Thursday, June 12, 2014

Agile - O, be some other name!

Agile methodologies have been around for quite a while now. The Agile Manifesto was created way back in 2001. As such Agile - as a term - has gone from a curious status quo disruptor to a buzz-word to an entrenched term. It is similarly used and abused in the same fashion as most business terms. It also carries some significant baggage - not least of all the perception that it can only be applied to software development.

Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet
Once one grows past the phase where one is simply trying to teach the practices of a particular flavor of Agile Methodologies, one is often faced with the decision of whether to drop using the moniker 'Agile'. If one sees the raw potential within the practices and principles to transform organizational culture to be healthier, happier and more efficient, how do you sell it beyond the IT department? Some leverage broader terms such as Organizational Development, others reframe the term to something like "Agility".

I see the appeal of these approaches and use them myself when appropriate. However, I am often struck that we are just superficially engaging in word play. We are left with Juliet's quandary (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 43): What's in a name? That which we call an Agile Team, by any other name would be as healthy.

Which brings us to the true focus of the more advanced Agile Coach - to transform the team's or organization's health so that they can be, among other things, agile. For this reason I like to embrace the baggage of the term Agile. It is a handle we can use to enter into a transformative conversation. This sort of conversation is usually had at the start of a relationship with a client or potential client. It might not even be had by an Agile Coach, but rather by a Salesperson. I am a firm believer that successful transformations begin at the very first engagement. Why not utilize the power of this handle to begin the transformation?

Rather than telling the person what Agile is, ask what they know about Agile; what they think it is. This can get into all manner of discussion quickly. Even misconceptions can be used as transformative opportunities. You can get quickly past lengthy and potentially boring or confusing explanations and start delving into where they are struggling and suggesting how you can assist them. If you use another name, you have to spend too much valuable conversation time just setting the stage.

Friday, May 9, 2014

... its like eating an apple

I was communicating with the owner of a client company where I am doing an Agile Transformation today when she said basically that to her Agile was all about reviewing, organizing and prioritizing things in bites... a bite at a time... I wanted to clarify to make sure that she understood much of the key is using the tight feedback loops available in iterative development; not just simply iterating. In response I continued the analogy - of eating an apple:

A bite at a time that gives you more info about the rest of the apple, is it juicy and sweet? Tart? Have worms? Rotten? But it is also taking that info and making decisions around the further eating of the apple... Should it be cut unto slices? Cooked in a pie? Can we cut out the bad part and keep the rest?

Or should we leave the apple at good enough and toss the rest in the compost pile while we go back to the fruit bowl for another piece of fruit?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Milwaukee Agile Meetup - Continuous Integration Panel Discussion Summary

Last week I had the pleasure of being on a panel discussion about Continuous Integration at the Milwaukee Agile Meetup. My fellow panelists were Carl Schrammel, Adam Black, Jason Duff, James Carpenter and Adam Johnson.

The discussion grew out of the group's growing interest in this area and challenges that individuals and teams attending the Meetup had expressed recently. I know several people who said they had wanted to attend, so I thought I would post a summary of the discussion.

Q: What does Continuous Integration mean to you? When were you first introduced to the concept and how did it change your perspective?
A: After the initial text book definition was given ("Continuous integration (CI) is the practice, in software engineering, of merging all developer working copies with a shared mainline several times a day." - Wikipedia), the group continued to express their take on CI.

  • CI is a powerful feedback tool for both engineering as well as project management - reduces surprises due to integration and deployments and makes the ones which occur more manageable.
  • The benefits of CI are best reaped via automation, but even manual CI can bring great improvement.
  • CI can help build confidence in the product and the team - one always knows the state of the code at the end of the day.
The distinction between Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CD) was also drawn... with Continuous Delivery being an advanced practice where a team is able to deploy changes to production with high frequency. 

