Category Archives: Software Development

How the industry broke the Connextra Template

Apples, Oranges and User Stories

Read this on medium.com via ideas.riverglide.com.

Imagine you’d never seen an orange or an apple before. Then, imagine you read a few articles showing an image of a shiny, red fruit, saying – “This is an orange, it will help you with your vitamin C deficiency”. It’s a similar shape to the foods you’ve eaten for other vitamin deficiencies so still fits your model. You proceed to eat lots of this red, shiny, crunchy, refreshing fruit and you teach your colleagues the same. Now they’re eating “oranges”…

“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

After some time, your vitamin C deficiency still hasn’t improved. So everyone says “down with oranges, they don’t work”—including the some of the authors who’s articles you’d read. The problem was that you were eating apples, not oranges. But it’s too late, you, your colleagues, some authors of the articles you read—now have a disdain for anything labelled ‘oranges’.

This sounds ridiculous, but only because you know the difference between oranges and apples. Yet, it reflects the same kind of wide-spread misconception that has fuelled the growing disdain I’ve seen towards the Connextra Template—As a…I want to…So that…

Summary (TL;DR):

  • Some believe User Stories are analogous to product features & that they should state business benefit – this is a fundamental misunderstanding;
  • User Stories are about what the user will be able to do/achieve (not actions or features they’ll do it with);
  • The Connextra template (As a / I want to / So that) helps us start valuable conversations about: who the user is, what they want to do and why;
  • Some tried to ‘improve’ the Connextra template to capture features and business benefit (software requirements). These ‘improvements’ spread far and wide, propagating the ‘feature’ misconception of user stories;
  • It’s not too late to make the paradigm shift away from writing ‘software requirements’ to truly understand user stories as ‘the story the user wants to be able to tell’;
  • Truly understand the User Story paradigm and you realise that the Connextra template is as useful as ever.

The root of the misconceptions

Think of a User Story as a short-story that a user will be able to tell about what they want to do and why they want to do it. It’s not the feature the product will have or the actions they’ll perform, it’s what the user will be able to do – as in achieve. One story may actually mean subtle or significant changes to multiple features, involving several actions.

“Stories aren’t a different way to write requirements, they’re a different way to work”  -Jeff Patton

User stories are a paradigm shift, a different way of working. Jeff Patton explains this superbly in slides 1-50 of his User Story Mapping slides (I highly recommend you flip through them). Jeff highlights that “Stories aren’t a different way to write requirements, they’re a different way to work”.

 
The misunderstanding that User Stories are just a different way to write old-style software requirements has contributed to continuous deterioration in how the Connextra template is communicated across the industry—changing User Stories into product features (or user action within a feature). Product features and actions within them generally describe the product (not the problem)… again, like old-school requirements.

“A further problem with requirements lists is that the items on the lists describe the behavior of the software, not the behavior or goals of the user” –Mike Cohn, User Stories Applied (2004) Addison Wesley

Unfortunately, the problem wasn’t with the Connextra template, it was with widespread misinterpretation of it. This misinterpretation propagated so far and wide, that many teams now experience the problems caused by slicing work into product features (problems that User Stories are designed to solve). And now people are saying—“User Stories are broken!” and “the Connextra Story Template doesn’t work”. Clearly, comparing apples and oranges, much like in the opening story.

How did this happen?

The Connextra template highlights the who, the what and the why from the user’s perspective:

As a <someone>
I want to <do something>
So that <some result or benefit>

This helps us start the right conversation; exploring the short story a user could tell about something they’ll be able to do – hence the term ‘User Story’. The “As a…” helps us start empathising with the user. The “I want to…” gets us thinking about what they want to do (not how). The “So that…” get us closer to their motivation – why they’d want to do this.

Unfortunately, many people mistook User Stories to be just a different way to write requirements—which they’d always expressed as features & functionality. In their efforts to help colleagues and peers understand user stories in the same way, several people began sharing this template:

As a [role]
I want [feature]
So that [benefit]

Many teams found that whole features were too big to implement in a short enough window, so we also saw a variation on this where the interactions within the feature were described:

As a [role]
I want to [action]
So that [outcome]

Others sticking with the larger feature model, asked about ‘benefit’ part – what’s that for? Is it the benefit to the user? If it’s about the user, then where do we ‘document’ the business benefit? The question of ‘value’ and ‘business benefit’ was seen to be missing so we started to see:

As a [role]
I want [feature]
So that [business benefit]

People didn’t always know what the specific business benefit of a feature was so they started writing “As a… I want ” and left the “So that…” part out. So, a different format was put forward to encourage thinking about the business benefit and we ended up with a catch-all for feature or action—“functionality”—plus the business benefit as the opener (which became a confusion between what the business wanted and what the user wanted):

In order to <achieve some value>
as a <type of user>
I want <some functionality>

Whether it was the intent or not, I believe that these variations made it easier for teams to think they were working with User Stories when in fact they were simply capturing product-features and business-benefits like old-style software “requirements” – only dressed in a User Story like template.

