Tag Archives: Software development

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.

—————————
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.

Old Favourite – Developer Race-Tech: Continuous Testing

The original version of this article appeared on my old blog on 28th April 2010. This version has had some edits…

Gearboxes in competitive motor racing are designed to shift as fast as possible. A competitive race-car has computer controlled, hydraulically activated gear shifts that change gears up or down faster than you can blink (literally)! In Formula One, each shift is so fast that the gearbox systems have been dubbed “seamless shift” gearboxes and can shift gear in around 2-4 100ths (0.02 – 0.04) of a second. Compare that to the circa 1-2 second gear-shift a competent driver takes to manually de-clutch, change gear and re-clutch on a road car. Even automatic gearboxes on road cars can’t keep pace with the rapid gear changes that a race car delivers.

Competitive Edge

The race car is only saving fractions of a second with each accelerated up-shift, but the race-driver changes gear so often per lap and there are so many laps in a race that these fractions of a second can add up to a vital and significant lead over their competitors.[1]
mclaren-mercedes

Set aside the lap-time improvements for a moment from spending at least half a second more on the power per up-shift than with a manual box… The modern F1 driver has much more to do in the cockpit too than the comparative tedium of changing gear [2].

Developer race-tech

Now, in motor racing, such gearboxes are taken for granted. No serious Formula One racing team would put their car on the track without one.

In a world where a lot of software development is for companies competing in the economical equivalent of a race, it seems that development teams aren’t taking full advantage of their own metaphorical millisecond gear-shifts.

There are tools that are a developer’s equivalent of a racing gearbox. The simplest example is background compilation. Other examples are refactoring tools that make widespread changes with a simple key-stroke. What once took minutes or hours with global find & replace or even scripting, we can complete in seconds. IDEs that automatically complete class-names and method names are another example. These are tools that many of us take for granted, like the racing driver and automated gear-shift.

Falling behind

But there are other places where we are still not taking full advantage of the technology. I am still encountering surprisingly few people using continuous testing tools, where tests are run automatically in the background every time a file is saved, and not just the test I’m working on, all my tests. There are a few tools available for this, including Infinitest and ZenTest.

Despite the availability of such tools, I still see many developers using keyboard shortcuts to execute tests. Or, worse, reaching for the mouse, right-clicking, navigating another menu level down and running the tests with a left-click, or worse still, forgetting to run them altogether. I want rapid feedback with minimum friction to obtaining it. Much like background compilation, unit tests should just run, and run often, alerting us when a problem occurs. The easier they are to run, the more likely we are to run them… How much easier could it be than it happening automagically each time we save a file?

Need for Speed

Try it for a while and, like me, even keyboard-shortcut executed tests start to feel like you’re stuck in traffic rather than being in a competitive race to the finish… Or, maybe it’s just me and my need for speed

 

The video is of me on the Silverstone Southern Circuit (part of the F1 GP circuit) taking my UK National Class B Racing License Test in a Nissan R35 GTR – approx 480+bhp, 0-62mph (0-100kmh) in 3.5secs, using it’s double-clutch, paddle-operated gear-shift providing gear changes in about 0.2 of a second. I passed… despite being very cautious on the brakes… and was noticeably quicker than the other person doing their test… which you see towards the end as I pass them :-)

[1] At the Monaco GP, an F1 driver will change gear around 50-60 times in one lap. Over 78 laps, this adds up to as many as 4680 gear changes over the whole race (up and down-shifts).

[2] The comparative tedium of de-clutching, shifting and re-engaging the clutch is something that a race-driver should not need to worry about as they approach 200mph while adjusting the brake-balance lever, switching to a new fuel-air mixture setting, pressing the KERS boost button and/or deactivating the Drag Reduction System.

 

You’re almost cuking it…

In “You’re Cuking it Wrong”, Jonas Nicklas, shows several examples of bad scenarios (or acceptance tests whichever term you prefer) and demonstrates better approaches. This is an excellent post on common mistakes made when writing example scenarios with Cucumber.

I think, however, he could have gone further in one case. One of his examples of a bad scenario looks like this:

Scenario: Adding a subpage
Given I am logged in
Given a microsite with a Home page
When I click the Add Subpage button
And I fill in "Gallery" for "Title" within "#document_form_container"
And I press "Ok" within ".ui-dialog-buttonpane"
Then I should see /Gallery/ within "#documents"

(Dude – yep, seen these… I agree… not good). He goes on to suggest it should really look like this:

Scenario: Adding a subpage
Given I am logged in
Given a microsite with a home page
When I press "Add subpage"
And I fill in "Title" with "Gallery"
And I press "Ok"
Then I should see a document called "Gallery"

This is a massive improvement. It keeps the specifics that inform the reader and give them some context (like filling in the “Title” with “Gallery”) and takes them further away from the implementation. Although it gets closer to expressing customer intent, I think it could go further. At the moment, it is describing the ‘what’ and some of the ‘how’. This example makes complete sense if what we are exploring is the design of the UI. I’ve not found these scenarios to be a good place to do that, however.