Q: What tools are being used?
A: The standard list of revision repositories, build servers, testing frameworks, continuous integration servers, deployment automation were quickly run through - basically if you are interested in CI there is likely a set of tools readily available for your language/tech stack of choice. It was noticed, however, that there are software products and systems which are not necessarily easy to integrate automation or other CI tools too. Particularly these tend to be configuration based systems, or closed systems which perhaps try to manage revision control internally - preventing access or control by external ci/build/test setups. This led to the discussion that aside from tools, the other aspect of CI is the practices and behaviors. These behaviors are often harder to implement than the tools. However, if the behaviors are embraced by a team, even the most simplistic of CI tooling can become powerful. The further consensus of the panel was that it is best to start simply - implementing behaviors and supporting tooling gradually. In this way, each advancement should be lauded as a positive win in the right direction rather than disappointment at not having achieved an elusive ideal CI or CD state in one try.

Q: How to prove the value of CI to developers? to business/product owners? how soon can one expect to see value?
A: The answers to this echoed some of the previous discussion. The general feeling was to take each instance in a case-by-case basis and look for opportunities to introduce behaviors and tools pragmatically to provide greater insight into specific areas where a team may be experiencing pain. Examples: recurring bugs, painful massive code integrations, lost code, misunderstood and mis-implemented user requirements, painful coordination/integration with other systems/teams on deployment, out of sync versions of code between environments (Prod getting ahead of Dev or Test), not being able to do certain types of testing. All of these were brought up as pain points which some degree of CI could have alleviated. 

Since CI sits on the front lines of ever changing code, the positive impact of CI can be seen very quickly (as soon as one build cycle in some cases). The key is to communicate this to the parties who would most appreciate the benefit. This is where a CI server can help by providing dashboards and automated messaging, but even utilizing the low tech approach of holding stake-holder meetings before and after a CI 'event' can shed light on the benefit of the activity.

The panel agreed that in order to get the buy in to do more advanced levels of CI requires the building of trust, something familiar to Agile Coaches and leaders everywhere. However, even the most rudimentary CI practices can provide excellent data and feedback which, if communicated properly, can facilitate the building of that trust. Due to the fact that CI can generate data about the health of the deliverable every time a change is made, it can be one of the most powerful and prolific sources of data for information radiators. The trick as with all data is to mine it for the most relevant information to the message you wish to communicate.

Q: Who owns CI? Who sponsors/drives for CI?
A: The panelists seemed to generally agree that in most large project teams, there was a dedicated Operations team in charge of maintaining the CI tools (build servers, repositories, deployments and deployment automation, ci servers, etc). However, many expressed how this could lead to the negative effects of siloing. Panelists shared their experiences with teams who used various means to combat this. Rotation of members into the ops team, rotation of ops duties among teams, the use of embedded testers to serve as the bridge between dev and ops, and use of separate scrum-of-scrums to coordinate dev teams with ops.

We did not get too much into the sponsors for CI. I would suggest, as with trying to get buy in, any individuals or groups who feel they would get a benefit out of the use of CI could sponsor it. I have seen CI started as an engineering initiative and I have also seen it sponsored by Project Management and even Product Owners.

Q: Of those doing CD, has anyone automated the signoff process in tightly controlled organization/industry?
A: No one had seen full blown automated sign-off at the level of the typical product owner, upper management deployment committee. However, several had seen groups who had automated sign-off at lower levels, such as moderate UAT sign-off. This can help pave the way to make the manual sign-off at the executive level easier once trust has been established through a record of reliable test/dev/pass/sign-off cycles.

The evening flew by and that was about all we were able to get to. Prior to the discussion, David Neuman from Redpoint Technologies sent out a list of questions to the panelists that would serve to seed the discussion. I think we hit most of the items tangentially. If anyone would like to discuss them further, leave a comment or email me.

The last question on the list asked if there was one recommendation we have for successfully implementing and leveraging CI. 

Build Automated Tests. Even if you still have to trigger your builds or other steps manually, having automated test suites that you can run against your built code is one of the most powerful tools to start getting an ROI on your CI efforts. Furthermore, many of the behaviors and practices of CI which are difficult to master initially revolve around disciplines of TDD. If you have automated tests, it is easier to start to instill these disciplines in your team. As some of the other panelists and I were discussion after the meetup, automated TDD is fun... it makes coding like a game with almost instant gratification to our problem/puzzle solving efforts. Making something fun can really make developing good habits to support it easier.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Agile Martial Arts to Prevent The Project K.O.