The opportunity

User stories are about the user – hence the name. It’s a way of working, not a way of writing requirements. This is an area we all need to get better at explaining.

What we write on the User Story card (or electronic equivalent) using the original Connextra template helps us start the right conversation about users’ needs, slicing by value to the user. Starting the right conversation to slice by business value is a different problem.

The original Connextra template works just fine for User Stories that tell a story about the user. The template wasn’t trying to fix the mindset of slicing-by-feature. Books like User Stories Applied were there for that. The misconceptions began when people assimilated User Stories through their feature-biased filters and tried to ‘fix’ it – rather than question their own understanding.

This left many teams with “features dressed as stories” caused by a fundamental, yet common, misunderstanding. Who knows, I may have once shared in that misunderstanding myself. Now, we have an opportunity to change this by learning more truths about User Stories so that we can all benefit from increased agility.

Have you been working with features dressed as stories? If so, and you want that to change, here’s a place to start.

 

Old Favourite: Radio by Example

This first appeared on my old blog in  “2008 under the title Specification by Example”. I’ve made a couple of minor refinements to the text and I’ve added the image below from the 2009 “GOOS” book .

Internet radio‘ has come a long way since it first began. Long gone are the days where you have to seek out an online station that streamed a preselected playlist with mostly music that you like, or several stations for those with more eclectic taste. Instead, services like Pandora.com and Last.fm create a personalised radio station that matches the user’s own personal taste.

These personalised internet-radio stations are far more sophisticated than just specifying what genres and styles you like. When they first started you didn’t do that at all. When last.fm first started you provided an example of a song that you like. Software analysed the song finding common aspects of the music’s ‘DNA’ – including genre, tempo, how melodic it is and countless other sound characteristics in their database. From this they create a user-specific internet radio station that matches the users taste. As you listen, you give them feedback saying which songs you love and which ones you hate. Your future play-lists are refined with each piece of feedback you provide. This feedback is in itself more examples of songs that do and don’t match your taste. As a result you’d find yourself listening to songs you’d not have otherwise discovered.

That is Specification by Example! The product (in the above, your personal playlist) evolves by inferring the desired rules and characteristics from concrete examples.

And, as several have been saying for years… Test Driven Development is just that – Specification by Example – applied to software development. Instead of examples of songs, we provide examples of what we’d like the product, or part thereof, to do. These examples take the form of tests. It so happens that the evolution of the software product is performed by humans, unlike the internet playlist evolved by a machine.

Write a failing acceptance test, then cycle over writing a failing unit test, making that pass, and refactor repeating until the acceptance test passes.

Slow is Smooth–Smooth is Fast

A few years ago, to explain what goes wrong for many organisations that “go agile”, I wrote an article called “Putting the Kart before the Horse” [1].

Go-karting is where most of the current Formula One racing drivers first learned the basics of race-craft. Antony Marcano, a former kart racer himself, recounts a father-and-son racing experience that helps him explain what goes wrong for many organizations that adopt Scrum as their first attempt to “go agile.”

In this article I explained how novice drivers try to go as fast as possible rather than trying to master the racing line:

At the open practice session my son and I attended, novice drivers seemed to approach their first lap as if it really were as easy as experienced drivers make it look. They floored the throttle and flew down the straight only to crash—painfully and expensively—into the barrier at the first hairpin turn.

I went on to liken this to how many teams adopt agile…

Organizations starting their transition to agile methods with Scrum are much like the novice drivers trying to go fullthrottle before learning how to take the corners. Before being able to truly bend and change their software with speed and ease, they fly into short iterations and frequent incremental product delivery—crashing painfully into the barrier of hard-to-change software.

It was my son’s first experience in a go-kart. We started by driving slowly with him following me to learn the racing line. We gradually went faster and faster. Soon, we were the quickest drivers on the track.

Since then, he has gone on to advance further and further in his racing. Back then, we were in slow, 35mph go karts. This year he started racing for a team in race-tuned karts (see photo). The driver-coach in the team watched him driving on his first few attempts in his new high-performance machine (70+ mph, super-car acceleration). While he was reasonably quick, he wasn’t smooth.

