Tag Archives: Technology/Internet

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.

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[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.

GhostDriver – Headless Selenium RemoteWebDriver

GhostDriver is a Selenium server that can be connected to via a RemoteWebDriver.

It runs completely heedlessly on PhantomJS but still behaves (mostly) like a typical webkit browser. By avoiding the overhead of actually rendering the page in a GUI it can run standard Selenium tests noticeably faster and on a headless build server too.

This is especially beneficial if you want to use continuous testing IDE plugins like Infinitest or JUnitMax or simply to encourage developers to run end-to-end tests more frequently.

GhostDriver is written on top of PhantomJS, a headless WebKit browser which uses QtWebKit.

It’s already 35%-50% faster than ChromeDriver despite the fact that QtWebKit has the standard WebKit Javascript engine. QtWebKit is moving to the V8 JS engine (as used in Chrome) which means it’s only going to get faster…

It’s still work in progress and hasn’t implemented the entire Selenium wire protocol yet but it’s certainly one to watch.

Presentation at SeleniumConf 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqxkKIC2HDY

Find it on GitHub: https://github.com/detro/ghostdriver/

Implemented by: Ivan De Marino

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 – 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.

 

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.