Can NASA Solve the Debt Crisis?

We can build machines that cover 140 million miles (225 million km), put themselves into orbit around Mars, nearly pinpoint their intended landing site through a brutal and high risk atmospheric entry and landing, and then traverse a rocky, radioactive environment in search of life or evidence that life once existed while beaming back its findings and data to Earth.

The feat of engineering that NASA undertook with Curiosity and the other Mars rovers reminds me of how well we solve difficult problems.  The multitude of different issues that needed to be resolved and planned for to achieve the Mars Curiosity mission is a miniature summation of human progress and achievement.  Its an accomplishment that would leave Galileo and Newton with a tear in their eye.

But it isn’t just space that we’re conquering.  Our ability to solve the riddles of our own DNA and it’s affect on our health, lifespan, and evolution are unwinding.   We can see into the past and determine how we evolved.

Likewise, climate change, a haunting and scary problem, has precedence for resolution.  We’ve fixed our planet’s atmosphere before. Remember the ozone hole?

So with all this on our resume….why can’t we solve the problems ***we*** create?   We’re not good at this.  Our track here is shockingly bad.

  • Poverty
  • War
  • Economic Recessions, Depressions,
  • Bankruptcy ( a.k.a ….too much debt )
  • Crime

We created these problems.  We’ve put mechanisms in place to “manage” them.  But we really suck at trying to solve these.  Why?

A good mentor points out your faults.  He tells you, flat out, what your issue is and helps coach you to resolution.  A mentor can do this because he’s been there, made the mistake, and lived through its resolution.  The accumulated wisdom and experience make all the difference.  There are boundaries to intelligence and determination that only failure, recovery and reflection can overcome.

We need NASA.  We need them to find a mentor for the human race somewhere in that deep black void that can hold up the mirror and say “See what the problem is now? Now…let’s fix it.  Here’s how we tackled the debt crisis on planet Zenon.”

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Getting to Success Instead of Getting to Done

Projects are about getting things done…right?

Uh-Uh.

They’re unique, collaborative, human efforts endeavored to achieve success.  Success is can be defined with certain goals.  Success has a point, a place we reach and can say “Ah-ha!….we did it!”.   There’s a finish line.  Done, on the other hand, is never done.  Excuse the pun.  And the rhyme.

Done is an endless backlog.

Done is a never ending series of requests.

Done is code that’s never perfect.

Done is test cases that still need to be refined.

The fog of “Done” can envelop the project and the minds of our teams.  It obscures the truth.  We’re not looking to get everything “done”.  We’re looking to succeed.  Within success there is room for variation on “done”.

Stop Agilizing Everything

Introduction

Agile universities, certifications, agile consulting, traveling coaches, planning poker card sets, agile software products, agile modeling, agile arm bands, countless agile books and the crazed cycle of agile conferences.

WTF????

The buzz cycle is in overdrive and it’s electrocuted the business world with the promise of faster, better and cheaper.  This article is a plea to stop.  Stop all the hype, the opportunistic profiting, and the marketing.

Good Intentions Turned Ugly

What started out as a challenge to the software development community to think outside the box ( invent, create ), abandon a one size fits all model to approaching software development and execute your projects in a pragmatic fashion that takes account of the context you’re working in….has turned into a marketing machine of horrible dimensions.

There was a time when people talked agile and you knew they were on the vanguard; trying to solve the real problems.  They cared.  They were passionate, deliberate, and informed.  Now, when you hear a colleague professing agile…they’re most likely drinking the kool-aid poured by the snake-oil agile coach from Denver or San Fran.  The formulaic response to the core problems is all too familiar and draining:

  • Poor Requirements – You need user stories and iterations.
  • Defects in Software – Continuous integration and TDD will solve that.
  • Bad estimation – Use planning poker.  It always works.
  • Change Management – Break it up into iterations and embrace the changes given in iteration reviews.

