What Techniques Do You Use Most To Deliver?

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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.

Requirements Documentaries – A Recipe

Introduction

In previous posts I’ve talked about how written requirements are on the decline and how our development methodologies and practices, at least in part, are constructed to hedge the risk of misunderstanding requirements.   As an outgrowth of those posts I’ll talk here about my vision for Requirements Documentaries as an alternative to written requirements and user stories.  I hope by the end of this post a formula will emerge for crafting video based user stories into a persistable set of requirements documentation that captures much of the context around a project.

Preparation and Coaching

How do you prepare the team for video recording?  While the discussion should be as open and natural as possible:  some coaching should be required here.  Meetings of all stripes tend to deviate from their course and sometimes into topics that are not appropriate for the organizational culture.  While these things can and should be edited out for the purpose of requirements documentaries; the team and customers should receive coaching ahead of time on how best to present their views and what topics/situations to avoid.

Other good tips should be included like: speaking clearly and loud enough for everyone to hear, avoid bad behaviors ( picking nose, tapping on the table, etc ).   We want it to be natural, but we also want it to be professional.

Tools

I believe this is a simple, cost effective set of tools that would serve as a basis for delivering requirements documentaries.

  • Whiteboard(s)
  • Wiki or requirements gathering tool ( Jira for example ).  A tool that can track versions.
  • High quality video camera(s) with sufficient battery life and backup batteries.
  • Digital camera to capture whiteboard sessions.

The Role: From Requirements Manager to Producer/Orchestrator

The role to facilitate requirements documentaries requires some new skills.  I’m calling this role “Producer” or “Orchestrator”.   But I don’t want everyone getting caught up in the title here.  It’s the skills and abilities of this role that are important.  Those are:

-Video production:  a solid understanding of digital video technologies ( hardware & software ) is important.  But additionally the person should have some training/understanding of how to make a documentary.  This would include how to edit the videos for applicability, ease of understanding, and dissemination to a heterogeneous audience.   Furthermore, this role would understand lighting, how to stage a scene, and related concepts in film/video production today.

-Facilitation & Coordination:  any good requirements manager today has to have some level of facilitation and coordination skills.  This will be instrumental when discussing the requirements, but also important in getting the right folks together to produce the documentary.  Discussions could veer off course, and it will be important for the orchestrator to guide the group back to the topic so as to make the video relevant.

-Detail Oriented:  goes without saying, but with the video medium, details may need to be clarified through, what I’ll call, adjunct clips and whiteboard captures.  So attention to detail doesn’t change, but the mediums of collection and dissemination may pose challenges for a traditional requirement’s managers.

-Organized:  just like today’s requirements the videos will need to be stitched together in some kind of wiki and organized in a manner that coincides with the software release.  Any adjunct items ( whiteboard captures, additional videos ) will need to be issued as modifiers to the original video.  In addition the orchestrator will need to keep his meetings, resources, and notes well organized.  More preparation may be needed to gather requirements in this fashion, but the benefit will be the greater context it brings to the developer’s work.

-Creative:  a little creativity to make the videos more enticing and “watchable” would be valuable.  However, we need to be careful here.  Too much creativity and the videos become more of a movie than a documentary.

-Provacateur:  a good requirements manager today thinks through the questions and challenges those in the room on their assumptions.   We still need this skill and it becomes even more important with video production.   Unless we want to issue continuous sets of adjuncts after each requirement documentary; we’ll need to flesh out as much as we can up front.   Please note, that I’m not suggesting BDUF here.  We can have 5,6, or however many requirements documentaries we need to form a release, but each of those main documentaries may have many adjuncts that clarify or modify anything missing in the main video.b

Method & Utilization

The process below could be done in an iterative or waterfall fashion.  It should be methodology agnostic.  My recommendation would be to start using this on a small, non-critical project in your enterprise.  See how it works and decide how to scale it from there.  I see this as a technique pattern for situations where your requirements may change frequently, have a complex and intricate data domain, or your team is global.  Lastly, I do realize this process is fairly basic……my intention is to start high level and as we see what works/doesn’t work we iterate back through and add more details or changes.

Potential Issues

Fear of the Camera – This is probably one of the most difficult issues.  Some folks have trouble speaking up in meetings…let alone in front of a camera.  So a sufficiently skilled orchestrator should recognize when this is occurring and attempt to bring that person into the conversation or, if completely unwilling to talk up, the orchestrator should pull that person aside, after the meeting, and have a candid discussion about whether they would like to continue participating.  It may be necessary to get a proxy to stand in for him/her.

Change – Using requirements documentaries is a big change in format.  It won’t go smoothly at first and that’s why I recommend approaching it on a small non-critical project at first.   Work out the kinks, and the issues with a group that sees the potential benefit.   Use all your change management skills and recognize the loss cycle associated with any big change.  Some may see it as opportunity, and yet others will see it as a threat.

Equipment problems – one of the reasons I stress using 2 cameras ( video and still ) for recording the requirements events:  Murphy’s Law.