Instead, in these specifications we want our examples to illustrate the customer intent. The ‘what’ not the ‘how’. There are other places we can capture the ‘how’ – i.e. in the step methods.

Instead, I would write it like this:

Scenario: Adding a subpage
Given a microsite with a home page
Given I am logged in
When I Add a Subpage with a Title of "Gallery"
Then I should see a document called "Gallery"

I’ve removed all the “Tasks” and left only “Activities”. This leaves the user experience completely open. This ensures that when there are UI changes, I only change the code that performs the tasks (clicking, pressing, etc.) and my scenarios evaluate whether the customer intent is still fulfilled – without having to go back and change a lot of files.

Otherwise – great post Jonas :-)

Monsters, Names, Pot-Roast & The Waterfall Model

“Antony” (without the ‘H’) is the anglicised version of Antonius. In victorian times (there or thereabouts I’m guessing), among those wishing to appear oh so intelligent, gossip spread that the spelling of “Antony” was wrong… For, so they would say, it is born of the greek word “anthos” (meaning “flower”) – oh dear… so many poor children with misspelt names… 

Despite being completely wrong, the world forgot of my name’s etruscan origin and spelt it with an ‘H’… This misinformation established itself through the eras so much so that, today, the de-facto spelling is “Anthony”. It has even found it’s way into the American pronunciation of the name as: “An-thon-ee”.

Waterfall development has something in common with this story… somehow, through misinformation, what it once was has been warped, into something else.

The key difference is that Waterfall is now increasingly represented as was originally intended. Unfortunately for me, my name is not…

 

Monsters & Legends

Some might think that the Waterfall Model is an approach to software development, first explained (but not named) in Winston Royce’s 1970 Paper “Managing the Development of Large Software Systems” (PDF), but they could be wrong…

Somehow, it seems to have become something else… it became the way (many) people thought software should be developed… the norm for software ‘professionals’. Years of anecdotal failure followed and Waterfall became a legend – told time and again much like a scary camp-fire story… The enemy of effective software development… A monster that will consume all the resources it can, spewing out nothing but documentation, rarely concluding in working software – at best 20% of the time.

This negative view, to what was once the de-facto approach to software development, is actually far closer to Royce’s original words on Waterfall than many seem to know…

 

The Truth & Technology

In Royce’s original paper, he shows a progression of activities, that came to be known as the waterfall model.

What we rarely hear of is Royce’s original words on the subject:

“…the implementation described above is risky and invites failure.”

Further to this, Royce goes on to explain that the reason that this cannot work is because there are too many things we cannot analyse up-front:

“The testing phase which occurs at the end of the development cycle is the first event for which timing, storage, input/output transfers, etc., are experienced as distinguished from analyzed. These phenomena are not precisely analyzable. They are not the solutions to the standard partial differential equations of mathematical physics for instance.”

He explains that we need feedback loops. He goes on to warn of (a conservative) 100% overrun in schedule and costs:

“…invariably a major redesign is required. A simple octal patch or redo of some isolated code will not fix these kinds of difficulties. The required design changes are likely to be so disruptive that the software requirements upon which the design is based and which provides the rationale for everything are violated. Either the requirements must be modified, or a substantial change in the design is required. In effect the development process has returned to the origin and one can expect up to a 100-percent overrun in schedule and/or costs.”

Some of Royce’s strategies, like “Involve the customer” and obtaining early feedback, have lived on in modern (Agile) methodologies. Beyond that, we should remember that his specific recommendations on how to solve the problems of a waterfall model were all based on the technology of the time.

 

Pot-Roast & The Cost of Change

In 1970, computing was much more expensive than it is today. In those days, changing software was far more expensive than changing pictures and words on paper. It was also much harder to express your design in a human-friendly way in the programming languages of that time. As a result of these and other factors, documentation was a major part of how Royce tried to solve the inherent problems of the Waterfall model.

 

Technology, tools & thinking have moved on and our documentation no longer needs to be static. It lives. It can breath. The specification can automatically verify that the implementation does what we said it should do (e.g. as in BDD Specs or ATDD/TDD Tests). Modern programming languages allow us to express the design and our understanding of the domain far more clearly, negating the need to first detail our thoughts on paper in natural language. We simply don’t have to cut the ends off that pot-roast anymore.

 

Only now, at the end…

Waterfall, thanks to the popularity of Agile, has gone from something I was shown at school as “how software is developed” to being seen in the light that it was originally presented – how software should not be implemented.

This is despite those who still profess the legitimacy of Waterfall and those still shocked and surprised when they hear of Royce’s own words against the monster he unintentionally created.

As for my name, I hold out little hope for change. I doubt that the world will use my name as it was originally intended and so I have resigned myself to needing two domain names… one with an ‘H’ in it, and the correct one without – I wonder which one brought you here.