Photo of Damani Marcano driving his 2013 Mach1 Kart for MLC Motorsport
Damani Marcano driving his 2013 Mach1 Kart for MLC Motorsport

His coach told him “slow down”. His coach said “whatever speed you can do while still driving on the ideal racing line is the speed you should be going”. My son went out again. Initially slower than he was before, his speed progressively built… we watched his lap-times improve dramatically.

Yet again, we relearned this lesson: slow is smooth–smooth is fast.

For some reason, I see teams who are novices in agile development make the same mistake, however, not always feeling like they have a choice. Kanban might make it easier to start from where you are and gradually improve but it’s ok if you’ve decided to start with Scrum. When starting with Scrum, start slow, focus on doing fewer things well first then progressively improve. On a course I gave recently, one of the attendees said “but how do you get management and marketing to back-off enough to allow us to slow down?”

My answer: avoid going faster than you can. But if you feel compelled to go faster, make it a business decision. Help them understand that there is a risk that whatever time you save now will cost you more in the future. Help them understand all the effort you’ll spend repairing the damage that going too fast will cause. Pretty soon you’ll be spending so much time fixing problems and struggling to adapt hard-to-change code that there will be little capacity left to add new features. Essentially, incurring a  “Technical Debt” .

As a general rule, I always try to start something new, slow and steady. I only go as fast as I know I can while predictably and sustainably delivering. I’m mindful of business pressures but experience has shown me that by focusing on “making things right” we can deliver smoothly, build trust and progressively become faster.

—————–

[1] You can read the original article here: Putting the Kart before the Horse? – published in Better Software Magazine, 2009

My son’s story is continued here: http://damanimarcano.com

Is updated here: https://www.facebook.com/DKMRacing

And here: https://twitter.com/DKMRacing

And here (updated 03-02-2014)…

UPDATE [11-12-2013]: Damani Marcano finished his first ever season 3rd in the Hoddesdon Kart Club Championship Junior Rotax Formula at Rye House, the track that started Lewis Hamilton’s career. This achievement is significant since, as a novice license holder, Damani had to spend the first half of the season starting every heat from the back of the grid. Find out what happens next season by following his story on Twitter and/or Facebook. Who knows, by adding to his ‘likes’ / ‘followers’ you may become a part of his story by helping him become more attractive to a potential sponsor.

Software Pottery

“Building software” is a phrase I hear used time and again. Indeed, many do still think of software development as akin to construction.  Modern (agile) software development doesn’t feel like that to me. There was a time, like the construction architect, when we had to increment and iterate on paper and in models. The cost of computing was too high to do such iteration inside the machine. The cost difference between making a small change in our understanding and reflecting that in the actual product was too great. The cost of change meant that we had to treat the creation of software like constructing buildings or bridges. But those times are, or should be, in the past.

To me, modern (agile) software development feels more like pottery. But, instead of ‘throwing clay’ we throw our consciousness, in the form of electrons flowing over silicon, onto a spinning wheel of user-story implementation cycles.

Picture of a pot being created and evolved on a pottery wheel.
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kellinahandbasket/2183799236

We evolve our understanding of what our customer wants with each conversation. We reflect that understanding by evolving the product’s shape as we touch the outer surface with each new automated acceptance test (or example scenario). We evolve its structure as we touch the inner surface with each new unit test (or unit specification). We keep it supple as we moisten it with each refactoring. Our customer looks on, gives us feedback and we start the next revolution of the software development wheel. Never letting the product dry and harden; keeping it flexible, malleable, soft(ware).

There is nothing that feels like construction here. I never feel like I’m “building” something. Much more like I’m evolving my understanding, evolving the product, evolving my understanding again and so on.

For these reasons l am not comfortable with referring to this process as “building”. I’m also not comfortable calling it “throwing” (as in pottery).

I am very comfortable calling it “development”. I use the word “develop” in terms of its literal meaning:

to bring into being or activity; generate; evolve.
-dictionary.com

From the first thought of a new idea, through each conversation along the way, to each revolution of the software development wheel, I develop products.

I don’t “build”.

I create. I make. I shape. I evolve.

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Footnote: I’m not aware of anyone drawing this analogy before. If you have heard or read someone explain it in this way before now, please let me know.

This is not a manifesto: Valuing Throughput over Utilisation

In a previous article, This is not a manifesto, I expressed the values I hold as a software development team member. Today, I’m going to talk about the first of these values.