Legal, Organizational Policy Issues – in some countries and companies recording by video is against the laws or corporate rules.  Check with your counsel before embarking on a project using a requirements documentary.   Legal representatives and corporate leaders who see value in this method may need to sit down and amend rules to allow this form of requirements gathering.

Politics – Recording things on video is a way of preserving the context around the requirements in addition to the actual meat, logic of the system.  It’s intended benefit it to preserve for future team members and current team members the mood, background, motivations, and reasoning behind what they are building.   This is the ideal side, but there is a less rosy edge to this.   Politics arise in almost any company, and documenting decisions on video could open the door to misuse for devious ends.   A company’s leadership embracing requirements documentaries should recognize this and put controls in place for those seeking political gain from manipulating the format.

Summary

Requirements risk exists on all projects to a greater or lesser degree.  The intention of this technique is to help mitigate that risk and provide continuity through time for a system’s definition.  I don’t suspect this will alleviate all requirements issues.  I’m too jaded by experience to think there are panaceas to every problem.  But there is some good evidence in the world of psychology and Hollywood that motion pictures are more memorable and understood more easily/rapidly.  You can see this for yourself.  When you left the theatre after seeing “The Green Lantern”  did you not understand it?   Was it totally lost on you?  Now what if I drafted that movie into a requirements document?  Logic aside…my hope is that we can catch our requirements gathering process up with the technologies that we have today for gathering that information.   If you try this technique….feel free to comment and let me know your experiences.  I’ll be anxious to hear them.


Decline of Written Requirements

Introduction
Requirements managers, project managers, and business analysts will find the most interest in this article. Developers will find a nice challenge at the end.  🙂   In this article, I attempt to show that written requirements are no longer necessary….and a new tool, using new media….is necessary.
Why did written requirements fail us?

Requirements gathering, analysis and management has never been easy.  It’s hard work filled with nuance, half-truths, mis-interpretations, ulterior motives, impressions, imagination, emotion and misunderstanding.  It’s vision crafting.
Getting everyone on the same page to a clear and sufficiently detailed model of the proposed system requires a conductor with the right skills.  Too critical to be ignored, a lack of depth in this area can doom a project.
To help codify that vision the software industry quickly turned to documentation and documentation standards.  But, written requirements have proven to  be an inadequate fit with the abstract nature of software and these flaws became apparent:
  • “That’s not how I read it”
  • Versioning Changes
  • Big complex software = big complex requirements = never read/hardly understood
It was realized by a myriad of software professionals that relying exclusively on the documents and omitting en
gaged conversations to clarify the written word was a mistake. But….spoken requirements and conversations have these flaws:
  • “That’s not what I heard or understood.  That’s not what I remember.
  • Hallway conversations, informal clarifications that aren’t heard by all parties.
  • Complex requirements can’t easily be remembered, conveyed through conversation alone.
  • Change management is non-existent.
User stories attempt to blend the spoken and written worlds and emphasize the continuous interaction between customer and software development team.  They rightfully restored the need for conversations and engaged business domain involvement and got us away from the never ending refinement or versioned requirements books.  They get us closer to where we need to be.  But, they still miss the mark.  Some flaws of user stories and their crafting are becoming apparent:
  • Software and business teams change…..leading to a loss of highly valued historical domain knowledge that may or may not be documented in the code or the story.
  • An awful lot of time is wasted writing these down, editing them, and then clarifying the exact meaning.
  • It’s a fine line.  How much to write?  How much to discuss?  Too little and the story is worthless.  Too much and we’re back to writing all our requirements.
  • Complex business domains and logic need to be documented in detail.  A simple story ( or many simple stories ) with acceptance criteria may not be enough.  Think about requirements for the Boeing 787 flight control system.
  • User stories assume the business owner will be available ( static ) for clarification during much of the project: not a safe bet.
Where are we headed?

With the proliferation of digital video, cell phone cameras, webinars, social media, and whiteboards we have a new set of building  blocks to create the 21st century requirements management tool.  And that is my challenge to the community.  Build it.  Use these pieces to create a new tool for managing requirements that further reduces the risk of interpretation.  Here are some advantages I see:
  • The historical integrity of that requirement conversation ( and its vision ) would be preserved for any future teams to review and understand it….nuance and all.
  • Verbal as well as non-verbal communication would be preserved and could be analyzed later for better realization of the requirement.
  • Whiteboarded artifacts could easily be recorded and saved along with the video.  Adding to a thorough documentation of the conversation.
  • While this wouldn’t completely eliminate the need for clarification of requirements; it could sharply reduce it.
  • Productivity in requirements gathering  and recording could potentially jump helping out the entire software development process.
If you feel you’re up to the challenge…:)….then contact me ( chris@effectivelogic.biz ) and I’ll give you further guidance requirements.

About the Author

Christopher R. Goldsbury is a software development professional who has played the roles of developer, architect, scrum master, development manager, project manager and quality assurance manager  throughout his career.  Chris writes on his experiences and ideas at his blog: http://www.anagilestory.com.