I’m not knocking these techniques.  Many are novel inventions that do have their place in SD/AD.  But instead of being offered as potential options, patterns, techniques to solving a problem among many other potential solutions; they have become a sales pitch by the opportunist preying on desperate CIOs.  Buyer beware.  Bubbles pop and my gut says the needle to prick this balloon is getting very sharp and close.

Let’s stop agilizing everything. Good ideas, tools, and techniques don’t need the word ‘agile’ pre or post fixed to be worthwhile.

Come Back Home

So turn off the scrum-o-matic. Wipe the agile makeup from your face, and put the kanban sequin dress away. There are still problems to solve.  We haven’t unraveled this thing called software development.  It’s devilishly vexing and we need good minds focused on it.  Become neo-software-amish, come back home to the forest of software trolls and invent/create again.

Software Feature Dilution

Introduction

Business analysts, requirements managers, and project managers will find the greatest interest in this article.

Software Product Planning

It occurred to me last week during one of our weekly iteration planning sessions that one of the most esoteric methods around product planning is deciding which requirements to turn into software features.  The more rigorous approaches look at the cost of the feature, the potential impact to ROI ( assuming there is one ), and the demand.

What’s wrong with this approach is that it considers the features and resulting requirements in isolation from one another.  By not considering how each new feature affects the existing product as a whole teams can and do end up with products in which the original feature set, that made the software successful, become diluted.  Those of you who’ve worked with me know my favorite example is CA’s Remedy product, but I think one could find other examples: the Microsoft Office suite of products may be in this camp.

Feature Dilution:  A Formula

So how would one go about constructing a measurement for feature dilution?  First – some assumptions:

  • You know or can retrieve the cost associated with the original marketable software release.
  • You know or can calculate the benefit ( ROI ) for the original marketable software release.
  • You have an estimated cost and benefit associated with any potential new software features.

Ok, so knowing these let’s construct a model for software feature dilution.  We’ll adapt a formula from the world of finance.

V – Value of sofware after Feature dilution =

((O x OP) +(N x (∑ IP1, IP2….IPn))) / (O + N)

where…….

O = original number of features

OP = Current NPV of product ( could use ROI too )

N = number of new features to be added

IP1, IP2, IPn = NPV of each new feature.

If you run this formula through some examples in time what you’ll find is that as a product matures new features need to continually generate greater returns to justify value to the original product and ultimately diluting the existing feature set.

This is exactly what should happen if we want to avoid the fate of an overly complex and unmanageable software product.  Just like stock market share dilution the product management team needs to justify that further feature dilution will grow the value of the product in terms of existing functionality…..not just that it will add to revenue.

Summary

Simplicity in software design has always been something great software architects knew yielded great products.  With this formula I hope I have provided at least a start to measuring simplicity in software.

I’m Skeptical on Agile – Sell Me

Introduction

This article will address a common reaction to those presented with the possibility of adopting agile in their enterprise: skepticism.  CIOs, application development managers, directors, and senior architects will glean the greatest insight from this but development professionals and project managers will find interest too.

On Being Skeptical

As a software professional your skepticism is not necessarily misplaced. There are plenty of agile coaches in the market today professing to deliver faster, better, and cheaper on a regular basis.  Their message is honey in the ears of the right executive.  It becomes even sweeter when you consider the economic climate that many businesses are facing today.  There is opportunism here and it would be well advised to vet any agile coach.

How do I know an agile coach is worth the money?

I’ve devised a simple matrix ( below ) to help guide one in validating an agile coach.

Weight Coach 1 Coach 2 Coach 3 Coach 1 Score Coach 2 Score Coach 3 Score
Number of Projects Managed 3 2 17 3 6 51 9
Years of experience in SD/AD 2 5 24 7 10 48 14
Highest Budget Management Experience ( 1 = true, 0 = false ) 1 1 1 0 1 1 0
Number of References Validated 3 3 8 1 9 24 3
CSM Certification ( 1 = true , 0 = false ) 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
PMP Certification ( 1 = true , 0 = false ) 1 0 1 1 0 1 1
FINAL SCORE



27 126 28

So let’s talk through this matrix a bit.  First, I give pretty heavy weighting to experience here.  In truth we’re not just looking for an agile coach we’re looking for someone with the battle scars of being in the AD/SD world and knowing when and where agile works vs more predictive methods.

