Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Taming the Wild West: the Differences between Agile and Cowboy Coding

One of the strongest arguments for Agile is that it’s not Waterfall. However, not everything that isn't Waterfall is Agile, a fact that’s not always understood. This misunderstanding hurts the Agile brand when people familiar with only Waterfall begin associating all other methodologies, including a lack thereof, as Agile. I want to be very clear about this: Agile is not Cowboy Coding, and Cowboy Coding is not unique to Agile teams. It is important both to understand how Agile and Cowboy Coding are different and what Cowboy Coding looks like so that you can identify it on your teams (yes, even Waterfall teams).

The Loner

One of the easiest signs of a Cowboy Coder is that he’s a loner. He may be working under the name of Agile, but there are no Agile methodologies or frameworks I’m aware of that support such behavior. In fact, the backing principles of the Agile Manifesto state, “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project”; “Build projects around motivated individuals”; “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation”; “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”; and “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” The manifesto, its principles, and all Agile methodologies and frameworks I know of are very human-centered with an emphasis on collaboration.

If you have a loner on your team that insists on working in a silo, there’s a possibility that you have a cowboy in your midst. Try to rein them in using mandatory meeting/ceremonies that promote meaningful conversations and practices like Pair Programming. If they absolutely refuse then you will likely end up spending considerable time managing the work around them – holding ad hoc conversations, formal code reviews, knowledge transfer workshops, etc. – with diminishing returns.

Straight to Production

Working directly with Production code or with a source code repository that isn't versioned is a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong, I love Continuous Delivery and working off the trunk, but a software development team must be very mature and disciplined to make this work. They use feature toggles and branching by abstraction to protect code that isn’t ready for Production. They build test suites around the code so that each commit is verified against regression. They do their due diligence to make sure that a change isn't going to blow up if it’s pushed to Production. Cowboys, simply put, don’t.

If you find yourself consistently in a situation where the same person or people are making changes directly to Production without due diligence then you might just be working with Cowboys. Have them read up on DevOps and Continuous Delivery so they can learn the right way to get changes to Production quickly. Emergency situations that require quick, non-vetted changes to Production should be avoided at all costs.

Wastes of Time

The Cowboy will often refer to Testing and Documentation as a waste of time. They may even commit the cardinal sin of Agile, reciting the Manifesto blasphemously: “‘Working software is the primary measure of progress’; anything else is just a waste of time!” To those people, I would ask them to define “working”. Does it pass the Acceptance Criteria associated to the work (or did you even bother to ensure you had Acceptance Criteria)? Can anybody actually use it, or is it too buggy or complex? Is anyone other than yourself aware of the assumptions made around input, output, workflow, etc.?

Without proper testing and documentation, you can’t prove your software works nor can anybody understand how it works. With that being said, if your tests and documentation don’t contribute to the value and usability of the software then they are, in fact, a waste of time. Focus your testing efforts on tests that actually stand a chance of failing and finding vulnerabilities. Don’t spin your wheels creating “write-only” documentation. This is the approach that Agile espouses; anyone who says tests and documentation are altogether useless is operating with a Cowboy mindset, not an Agile one.

“Emergent Architecture”

One of the backing principles to the Agile Manifesto states “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”. There are those who believe this means “just make it up as you go.” That’s not entirely accurate. There still needs to be intelligent design, and that design needs to make the software as easy to comprehend and maintain as possible. As another principle clarifies, “Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.” This means having a thorough understanding of the latest design patterns and practices. It means taking the time to refactor working code into something better. It means taking a little bit of time up-front to design what you think will work and adjusting as you go.

Agile developers do not shoot from the hip. They take pride in their applications; they have a sense of ownership. They will throw research spikes, read books, build proofs-of-concept, attend conferences – do what it takes to build the right thing in the right way. You’ll spot a Cowboy by their purposeful lack of direction, sticking code wherever they please with the sole purpose of “getting something to work” so they can move on to the next thing. If they do it in the name of “emergent architecture” then call shenanigans. That’s not architecture, it’s just reckless.

Somewhere to Hang their Hat

The good news is that cowboys can be tamed if they can come to appreciate the practices, tools, and frameworks that Agile provides. Cowboys won’t jump on the bandwagon just for the heck of it. There will always be some that refuse to be tamed, but many will see the benefits and forsake their wandering ways once you give them a safe place to hang their hat.

One of the great things about reformed Cowboys is they are used to developing quickly and cross-functionally. If you arm them with XP practices, Agile tools, a Kaizen mindset, and continued training and development, they can become model developers that contribute quality software time after time.

Just don’t make the mistake of trying to get them to do something for which there is no tangible benefit. They don’t take too kindly to that.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Normalized Story Points

UPDATE: 18 months later, I've reflected back on this topic in my post "Revisiting Normalized Story Points".

