference checks all designed to make sure you really want the job. One startup I worked at would call applicants late on a Friday and ask them to prepare a presentation over the weekend and present it early the Monday morning as part of the interview process for salespeople. This was a brilliant filter. Only those  hunter/farmers who really wanted to work for the company would put up with this kind of hazing.

But here’s the rub: That same startup did not follow the rest of the Agile plan: They did not give the newly hired highly motivated salespeople the environment and support they needed nor did they trust them to get the job done. Nothing is more frustrating to the motivated than to be treated like slackers and held on a short leash. There was high turnover and poor sales. Management had to result to clever motivational hacks: Contests, awards, and threats to keep sales on track.

But every good manager knows the motivated out performs the unmotivated 10 to 1. The motivated need only a license to kill. For the motivated the journey is the reward.

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

A product owner and his developer

What can we learn from Dr. Peter Venkman about the Agile development process? It’s true that Venkman was the less technical member of his team. Clearly Dr. Egon Spengler was the blue-sky researcher while Dr. Ray Stantz was the practical engineer.  But Venkman brought a lot to the table: Charm, business acumen, and the ability to spot an opportunity. In short, Venkman was the product manager.

Egon and Ray focused on arcane reference books and ecoplasmic gadgets. It was Venkman first used their technology to get results in the marketplace—or at least meet girls. Venkman was usually critical of Egon’s and Ray’s “out of the box” ideas but once won over Venkman stood behind his team and rallied them when the chips were down (as when Gozer the Destroyer took the form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man).

Perhaps Ghost Busters is not a textbook example of product management in action but it’s a funny movie and I’ve worked with far less amusing product managers than Bill Murray’s lovable but obnoxious Venkman.

For all his faults Venkman obeyed the 4th principle in the Agile Manifesto:

Business people and developers must work 
together daily throughout the project.

Venkman did not separate himself from his team:

  • He lived in the Ghost Busters HQ (Hook and Ladder 8 ) with Egon and Ray.
  • He took his turn driving the ambulance that served as the Ectomobile (Ecto-1).
  • He even wore the overalls and shouldered a Proton Pack.

Clearly Venkman, Egon, and Ray worked together daily as equals on each project, whether it was ridding a fancy hotel of a noisy poltergeist or cleaning ectoplasm off a hapless victim.

Too often in semi-Agile development processes product management (the business people) function as the boss. They make the decisions. They are the “decider guys” stepping into the problem space for a moment, asking for the summary, and making a quick decision without context or technical expertise (like Walter Peck from Environmental Protection who demands that the Ghost Busters shutdown their “storage facility” and inadvertently releases hundreds of ghosts into Manhattan).

The problem here is that software development is a complex, subtle, and sophisticated problem. It doesn’t sit well with summaries and snap decisions. To really make a good software product decision you have to get into the details. You don’t have to be a programmer but you do have to live with one. Any complex, subtle, sophisticated process benefits tremendously from people who work so closely together they know each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

To ensure the cats and dogs are living together I recommend the following four “Make Sures” (as usual based on the bitter pill of experience):

  1. Make sure the product owners (product managers, business people, what ever you call them) sit with the engineers. It’s good if they eat lunch with them and go out for beers once a week.
  2. Make sure the product owners and engineers understand that they are all pigs. The product owners are not “management” and the engineers are not “labor”. This means product owners must participate in the development process in real time.
  3. Make sure the roles and responsibilities of the product owners and development leads are clear. PO’s own the backlog and priority. DLs own the sprint backlog and technical strategy.
  4. Make sure the team makes all decisions though rigorous debate. There is always a business trade off and a technical trade off that has to be resolved—If not you’re not innovating. Software development is not a democracy and everyone does not have to agree. But the best path, not the most obvious one, has be discovered.

Improving Your Whuffie with Agile

Whuffie Burn Up Story Point Burn Down Chart

Virtual currency like Cory Doctorow’s concept of Whuffie will probably replace real money in the next 100 years. Maybe sooner with the way our current economic crisis is going. Once all the hard currency in the world is spent it’s Gresham’s law FTW!

You can get a head start by using Agile development principles to min-max your Whuffie earning potential.

Cory shows us how in his seminal book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. (Released under a creative commons license.)