Before I do, I’d like to say what I mean by “software development team”. I mean a cross-discipline team with the combined skills to deliver a software product – product owner, user experience, business analysts, programmers, testers, dev-ops, etc.

A common problem

Many teams I encounter will, at least in the beginning, have team-members who specialise in a single role. Each team-member will rarely, if ever, step outside their job description [1]. This can cause a problem.

Many teams find themselves in a situation where some team members have little to do on the current stories. At this point, the team has some choices, they can focus the under-utilised people on:

  1. Future user-stories, working on tasks most relevant to their job title
  2. Another team, working on tasks most relevant to their job title (e.g. ‘matrix management’)
  3. Current stories, taking on tasks that will take the story to completion sooner, even if it’s more relevant to someone else’s job title
  4. Things that will make the more utilised people get through their work faster, today and in the future.

More often than not, I find teams taking option 1. I think that people choose this option because it feels like it should increase the throughput of the team – i.e. the amount of new features they can add to the product. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

Little’s law

Let’s consider a team that is working in time-boxes or ‘sprints’ (à la Scrum) and measures it’s throughput with ‘velocity’ (story-points per-sprint). Points are accrued as each user-story is completed – i.e. coded, tested and product-owner validated.

In this particular team, it is able to complete an average of 10 points per sprint. Let’s say this is due to a bottleneck in the process. This bottleneck might limit the amount of testing that can be completed during the sprint. This is illustrated in fig.1 where each ball is a story point.

 

Shows a system through which a series of balls are being processed. Each ball represents one story point. It also shows that there is spare capacity in the team.

Shows a system through which a series of balls are being processed. Each ball represents one story point. It also shows that the spare capacity in the team has been used up, even though it does nothing to increase throughput.

Little’s law [2] tells us that the amount of time it takes to complete an item of work (cycle-time) is:

        Work in Progress (WIP)   
Throughput

Which we can read as:

   story points in progress
  velocity 

In this simplified example, WIP is 10 points and throughput is 10 points per sprint. The average cycle time of a story is therefore 10/10 = 1 sprint. Notice, however, there’s all that spare capacity.

Let’s say this spare capacity is developers. So, the team starts taking on more user-stories from the backlog – increasing the number of story points in progress to 20 points (fig.2).

Because the bottleneck remains, velocity remains the same – 10 points per sprint. The amount of flexibility that the team has, however, is now reduced because the average time required to get a story to completion has increased from 1 sprint to 20/10 = 2 sprints [3].

Often this will take the form of testers working a sprint behind the developers. Worse still, over 10 sprints, the team still only completes 100 story points (as they would have before) but is left with a lot of unfinished work. This ‘inventory’ of unfinished work carries overheads which can, ultimately, reduce the velocity of the team.

The impact of filling capacity in this way has yet another effect.

Latency effect

As the developers get through more stories, a queue of stories that are “ready for testing” will build up. Testers working through these will, at least, have questions for the developer(s) or even find some defects. The developer, having moved on from that story, is now deep into the code and context of another story. When the tester has questions, or finds defects, relating to a story that the developer had worked on, say a week ago, then the developer has to reload their understanding of this old code and context in order to answer any questions or fix any defects. This context-switching carries significant overheads [4].

The end result is that the effort required to complete a story increases due to the repeated context switching, therefore reducing velocity.

So, not only does filling the capacity with more work fail to increase throughput, it adds costly context-switching overheads – ultimately slowing everything down.

This phenomenon is not unique to teams using fixed-length time-boxes, such as sprints. Strictly following Kanban avoids this problem, but what I’ve seen is some teams creating a ‘ready for testing’ queue – so that developers can start work on the next story. This has the same latency effect and turns a process designed for continuous flow into a batch and queue process. But, I digress.

What to do with the spare capacity?

The simple answer is to look at the whole approach and determine what is slowing things down. In the example above, I’d be wondering what’s slowing the testing down. Many of the things that hinder testing can be addressed by changing how we do things ‘upstream’.

Are lots of defects being found, causing the testers to spend more time investigating and reproducing them? Can we get the testers involved earlier? Can any predictable tests be defined up front so that developers can make sure the code passes them before it even gets to the testers (e.g. Behaviour Driven Development)?

Are the testers manually regression testing every sprint? Could the developers help by automating more of that? Are the testers having to perform repetitive tasks to get to the part of the user-journey they’re actually testing? Can that be automated by the developers?

Is there anything else that is impacting them? Test data set-up and maintenance, product owner availability to answer questions? Anything else?