We also want to know that they’ve actually implemented agile methods in other places hence the need for validating references.  The key word here is “implemented”.  There are plenty of folks who can regurgitate the agile manifesto and paraphrase the thinking of leading agile theorists, but agile coaches should show a track record of making it happen.

Budgetary management experience, in my opinion, is essential.  If they haven’t managed the dollars/euros/yen around a capital project ( or operating costs ) then they may have a very misguided notion of why projects succeed or fail.   The CSM or PMP who was merely accountable for a timeline with only a misty concept of how it related to money is ill-equipped to profess a transformation of your SDLC process.  Why?  Agile techniques profess delivering software in iterative cycles ( every 2 weeks ).  If some level of requirements aren’t complete by the end of each iteration you have two options on a fixed bid capital effort:

  • Don’t do that functionality.
  • Postpone it until you do have the capital available.

This sounds fine in theory, but the truth is that every system has some minimal set of requirements that must be completed for the software to be functionally usable.  If the money runs about before the agile projects succeeds in delivering this minimal functionality then your project will be seen as a failure.

Certifications show learning of theory.  I weight them low, but still think its practical to have these ( Certified Scrum Master and Project Management Professional ) if an agile coach is selling himself as a professional in software development delivery.  They should understand and know agile as well as more traditional management concepts and techniques.

Lastly, you should realize that agile adoption is not just a function of the agile coach.  The organization needs to be willing and able to accept the changes agility will introduce.

But my current process works, so why should I switch to agile?

If you have a working process and there is no immediate need to push you to agile then you should take the time to map out a strategy for your development shop.  Agile can be beneficial and Ryan Martens at RallySoft does a decent job of articulating when agile methods can benefit a development project.  His rendition of the Uncertainty vs Complexity diagram proposed in Stand Back and Deliver gives an AD manager a basic tool for plotting his/her projects along these two broad metrics.

project-types

What are the benefits if agile is applied to the right type of projects?

Better Risk Mitigation – Agile methods emphasize iterative delivery of software.  A standard cadence and check point to the project sponsors allows for defects, requirements misunderstanding, and general issues surrounding the effort to be mitigated on a timely basis.  Couple this with a daily stand up meeting where team members determine how to resolve issues and coordinate work and risks to the development effort are generally better managed.

Testing starts earlier – Agile development emphasizes vertically slicing your application and developing functionality incrementally.  This is a technical challenge, but assuming the development team can tier the system architecture this way, then your testers can usually start functional testing much earlier in the development cycle.

Increased Sponsor Satisfaction – Project sponsors are involved routinely through agile.  The developers have a direct line to the customers.  This continuous feedback loop usually leads to better communication and understanding between the team and customer.

Stronger Team Accountability – It takes time, but as the team culture shifts from command and control to a collaborative effort where developers take responsibility, collectively, for their work; the team begins to see how their efforts help/hinder the project.   An adjunct to this is an increased sense of pride in their work and kinship with each other.

What do I need to watch out for when adopting agile?

Cultural Shift – This can’t be under weighted.  Agile places greater emphasis on the team managing itself and its day to day activities. Subtly, agile preaches two things:

1. Development team and customer working together.  Meaning other managers and IT leadership have a de-emphasized role.  Your risking attrition by some of your better players if you ignore this.  Proper coaching and preparation for this change and its effect on roles and responsibilities is essential.

2. Team stepping up and coordinating activities among it’s members.  This is normally done by a PM or Dev manager or even a senior technical leader.  Some methodologies, like Scrum, emphasize a new role ( scrum master ) to take on the facilitation aspects.  For developers unaccustomed or uncomfortable with organizing and planning this may be difficult.