I’m not sure if Cory meant to illustrate the principles or Agile development or he just stumbled into them. Since principles are laws of nature that exist independently of people I like to think that Cory was just observing how collaborative projects tend to take longer than expected or turn into epic failures. Some truths are self-evident as the founding fathers liked to say.

In Down and Out the protagonists are trying to quickly refurbish Disney’s Haunted Mansion with cool new robotic effects. They ask the head Imagineer (Still the coolest job title in the world!) how long it will take:

“Okay, so tell me, if we came to you with this plan and asked you to pull together a production schedule — one that didn’t have any review, just take the idea and run with it — and then pull it off, how long would it take you to execute it?”

Lil smiled primly. She’d dealt with Imagineering before.

“About five years,” he said, almost instantly.

Our heroes don’t have five years. A rival team is updating the Hall of Presidents with leet virtual reality spam in just a matter of weeks. So our plucky protagonists demand an explanation:

“Five years?” I squawked. “Why five years? Debra’s people overhauled the Hall in a month!”

“Oh, wait,” he said. “No review at all?”

“No review. Just come up with the best way you can to do this, and do it. And we can provide you with unlimited, skilled labor, three shifts around the clock.”

He rolled his eyes back and ticked off days on his fingers while muttering under his breath. He was a tall, thin man with a shock of curly dark hair that he smoothed unconsciously with surprisingly stubby fingers while he thought.

“About eight weeks,” he said. “Barring accidents, assuming off-the-shelf parts, unlimited labor, capable management, material availability. . .” He trailed off again, and his short fingers waggled as he pulled up a HUD and started making a list.

Five years? Eight weeks? Our heroes are perplexed. It seems outside the realm of sanity that a project could take either Five years or eight weeks. (But not if you think about Windows Vista or Apple’s System 7.)

“Wait,” Lil said, alarmed. “How do you get from five years to eight weeks?”

Now it was my turn to smirk. I’d seen how Imagineering worked when they were on their own, building prototypes and conceptual mockups — I knew that the real bottleneck was the constant review and revisions, the ever-fluctuating groupmind consensus of the ad-hoc that commissioned their work.

Suneep looked sheepish. “Well, if all I have to do is satisfy myself that my plans are good and my buildings won’t fall down, I can make it happen very fast. Of course, my plans aren’t perfect. Sometimes, I’ll be halfway through a project when someone suggests a new flourish or approach that makes the whole thing immeasurably better. Then it’s back to the drawing board. . . So I stay at the drawing board for a long time at the start, get feedback from other Imagineers, from the ad-hocs, from focus groups and the Net. Then we do reviews at every stage of construction, check to see if anyone has had a great idea we haven’t thought of and incorporate it, sometimes rolling back the work.

It’s interruptions that add months and even years to a schedule. Corry is not making this stuff up.

An Agile process like SCRUM recognizes this fact and uses the concept of the sprint to create a bubble of focus in an ocean of distractions. During a sprint nothing should change—if something does change (new business reality, a framework that doesn’t work as advertised) the sprint is broken. Sprints are kept short so that change can be accommodated in efficient chunks. Corry is simply pointing out why sprints lead to faster development cycles than non-Agile processes.

A few things are interesting to note:

  • The 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto don’t talk about sprints. The principle of time-boxing a problem seems to be missing. SCRUM and other Agile methods inspired by automotive process management married the idea of sprints or locked iterations to Agile.
  • In Corry’s book the Imagineers fall weeks behind schedule because they can’t handle their newfound freedom from stakeholder feedback. I’m pretty sure it’s because our heroes are too busy struggling through their own character driven plot to act as product owners and keep the Imagineers focused.
  • There is a big difference between stakeholder feedback (changing requirements) and product owner feedback (understanding requirements). SCRUM groks this. The Agile manifesto hints at it.

Using an Agile/SCRUM process to develop your projects enables you to deliver on time while incorporating changes. The net-effect is a dramatic increase in your Whuffie. You might as well start banking it now 🙂

The Shorter Timescale

Eternity (Sprints Not Drawn To Scale)

I’m reading a very scary book right now: Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates. It’s a funny and informative look at how philosophers and religious thinkers deal with death. I don’t want to be a spoiler but the basic message of the book is that most people live in denial of their own mortality and most philosophers are trying to wake them up. Them being us.