Addressing any of these issues is likely to speed up the testing process and increase throughput of the entire team as a result. One solution is to put these types of tasks onto the product backlog. This is fine but if we assign point values to them it can give a skewed view of velocity. Or rather, velocity is no longer a measure of throughput. You won’t be able to see if these types of tasks are actually improving things unless you are also measuring what proportion of the points are delivering new product capabilities.

The only good reason I can think of for story-pointing these throughput-enhancing tasks is if your focus is utilisation – i.e. maximising the number of story-points in progress. Personally, I care more about measuring and improving throughput. By doing so, we get the right utilisation for free and a faster, more capable team.

Up next: Valuing Effectiveness over Efficiency.

Footnotes:

[1] “Lessons Learned in Close Quarters Battle” Illustrates how stepping outside our job descriptions can move the team through each story more quickly by using special-forces room-clearing as an analogy.

[2] Little’s law (PDF) – the section “Evolution of Little’s Law in Operations Management” that references Hopp and Spearman’s observation about throughput (TH), work-in-progress (WIP) and cycle-time (CT) – i.e. TH=CT/WIP. And therefore we can say CT = WIP/TH.

[3] Little’s law also illustrates that if we reduce the work in progress to one quarter, then the cycle time for each story reduces to one quarter of a sprint. We’ll still get through 10 points per sprint, but stories will be completed more as a continuous stream throughout the sprint rather than all at the end.

[4] “The Multi-Tasking Myth” by Jeff Atwood, talks about multi-tasking across projects and pulls together several resources to illustrate the impact of multitasking at various levels. This applies when multi-tasking across stories.

Acknowledgements:

I’d like to say a special thank you to my fellow RiverGliders – Andy Palmer and James Martin – for the feedback that helped me refine this article.

Scenario-Oriented vs. Rules-Oriented Acceptance Criteria

Acceptance Criteria, Scenarios, Acceptance Tests are, in my experience, often a source of confusion.

Such confusion results in questions like the one asked of Rachel Davies recently, i.e. “When to write story tests” (sometimes also known as “Acceptance Tests” or in BDD parlance “Scenarios”).

In her answer, Rachel highlighted that:

…acceptance criteria and example scenarios are a bit like the chicken and the egg – it’s not always clear which comes first so iterate!”

In that article, Rachel distinguishes between acceptance criteria and example scenarios by reference to Liz Keogh’s blog post on the subject of “Acceptance Criteria vs. Scenarios”:

where she explains that acceptance criteria are general rules covering system behaviour from which executable examples (Scenarios) can be derived

Seeing the acceptance criteria as rules and the scenarios as something else, is one way of looking at it. There’s another way too…

Instead of Acceptance Criteria that are rules and Acceptance Tests that are scenarios… I often find it useful to arrive at Acceptance Criteria that are scenarios, of which the Acceptance Tests are just a more detailed expression.

I.e. Scenario-Oriented Acceptance Criteria.

Expressing the Intent of the Story

Many teams I encounter, especially newer ones, place higher importance on the things we label “acceptance criteria” than on the things we label “acceptance tests” or “scenarios”.

By this I mean that, such a team might ultimately determine whether the intent of the story was fulfilled by evaluating the product against these rules-oriented criteria. Worse still, I’ve observed some teams also have:

  • Overheads of checking that these rule-based criteria are fulfilled as well as the scenario-oriented acceptance tests
  • Teams working in silos where BAs take sole responsibility of criteria and testers take sole responsibility for scenarios
  • A desire to have traceability from the acceptance tests back to the acceptance criteria
  • Rules expressed as rules in two places – the criteria and the code
  • Criteria treated as the specification, rather than using specification by example

If we take the approach of not distinguishing between acceptance criteria and acceptance tests (i.e. see the acceptance tests as the acceptance criteria) then we can encourage teams away from these kinds of problems.

I’m not saying it solves the problem – it’s just easier, in my experience, to move the team towards collaboratively arriving at a shared understanding of the intent of the story this way.

To do this, we need to iteratively evolve our acceptance criteria from rules-oriented to scenario-oriented criteria.

Acceptance Criteria: from rules-oriented to scenario-oriented:

Let’s say we had this user story:

As a snapshot photographer
I want some photo albums to be private
So that I have a backup of my personal photos online

And let’s say the product owner first expresses the Acceptance Criteria as rules:

  • Must have a way to set the privacy of photo albums
  • Private albums must be visible to me
  • Private albums must not be visible to others

We might discuss those to identify scenarios (as vertical slices through the above criteria):

  • Create new private album
  • Make public album private
  • Make private album public

Here, many teams would retain both acceptance criteria and scenarios. That’s ok but I’d only do that if we collectively understood that the information from these two will come together in the acceptance tests… And that whatever we agree in those acceptance tests supersede the previously discussed criteria.