“Documentation is not needed”  – You may hear this from some agile coaches and theorists.  The original agile manifesto emphasizes working code over documentation, but as a development professional you’ll need to decide if this really makes sense  for your project.   Some of us have regulatory and legal reasons for documentation.

Dogmatic Views – I wrote about some of this in Bad Attitudes of Agile, but some team members will see agile as a very strict set of practices and may twist the theories and methodologies to suit their own ends.  By its very description agile is meant to be a flexible approach to software and application development not a rigid set of rules that cannot be altered.  There are the pragmatic agilists and then there are the agile zealots.  Watch out for the latter.

Summary

Benefits can accrue from agile methods.  These benefits, for the right projects, should result in better quality, reduced cost and schedule variance associated with requirements misunderstanding and defect management, and a more complimentary relationship with your customers.  As mentioned earlier skepticism is not misplaced, but by looking for an opportune experimental project to introduce agile a development manager can assess its applicability for his/her shop.

Agile or Waterfall — Aren’t We Just Struggling With Requirements Understanding?

Who is this article for?

All software development professionals will find interest in this article, but those managing, crafting or analyzing requirements may find the most interest.

Introduction

Why is so much ceremony needed around software development?  Regardless of the methodology there is a great deal of meeting, clarifying, verifying, demonstrating, and checking.   If you came from another planet and watched how we develop software you’d come to the conclusion that we don’t know how to communicate complex abstract ideas into concrete reality.  And we don’t. To be sure, we’ve tried:  detailed specifications, UML diagrams, use cases, user stories, and just plain discussion.  All of these are incremental changes to a better requirements landscape, but fleshing out our software needs still takes considerable time and effort.

Process and Methodology as Requirements Risk Mitigation

BDUF ( Big Design Up Front ) was the waterfall method to define requirements.   It was a way of saying….”Let’s get everything straight BEFORE we start the expensive process of coding and testing all this.”    It’s logical, but makes the broad assumption that people will know what they want and deviation from the initial plan will be minimal.   There are some projects where this is a very safe assumption, but not always.

Agile capitalized on this fault and said “You can’t know everything up front, so just get started and course correct along the way.”   Does this mean that agile projects always succeed? No.  It means that they allow adaptation to change.  Projects where innovation is important or where the product owner is unfamiliar with developing software naturally make good candidates with Agile.  But its pricey and if you don’t need all the involvement…..then going back to waterfall might be a good option.

With both methodologies you see an attempt to address the real problem:  understanding and materializing requirements so that we get exactly what we want.   The abstract nature of software means we’re collectively imagining what it could and should be.  But we haven’t found a silver bullet for this type of collective dreaming.

Communicating and interpreting our desires is not as easy as it seems.  Some of us are good at drawing pictures…..but most of us aren’t.  To mitigate the possibility that we’re not going in the right direction we’ve invented these elaborate software processes ( Waterfall & Agile …..and the pragmatic others ) to keep our collective minds on the same path to vision creation.

Are  There Better Ways?

Even with these processes we still end up in projects where we hear these things said:

“Oh…that’s not what I meant.  It should do this…”

“No, no,no….you didn’t understand what I was saying. “

“That wasn’t the requirement.  Read it again….I built what was asked for.”

“Yes. I know she said that….but what she really meant was…”

So, software requirements are still an error prone bottle neck in producing the product.  If we hope to make software development better;  then we must get better at this.  In paraphrasing Eliyahu Goldratt in The Goal: You can only run as fast as your slowest player.  That player for software is requirements gathering, analysis, understanding and verification.

Looking outside our field, other industries, who’ve been around longer and develop complex systems too, have similar challenges.  What do they do?