Recently, I have been having a number of discussions with colleagues about our projects and I noticed that there was a similarity in how we were discussing using the communication and feedback tools of Agile Development with concepts of Martial Arts.

When training in martial arts, one comes to learn that one of the most powerful tools one has in dealing with an adversary is to control distance and time. One can either increase distance in order to give one more time to analyze and deal with an adversary's attack or one can reduce distance and/or time to limit your adversary's options and ability to develop an attack.

Similarly on a project, surprises are seldom a good thing. However one cannot know everything which is going to happen. Change management strategies have evolved to try to deal with this, however, traditionally these have been largely reactive... like a novice at Close distance flailing wildly to block each attack. So how do you control time/distance to problem fallout on a project? 

This is done via the use of feedback loops of varying frequency. Feedback loops of lower frequency can give you the time to "step back" and assess changes before rushing in. This can called a Distance/Time giving action since they give you more time to assess a developing problem, but that means they may also allow the problem to develop further. Feedback loops of higher frequency allow you to address issues immediately, preventing them from ballooning into larger problems or even implementing proactive solutions to stop the problem in its tracks. These are Distance/Time takers, since they shorten the time allowed for a problem to develop. The number and roles of individuals who receive and deal with the feedback initially also plays a part in whether a technique is more giving or taking in nature. Generally, lower number of individuals whose roles are closer to the source of the problem will be a taking action, while the converse is more of a giving action.

Some Distance/Time giving techniques (lower frequency loops):

  • Daily scrums/standups
  • Iterative development/delivery
  • Regular demos
  • Regular retrospectives
  • Pairing

Taking a step back to gain distance and time is one of the simplest defense moves. Appreciation of the different threat levels each distance presents and the ability to back-out to a safe distance is something which is taught to beginners. Similarly, the techniques for gaining Distance/Time in Agile Development are simple enough that any team can begin to use them right away. 

For example, a team is following a more traditional project management approach with few touch points across the team. Perhaps the PM only reports to a board  the status of things as dates for delivery of milestones occur. At this point, it is usually too late and if a problem has occurred, the PM is delivering the surprise bad-news. Even worse, a milestone is delivered only to have the product owners report all the surprise deficiencies. Obviously, both of these are uncomfortable for all involved and panic may often set in. By establishing short, frequent and regular meetings with the team including all stakeholders, a team can get the opportunity to see the problems coming and properly deal with them. They are effectively giving themselves the time to deal with the problems rather than rushing headlong into the fray. 

A recent client complained that historically, every time they tried to do a deployment the tools the development team used seemed to create surprise errors. Moreover, items were added to the new environment without the client's prior knowledge. These would not necessarily break anything, but they did add confusion and wasted time. In order to address this we established regular meetings with tech leads, the deployment lead, the clients and testing. At the meeting, proposed pending changes were discussed. A draft-deploy was reviewed for surprise dependencies which might be pulled in by the deploy tool. Team members who previously never spoke to one another now communicate regularly around a problem they were all experiencing from different perspectives. Out of this, the team has developed a much more rigorous deployment practice, surprises have been eliminated, and all parties have gained a much better understanding of their deployment tools and an appreciation for each others difficulties in deployment. It is not as much a typical Change Management/Approval board as it is an opportunity for the interested parties to communicate. Meetings never last more than half an hour and usually are about fifteen minutes, but we meet at least once a week. While not one of the traditional Agile Team Meetings, it follows the spirit of frequent cross-communication which is so vital to the Agile Approach. 