This understanding tends to occur in highly collaborative teams. In newer teams, where disciplines (Business Analysts, Testers, Developers) are working more independently this tends to be harder to achieve.

In those situations (and often even in highly collaborative teams) I’d continue the discussion to iterate over the rules-oriented criteria to arrive at scenario-oriented criteria, carrying over any information captured in the rules, discarding the original rules-based criteria as we go. This might leave me with the following scenarios:

  • Create new private album (visible to me, not to others)
  • Make public album private (visible to me, not to others)
  • Make private album public (visible to me, & others)

Which, with a subtle change to the wording, become the acceptance criteria. I.e. the story is complete when we:

  • Can create new private album (visible to me, not to others)
  • Can make public album private (visible to me, not to others)
  • Can make private album public (visible to me, & others)

Once the story is ‘in-play’ (e.g. during a time-box/iteration/sprint) I’d elaborate these one at a time, implementing just enough to get each one passing as I go. By doing this we might arrive at:

Scenario: Can Create new private album
When I create a new private album called "Weekend in Brighton"
Then I should be able to see the album
And others should not be able to see it

Scenario: Can Make public album private
Given there is a public album called "Friday Night"
When I make that album private
Then I should be able to see the album
And others should not be able to see it

Scenario: Can Make private album public
Given there is a private album called "Friday Night"
When I make that album public
Then I should be able to see the album
And others should be able to see it

By being an elaboration of the scenario-oriented acceptance criteria there’s no implied need to also check the implementation against the original ‘rules-oriented’ criteria.

Agreeing that this is how we’ll work, it encourages more collaborative working – at least between the Business Analysts and Testers.

These new scenario-based criteria become the only means of determining whether the intent of the story has been fulfilled, avoiding much of the confusion that can occur when we have rules-oriented acceptance criteria as well as separate acceptance test scenarios.

In short, more often than not, I find these things much easier when the criteria and the scenarios are essentially one and the same.

Why not  give it a try?

Sushi, Hibachi and Other Ways of Serving Software Delicacies

Let’s say you own a restaurant. Quite a large restaurant. You’ve hired a manager to run the place for you because you are about to take the fruits of your success and invest in opening three more around the country. You leave the manager with a budget to make any improvements he sees fit.

After being away for a few weeks, you return to your restaurant. It’s very busy thanks to the great reputation you had built for it. The kitchen has some new state of the art equipment and you can see that there are a lot of chefs and kitchen-staff preparing meals furiously. Obviously, with a restaurant this full you have to prepare a lot of meals.

Too many chefs?

But then, you notice that there are only a few service staff taking orders and delivering the meals to the customers. Tables are waiting a long time for their meals. You notice the service staff spending a lot of their time taking meals back to the kitchen because they have gone cold waiting so long to be served. You also overhear several customers complaining that the meal they received was not the one they ordered, increasing the demand for the preparation of more meals. You call the manager over and ask him what’s going on… he says “because we need to invest more in the kitchen”. You wonder why. He tells you “because there are so many meals to prepare and we can’t keep up”.

At this point, it’s quite obvious that the constraint is not through lack of investment in the kitchen. Instead the lack of investment is in taking the right orders and getting the meals to the customers. To solve this, I think most people would increase the investment in getting the order right and in how the meals get to the customer not by investing more into the kitchen.

Obvious, right? Despite this, time and again, I see organisations happy to grow their investment in more programmers writing more code and fixing more bugs and all but ignore the end-to-end process of finding out what people want and taking these needs through to working capabilities available to the customer. Business analysis, user-experience, testing and operations all seem to suffer in under investment. If it takes you four weeks to write some code for several new features and then another four weeks for that to become capabilities available to your customer, hiring more programmers to write more code is not going to make things any better.

Sushi and Hibachi

So, how would you advise the restaurant? In the short term, you can get some of the chefs to serve customers while you hire more service staff. Another solution is to invest in infrastructure that brings the meals closer to the customer, such as in hibachi restaurants where the chef takes the order and cooks the meal at the table or in sushi restaurants where meals are automatically transported via conveyor belt.

In software teams, we can bring the preparation of features closer to our customers. We can involve a cross-functional team in the conversation with the customer (such as the chef being at the customer’s table). We can also automate a large proportion of the manual effort of getting features from a programmer’s terminal into the hands of the customer (as in with the conveyor belt). And, there is so much we can automate.