I was recently involved in a discussion on LinkedIn on the topic of Normalized Story Points and whether or not it was a good idea. What I noticed was that, despite what I think is a very clear explanation by the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), many people misunderstand both the process for normalizing Story Points and the intended benefit to be gleaned from this practice. If you have not yet, I encourage you to read the explanation in the “Iterations” abstract on the Scaled Agile Framework before reading on (the section entitled “Relative Estimating, Velocity and Normalizing Story Point Estimating”). That will provide the proper context for my thoughts, as a Certified SAFe Program Consultant and active Release Train Engineer, on what this means (and what it doesn’t).

First, how do we normalize Story Points? The gist of the process is this:
“1. For every developer tester on the team, give the team eight points (adjust for part timers)
2. Subtract one point for every team member vacation day and holiday
3. Find a small story that would take a about a half-day to code and a half-day to test and validate. Call it a 1.
4. Estimate every other story relative to that one.”
That’s basically it. The primary problem that teams run into is that they ignore step #4, along with the advice that follows these steps: “There is no need to recalibrate team estimating or velocities after that point.” This is a tool that has very specific benefits; it is intended for one-time use that allows for long-term benefit.

This means that teams within a SAFe organization are using a common practice to determine a baseline from which to begin relative estimation and, as such, will have Story Points that are roughly the same size. This will enable “just good enough” Story Point estimation of cross-team Features and Epics, which allows for more precise road-mapping and budgeting than we would otherwise have.

This does not mean that teams are estimating using Ideal Man-Days. They should still do relative estimation using the modified Fibonacci sequence. This also does not mean that roadmaps will be 100% precise; they will simply be more precise than what’s been available before. Budgeting will be precise in the sense that we float scope, not cost; however, the Epic Owner should only expect the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and not necessarily every requested feature when the Epic has been initially estimated and not yet broken-down.

This means that teams establish how “big” a Story Point is early and don’t have to spend as much time figuring that out as a team. When I first became a Scrum Master, my team ended up having to re-baseline several times as they learned how to better write and slice User Stories. The alternative would have been either User Stories that were smaller than one point or multiple one-point Stories that were considerably variable in the amount of effort they actually required.

This does not mean that all teams will have exactly the same Story Point “size” or estimate exactly the same way. Every team is still unique and has their own dynamic that works for them. You will find, however, that the “size” of each team’s Story Point is close enough to allow for Program and Portfolio level estimating and planning.

This is not intended to take the place of established Agile practices for planning, splitting, and estimating the work that teams deliver. It is intended to get teams started in such a way that planning, splitting, and estimating can be done more simply and effectively across multiple teams. Once you establish your baseline, throw Ideal Man-Days out the window – it then becomes only a part of the criteria for relative estimation, along with complexity and uncertainty. Once you establish your initial velocity, throw the 8 Story Points per person per Sprint out the window – instead, use “yesterday’s weather”, current circumstances, and team growth to determine the number of points the team will commit to each Sprint.

Just like any other tool, metric, practice, meeting, or role that we use in Agile, the practices used for Normalizing Story Points have a stated benefit. We do not do things for the sake of doing them. Normalizing Story Points can have a tremendous positive impact on an organization practicing Agile at scale; a misunderstanding of Normalized Story Points can have a significant negative impact on that same organization.

Understanding the “Why?”

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where –" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"– so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

I've written a couple of blog posts on understanding the principles of Agile, the “book version”, as it were, in order to achieve the success that is associated with Agile. If you've been in the Agile arena for any significant amount of time, you know there are a lot of disagreements as to the “How” of Agile. There are many different methodologies, frameworks, tools, and practices out there to support Agile teams. Some believe this is because people simply disagree on how to best implement Agile and, in some cases, this is true. Others understand Agile was never intended to be “One Size Fits All”. There are many options because there are many teams and each team must determine what solution works best for them – and evolve that solution over time in the spirit of Continuous Improvement.

This means you cannot determine “How” you want to implement Agile until you understand the needs of the team. “We need to have a Daily Scrum.” Why? If you can’t answer this then it’s not going to bring as much benefit as it should. If you understand the Daily Scrum as a touch-point to align across team members; identify risks and dependencies the team is encountering; and jump-start communication that will occur throughout the day then it becomes a stale and stagnant status update meeting.

My recommendation to Agile teams, and all human beings for that matter, is to not adopt something without understanding the “Why?” behind it. True Agile teams do not do things for the sake of doing them. They do them for a reason and nothing is sacred; if a tool or practice outlives its usefulness then it must be “put out to pasture” so as to not get in the way of the team’s continued growth. By regularly re-evaluating the usefulness of your current implementation, you also get the benefit of being open to new things. No matter how good your team is, they will never be as good as the team they could be.