Some Distance/Time taking techniques (high frequency loops):

  • Automated Testing
  • Test Driven Development
  • Acceptance Criteria/Tests
  • Test First Development
  • Pairing
  • Continuous Integration
  • Daily scrums/standups

Distance/Time taking techniques are usually more advanced in Martial arts as they require a bit more training and discipline to do safely. So too in software development. Most of the ones I listed here obviously employ development practices which software engineers will need to hone if they have not done them before. However, once proficiency is obtained in them, these practices can be life savers and even keep at bay the dreaded pager. Utilized well, these operate as a means of clinching problems by stopping them well before they develop into much larger problems in a more devastating environment. Use of Automated testing with a modern CI server can not only identify problems in with new code early on, it can also help make sure that once a bug is fixed, it stays fixed. One of the mantras on a team I was on was "Find a Bug, Write a Test." Basically, whenever a bug was reported, the developer wrote a test for how the solution was supposed to behave. Of course, until the bug was fixed, the test would continue to break. However, the bug would likely never resurface again since our test coverage of our code had now improved. This of course requires the developer discipline of running tests before committing, as well as a Test-First mentality. Without those disciplines the team is back to reactive flailing.

These techniques do not always stop problems from occurring, but like the clinch, they can prevent the problem from developing into a more lethal one. A team with good CI, TDD, and Acceptance testing practices for instance, can deal with and minimize the impact of major architectural changes or even severe problems introduced by changes in third-party software. They can tackle the severe problem in manageable chunks at a level of relative safety. 

I listed daily scrums and pairing under both because depending upon the situation these techniques can act both to give time to deal with potentially developing problems as well as to stop problems from starting in the first place through open communication. The latter is usually the case where someone either states what they are working on or having difficulty with and someone else on the team either gives them a solution or can help them avoid pitfalls they have experienced before. As it happens at such a frequent schedule, the time for problems to develop is often completely eliminated - effectively clinching the problems. Scrums and Pairing as time gaining operate in the sense that by approaching problems as a team tends to prevent us from making rash decisions.

A final note: you will notice that I do not say Pair Programming... while I like Pair Programming, many of my colleagues have noted that pairing is a powerful tool for all team members. I have seen PM's, BA's testers, even Product Owners pair on deliverables with great results.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Do good communication skills improve your code?

What is one of the primary design flaws we see over and over in software?

Tight coupling.

I started wondering why this might be. I thought about the mental process I go through when attempting to write cohesive, decoupled code. I realized that is was very similar to the mental process I go through when composing paragraphs and sentences.

Could there be a correlation between composition skills in one's native language and their skill at designing and developing loosely coupled software solutions?

Certainly Uncle Bob Martin's book "Clean Code" suggests something of the sort. In it he approaches method writing much like telling a story. If one is better at communicating written stories, perhaps they would be better at this form of design.

UPDATE: I found this link after posting that I thought I would share:

What do you think?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Put your Adwords fears to REST (managing lead consumption)

I just finished up a neat little project where I got to help a client streamline how they were managing the monitoring of lead consumption among their sales members and making sure that they were not overspending in a particular region at another's detriment.

The Problem: The client is using Adwords to garner leads in various states. Their sales team members are selling in multiple states. They have a third party system for distribution of leads to the team members. This system has a toggle the team members are to use to indicate whether they are actively taking leads at a given time. When this flag is on for a team member, leads are sent to them. However, many team members were failing to turn their flag off. These members where then getting leads assigned to them when they might not even be in the office. This was to the detriment of other members who then would get none. Due to the agreement to provide members leads, this meant a lot of work tracking consumption, establishing quotas and trying to modify behavior. It also meant that sometimes the Adwords budget for particular campaigns would have to be increased in order to meet the internal agreements with the sales team. The cross region nature of sales member activity also meant that it could effect campaigns in multiple regions. They were tracking all this using a spreadsheet and a lot of leg work.