Integration, scripted test execution, deployment and release management can largely be automated. Since speeding up these tasks has the potential to increase the throughput of an entire development organisation, it seems appropriate to invest in these activities as we would in automating any other significant business activity – such as stock-control or invoice processing.

Cooking for ourselves

Why not ask a good number of our programmers to take some time out from automating the rest of the business and automate more of our own part of the business? Taking this approach seems to be the exception rather than the rule. I see organisations having one or two dev-ops folks trying to create automated builds; and similar number of testers, with next to no programming experience, trying to automate a key part of the business – regression testing. And then asking them all to keep up with an army of developers churning out new code and testers churning out more scripted tests.

Serving up the capabilities

Instead, let’s stop looking so closely at one part of the process and look more at the whole system of getting from concept to capability. Let’s invest in automating for ourselves as much as we automate for others – and let’s dedicate some of our best people to doing so.

In short, it’s not just about the speed at which we cook up new features. It’s as much about the speed at which we can serve new, working capabilities to our customers.

To hack, or not to hack

Recently, Engadget reported that Nokia had decided to abandon MeeGo in favour of Windows Mobile. What was interesting is the reported process used to make this decision:

Elop drew out what he knew about the plans for MeeGo on a whiteboard, with a different color marker for the products being developed, their target date for introduction, and the current levels of bugs in each product. Soon the whiteboard was filled with color, and the news was not good: At its current pace, Nokia was on track to introduce only three MeeGo-driven models before 2014-far too slow to keep the company in the game.

This brought to mind some blog posts I wrote in early 2010 (now copied to this blog – see previous two entries). I talked about ‘critical mass’…

Critical Mass of Software: the state of a software system when the cost of changing it (enhancement or correcting defects) is less economical than re-writing it.

In the case of Nokia and MeeGo, there isn’t enough information to know if that’s what had happened but it does suggest, at least, that it was more economical to choose an alternative third-party OS than to continue with MeeGo. Integrating Windows Mobile is going to come at some cost, of course, but clearly they decided it was less than sticking with their current strategy.

This is an example of modern markets demanding more sustainable, adaptive and agile product development cycles, and a company recognising this and acting on it.

It is also a demonstration of how an ever-growing cost of change (e.g. through the number of bugs consuming resources that would otherwise be adding new value) is really deferring of cost – i.e. technical debt.

There are many arguments for ‘prudent’ acceptance of technical debt… This story, I think, is an example of where it wasn’t obvious when that debt was no longer prudent until it was too late for MeeGo as a product.

And this is one of the problems with some lean concepts applied to new products and start-ups. The advice is often to get feedback from the market quickly by hacking the product together and release as quickly as possible. The trouble is, at what point do we take a step back and change to more sustainable practices? Probably around the time the product is selling… but then we’re under pressure from competitors who have seen our innovations and want to copy them… so we’re tempted to keep hacking out more features only to find that the faster we hack the slower we go.

There is no magic answer, to the question “when do we stop hacking and start sustainably building?” We might wait until we’re making enough money to hire more people to do remedial work.

As soon as we find we’re enhancing a feature, it might mean that it’s a key part of our product – one we’re going to keep. We might then treat any code we touch during that enhancement as legacy code, building in the cost of remedial work into the enhancement.

Some would argue that it’s faster overall to never hack things in and to commit to  sustainable product development practices from the get-go. This probably applies in many cases but especially to large complex products like operating systems.

Whatever the strategy used, there will come a point where you can’t hack in any more features. The question is, will you decide when that happens or will the cost of change decide for you.

 

 

Old Favourite – More Sharks and Delaying Critical Mass

This article originally featured on my old blog on 19th January 2010.

In a previous post I talked about Critical Mass of software. I showed how an ever-increasing cost of change resulted in it becoming more economical to completely rewrite the system than to enhance and maintain the original.

I explained how this could be avoided by using practices that sustain a consistent and flat cost of change. I also mentioned that you could defer reaching critical mass. Some teams find it difficult to get the time to do this because “the business” always has “more important” or “higher-value” things on their backlog.

What are the implications of reaching critical mass? Well, depending on what the software does and whether the rewritten version still has to do all of those things, it could cost millions… or more.