This is especially true in software development. Any experienced engineer looking at a 6-12 month project plan will tell you there is a lot of denial going on. I don’t want to sound overly melodramatic but the 3rd Principle from the Agile Manifesto

Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

…is all about waking up and getting out of denial.

I covered the idea of working software in a previous blog post but “preference to the shorter timescale” idea deserves some focused attention all on it’s own.

If you live life to a Tim McGraw sound track then you don’t waste a lot of time on planning or doing things that are simply not going to happen. The idea of a preference for shorter timescales come from the principle that risk grows with distance into the future.

This principle doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dream big! I’ve met many engineers who tell me “Agile is only for minor tweaks, not big initiatives.” (No I won’t name names but I dare you guys to a blog war!) Your backlog should be as big as forever. It’s just that you plan and sprint for what you can achieve as a human mortal. Zeus and Hera can execute a 12 month plan with a waterfall process–Agile is not for immortals.

I like 2 week sprints (with one week of planning in between) for three reasons:

  1. It’s been my experience that (most) human mortals only have vague capacities for planning and managing large chunks of future time. Today, tomorrow, Next week are  cool. We live in a bubble of now that trails 1-2 weeks behind and runs 1-2 weeks ahead.
  2. Engineers (and artists) are mostly monochrons. (Almost everyone else tend to be polychrons.) It’s part of the self selection process that leads people down the road of life to end up either alone in front of a computer (or piano or canvas) or in a group running around the planet making noise. Maybe it’s all due to Asperger’s Syndrome but the creative process seems to require that we focus on doing one thing at a time for a fixed period of time in a repeatable cycle.
  3. Engineers (and artists) get lost in their work (the music of the spheres as it were) and lose track of time. Short sprints mean they can’t go too far astray before they check in with home base! Once an brilliant engineer told me it took a month to fix an ad server bug because he first had to rewrite Math.c. Good thing I checked in when I did or he might have rewritten all of UNIX!

So if we end up working together I will ask you to think in short increments that give us plenty of time to capitalize on the future 🙂

True Working-ness

A Bird in the Hand

Last week I presented to my team at Lime Wire Agile and Scrum in all it’s most excellent glory. Jason Herskowitz, Lime Wire’s VP of Product Management, and I ran though all the major Agile elements and vocabulary words. The best part of the presentation was questions asked by developers, testers, system admins, product managers, and even a couple of chickens. Many of these guys and gals have been the victims of bad Agile programs. It seems easy to play the Agile game but it isn’t. The most critical path to successful Agile isn’t to follow all the rules–it’s to follow all the principles.

The Agile Manifesto’s 3rd principle, Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale, seems to be often ignored. You can not really ignore a principle. A true principle is a law of nature, like gravity or the axioms of geometry. If you ignore the principle of gravity you’re going to get hurt. If you ignore the principles of Agile your project is going to fail.

I don’t know why the delivery of working software is often left out of the plan. Perhaps it’s that to recognize the truth of this principle requires more than just a thin patina of Agile paint on a waterfall process. Most Bagile (Bad Agile) processes do not understand that a milestone without working software delivered is a milestone not met. In Bagile working software is mutated into “ready for QA” or “all P1 bugs closed” or “works on my machine”.

I’m not taking an extreme view of working software! It’s just that “done” should mean “nothing more to do!” I’ve lived through the bitter experience of discovering that done doesn’t mean working software. Nothing is more discouraging than having to wait weeks for a so-called completed project to be ready for release.

If you think about it, delivering working software in this complex world of clouds, grids, restful APIs, and P2P networks, is daunting. It may even feel wasteful to go though all the effort to get the components integrated and tested every couple of weeks.

But true working-ness means you can get feedback before every iteration from actual flesh and blood users. Feedback like this is invaluable to avoid wasted effort.

True working-ness means you can focus on the future and get rational priorities for your backlog with each sprint.

True working-ness means if you want to go on vacation, you leave things in a good state and others can pick it up while you are gone.

True working-ness means true achievement. It’s pretty hard to make lasting, solid achievements in general, but delivering working software frequently means you have made a concrete difference in the life of your users today.

There is a 14th century English saying that taught me the same the principle as a kid: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”