The Solution: Redpoint was asked to build a small tool to automate what the lead manager was having to spend too much of his time fretting about with the spreadsheet. In a short 6 weeks from Inception to Production Deploy we came up with a system to do this. The tool ultimately consisted of a web app and a poller service. The components pulled data from various web services including the distribution tool, internal employee data services, and Adwords. Most were RESTful - hence the title of this blog. The web app gave the lead manager a dashboard to monitor individual sales member consumption of leads against an assigned limit. This contributed to the calculation of potentially available leads for a given state. Once all members selling in a state had gotten all the leads they were supposed to, all campaigns in that state would be paused for the day. If the lead manager wanted to they could then increase a particularly good sales persons limit and allow them to sell more, or refocus a sales persons lead consumption to a particular state or states. The poller service was automated by a Windows Service using CronTriggers to assign various pollers to maintain the list of sales team members, the states they sold in, their lead consumption, the availability pool, and ultimately to pause or restart the Adwords campaigns appropriately.

The Result: The final tool, as it had evolved, quickly gained admiration from the executive team and the project sponsors. Even in its testing state, it had shown that it was more than just an automated valve for Adwords. The dashboards and multiple levels of control built into the solution allowed them to quickly see patterns in sales member activity and behavior. The flexibility of the Cron Triggers allowed them to schedule polls and resets as well as to automatically turn off all campaigns during down times and prevent 'greedy' team members from stock pilling all the leads while others were out of the office. This also assuaged executive fears of blowing the Adwords budget as they soon saw how this was an excellent emergency shutoff valve to control their spending.

For phase two they are already talking about the ease of creating trending and tracking data from what is being pulled as well as adding in different lead types and groupings.

As an Agilist, I appreciated this project as it had become an interesting, dynamic and interactive information radiator that would allow them to manage and change how they do business to meet the changing needs of their market and their staff.

Other Applications: Of course this sort of tool could be very useful to any growing company who is struggling to wrangle their Adwords budgets and their sales team's quotas. A similar tool could be useful to Scrum Masters, PMs or Team Leads to monitor and control story assignment within a team, by using the information from their story management system and assigning categories or even complexity sections to various members ("you did three '1 point' stories this iteration so far, you have to take a '2' or a '3' next" OR "You have been only taking stories involving that piece you created, for the rest of this iteration you need to take stories from other areas of the application"). While not so helpful with a small team, it could be very handy with a large distributed team - like the sale team in this case.

The language you code in could say a lot about your developer culture

In his essay on "Race and Language" Edward Augustus Freeman suggested that language, rather than race (genetic similarities), might be a surer indicator of cultural kinship among peoples. Professor Freeman wrote: "Every word that a man speaks is the result of a real, though doubtless unconscious, act of his free will. ... A man cannot, under any circumstances, choose his own skull; he may, under some circumstances, choose his own language. He must keep the skull which has been given him by his parents; he cannot, by any process of taking thought, determine what kind of skull he will hand on to his own children. But he may give up the use of the language which he has learned from his parents, and he may determine what language he will teach to his children." As such, the choice of language made individually and in the aggregate points to attributes of the language and those already speaking it which the new speaker of the language appreciates.

Perhaps this is why few topics among developers can start a 'religious war' faster than that of programming language.

The use of language is in essence a tool to capture an idea and communicate it to another. In IT we largely look at languages as tools to efficiently solve a problem. By 'solve' we really mean 'communicate an algorithm to the machine'. Just as some spoken languages are better for communicating facts or legal concepts and others are better for poetry or philosophical abstractions, each programming language is more efficient at 'solving' some technical problems than others. One may be excellent for modeling relationships, another for solving concurrency problems.
Looking at language this way is a good pragmatic approach to choosing 'the right language for the job', but it also can subtly mask or neglect other factors in language choice. Namely, the speaker and prospective audience plays a large part in what language communication is captured and how that communication is shaped. The above take on the use of programming language measures its efficiency in processes or cycles or memory consumed. It is the run-time efficiency - or how easily the computer understands and can execute the message. However, when using high-level programming languages, that is really misleading. It is really more of a measure of how good the compiler or interpreter for a given language is at translating the solution into efficient byte-code. So, compilers and interpreters aside, the real audience to gauge the efficiency of the language used is - humans.
Looking at how we use language it seems to lie upon a continuum between communicating to a large or a small audience. On one hand we have the language of media news reports, which linguists will often point to as a general epitome of the common speech of a people. It is intended to be understandable and consumed by the largest portion of a population. Prose is also near this end of the spectrum. On the other end you may find cryptography, where the audience is narrowed to perhaps only one other person. Sonnets, slang and technical jargon are closer to this end. They use conventions and specialized vocabulary which only a smaller subset of the population would have exposure to. Obviously a particular communication can lie closer to one end or the other given both the speaker and the audience. For instance a technical treatise might use highly exclusive vocabulary, but be written utilizing the most standard academic grammar and style. This 'regulated language' ensures that the message, while directed to technical specialists, will be understandable to the widest range of that population. It could even be accessed by outsiders armed with a good dictionary. Slang, on the other hand, often develops out the needs of the speaker... Complex grammar and punctuation is boiled down sometimes to only partial words. This makes the message easier and faster to say. To achieve this, the complexities of grammar and punctuation are replaced by context. One must understand this context, often cultural, to unpack the meaning behind this terse communication. It is particularly difficult for outsiders to master, and often intentionally so.