Design –  My wife is a talented contract graphic designer for a local St. Louis firm called Kuhlmann-Leavitt.  They’ve won many awards and have very satisfied customers.  All this despite the nebulous, subjective nature of graphic and three dimensional design.   How do they do it?  The design field is interesting.  They don’t estimate anything.  They simply ask that you hire them for your artistic work and set a budget.  They’ll do the best design work they can for that money.  No more, no less.   So right away the budget issue is taken out of the picture.  Lastly, they don’t ask for detailed requirements,  just some idea of what you’re looking for.  You’re not hiring Kuhlmann-Leavitt to build.  You’re hiring them to create.  My bolding hints at the nuance.  Considerable authority and autonomy is given to the designers.  This is just expected.  Software development relies much more heavily on ‘domain experts’.

Manufacturing – In the manufacturing world BDUF could be rewritten to be MDUF ( Massive Design Up Front ).  Not only is the product designed way up front and in detail, but the process and mechanisms to build the product, which aren’t always the same, are designed up front too.  Before the real product even undergoes one production run…many small demo runs are carried out.  The results are stunning.  Once the product starts rolling off the assembly line its produced to exacting tolerances.  It mostly fits the requirements of marketing and can be replicated thousands of times over.

Construction – We’re talking about unique, one of kind construction here.  Not production line assembly of a subdivision.  This one-off building is, to my mind, the most similar to software.  Some requirements come from regulations and building codes.  Others come from the purchaser of the structure.  There are multiple stakeholders.  Requirements are digested, and then artifacts are created.  A series of mock-ups are assembled and based on this a cost estimate is created.  Even with all the up-front planning there are always “gotchas” and changes that are thrown into the project.

In all three of these examples the end product is visual and intuitive which helps with requirements understanding.  A picture really is worth a thousand words.  Software, as workflow, data and creative design is more abstract.  We’re trying to craft ideas and concepts into something that is somewhat tangible.  Certainly the user interface can be mocked in a similar way and there is great value that comes from the discussions around this, but a sufficiently detailed workflow and data set always serve to vex our attempts to provide clarity to requirements.

What’s next?  What can we do?

Here’s part of our problem:

1. We discuss the first iteration of requirements with our product owners.  The person leading that discussion is gifted in facilitating this.

2. From this meeting, the requirements are crafted into user stories.

See it?  We just lost all the context, emotion, body language, nuance, and reactions by everyone else by drafting something into writing.  I don’t care how good a writer you are…you can’t replicate the requirements conversation.  So why do we try?

The next problem comes when you ask each person to interpret the written user stories.  Hopefully each team member was present for the conversation so they could somewhat remember what transpired.  But, even with attendance, the human memory is frail and human perceptions, bias and concentration vary. Each person may see and read the requirements slightly different.  In short there are too many lenses.

Rather than try to abstract requirement conversations into another form ( writing ) or create even more abstract artifacts ( UML, Use Cases ) we should seek to record them via video, photographs of whiteboard drawings, and publishing all this to some kind of requirements wiki or blog.  Doing this for each iteration review, iteration planning, or project meeting would surely capture a much more complete document of the project’s scope, changes, stakeholder motives and historical background.  Further, it would exist in perpetuity for future developers to watch……just like a movie or project documentary.

Summary

I do realize that the suggestion to move towards requirements documentaries may be fraught with organizational, legal, and other challenges.  I would never suggest that change on this scale is easy.   But I do believe there is productivity savings to be found here.  As I hinted in Decline of Written Requirements  I think we’re using 20th century tools and techniques to gather and analyze requirements in a 21st century world.  To lessen the need for process mitigation of requirements risk we may need to refocus and leverage our new tools: cell phone cameras,  high quality digital video, wikis, and blogs.

To Succeed Quickly = Fail Fast and Often

Loved this article and thought I’d put in my blog/tweet it out.  My take away?  Forget about success and failure….just try stuff, have fun, and learn/grow.  You don’t control all the variables anyway.  Focusing on gaining experience, contacts, and ideas.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/08/the-5-secrets-of-silicon-valley/242958/