Presented with the situation that the product could reach critical mass within a year – costing millions to replace – do you think “the business” would start to think it is worth investing in reducing the cost of change? Obviously, I would advise teams to avoid this situation in the first place:

The reality for many teams I’ve encountered is that they don’t feel empowered to push back on the business’ demands for that next feature in half the time it takes to do it properly. If we could present back the impact of that choice as shortening the time to Critical Mass and bringing about costs to replace the software far in excess of the value gained by delivering that feature a month early then perhaps the business would be better informed.

A big visible chart on the wall, showing the estimated point at which Critical Mass was reached could play a big role in getting the business more interested in sustainable change, or at least inspire a conversation on the subject.

Convincing “the business” to invest in some remedial refactoring or allowing three times as long for each feature to facilitate enough remedial refactoring for each new feature and refactoring-as-we-go for the new feature might be easier if we could represent this idea visually:

The problem with this idea is how do we credibly determine when Critical Mass is going to be reached? Many experienced practitioners could probably reasonably accurately estimate when that was going to happen purely on gut feel but this would be torn to pieces by many product managers. I’ve not solved this problem yet because doing this would require a mathematical model, determined by empirical data.

Perhaps someone will take inspiration from the ideas in these blog posts and find a solution. Perhaps someone has already done this or maybe this is an idea for a future PhD I might undertake? Maybe someone else will take inspiration from this article and undertake that work before I do. If so, they’re welcome to (with due attribution where applicable of course ;-)

I think it is possible, however, to come up with a simple model based on the average complexity per unit of value (assuming that the team is using value and complexity). Trending this and keeping an estimate of a complete re-write up to date might allow the simple charts above to be maintained along side release-level burn-down charts.

These ideas are still in their infancy for me. Has this problem been solved already? If not, I encourage others to explore my hypothesis and help take it from just an interesting idea to something more useful.

Old Favourite – Sharks, Debts, Critical Mass and other reasons to Sustain Quality

This article originally featured on my old blog on 18th January 2010.

A while back I tweeted about critical mass of software:

Critical Mass of Code – past which the changeability of the code is infeasible, requiring that it be completely rewritten.

An elaboration of this might be:

Critical Mass of Software: the state of a software system when the cost of changing it (enhancement or correcting defects) is less economical than re-writing it.

This graph illustrates a hypothetical project where the cost of change increases over time (the shape of which reminds me of a thresher shark):

Note:The cost of a rewrite gradually grows at first to account for the delay between starting the re-write and achieving the same amount of functionality in the original version of the software at the same point in time. The gap between the cost-of-change and the cost-of-rewrite begins to decrease as the time it takes to implement each feature of comparable benefit in the original version grows.

It was just one of those thoughts that popped into my head. I soon discovered that critical mass of software is not a new idea.

One opportunity that I feel organisations miss out on is that this can be used as a financial justification for repaying technical debt, thus preventing or delaying the point at which software reaches its Critical Mass, or avoiding it altogether.

Maintaining quality combined with practices that keep the effort involved in completing each feature from growing over time can defer critical mass indefinitely:

Note: The cost of a rewrite is slightly less at first assuming that we are doing a little extra work to ensure that we get the infrastructure we need up and running to support sustainable change (e.g. continuous integration etc.)

This flat cost of change curve is one of the motivations of many agile practices and software craftsmanship techniques, such as continuous integration, test-driven-development, behaviour driven development and the continuous refactoring inherent in the latter two. A flat cost-of-change trend is good for the business, as they have more predictable expenditure.

The behaviour I’ve noticed with some teams is to knowingly accrue technical debt to shorten time to a near-future delivery in order to capitalise on an opportunity and then pay it back soon after:

This certainly defers reaching critical mass but it doesn’t prevent it.

Unfortunately, I see more teams taking on technical debt and not repaying it (for various reasons, often blamed on “the business” putting pressure on delivery dates).

If we had a way of estimating the point at which we’d reach critical mass, we’d be able to compare the benefit of repaying technical debt now in order to avoid or delay the cost of a rewrite… or even better, demonstrate the value of achieving a flatter cost of change.

I’m not sure that we have the data or the means of predicting it, but perhaps these illustrations of a hypothetical scenario will help you explain why sustaining constant quality, automating repeatable tests (or checking as some prefer to call it) wherever technically possible and, on those occasions when we do need to make a conscious choice to compromise quality to capitalise on an opportunity, that the debt is repaid soon after.

One company I know reached this point a couple of years ago and embarked on a department wide transformation to grow their skills in agile methods so that they not only re-wrote the software but could also avoid ever reaching critical mass again. A bold move, but one that paid off within a year. Even for them, they’ll need to avoid complacency as time goes on and not forget the lessons of the past. Let’s hope they do.