The intended range of audience has certain temporal effects as well. A loose jargon may make it easy for a small, tight knit group to communicate efficiently. However, it will be much harder to decode the meaning years later, perhaps even by members of that same community. Formal and standardized grammars and punctuation provide a degree of staying power to a language, allowing it to be understood for generations.
On can see this in development shops where one language is the exclusive language of development. On one hand a particular language may have been chosen for its similarity to human language. This may make translating business requirements into code easier. The same language may make it extremely difficult to describe the algorithm for performing a particular calculation. With greater complexity, it makes it more likely that a mistake will be introduced. The wordiness of this complexity can also make it harder to find the mistake. It also assumes that those writing code write well in their natural language. Run-on sentences can exist in code. A run-on piece of code is recognizable by loose cohesion, which is well known to negatively impact its brittleness and maintainability.

As a developer it is important to know the ways of expressing algorithms that is most natural to the language being developed in. This is called Idiomatic Code. However, a more seasoned Lead or Architect may realize that the eventual human viewers of the code may dictate different ways of expressing the same algorithm. This may even call for a completely different language to be used. Perhaps it makes sense to write code in one language, but to write the tests against that code in another. Testing in another language is often a good way to extend the audience of code written to an otherwise smaller audience.

This also brings up the impact of language on developer culture. Code written in a language which is only understood by one group within a team can lead to a closed culture. Think of those developers who almost have a visceral reaction to coding in anything but their favorite language. This language is usually that of a closed culture. Entire myths can be constructed about the superiority of both the language and those who code in it. Ultimately, this can threaten to alienate the developers from others on their team (testers, BA's, designers) as well as the development community at large. Uncle Bob Martin touched upon this in his 2009 talk "What killed Smalltalk could kill Ruby too".

Then there is the case where the language is chosen for you. The experience in this scenario can range from mind-expanding to dehumanizing. Surely the Junior Developer can learn much from being made to code in another language, particularly if that language has been chosen by a group of seasoned veterans across an appropriate section of the team. In this case the developer may be introduced into whole new ways of communicating and problem solving. On the other hand, there is the case where the language is imposed by a corporate decision made years earlier which may have little bearing upon the way your team works today or the problems it is being asked to solve now. This is the fallacy of simply 'buying' a language as a tool among equal tools. When that happens, the choice can become less about the effectiveness of the 'tool' and more about the packaging/marketing (e.g. - IDE's, plugins, reporting tools, support plans, name recognition, third-party-apis and frameworks, etc.). In these cases, the developers may often feel as if they are being forced to use an inferior tool for what seems like an arbitrary reason.

Finding pragmatic ways to introduce other languages where appropriate can mitigate some of the negative cultural impacts and keep communication flowing. It also can make the developers 'smarter' by making them look at and 'speak' about the problem using different paradigms than they are used to. This is much the same as people who speak multiple languages. Becoming a polyglot programmer may just make you a better designer or architect as your pool of ways of looking at a problem will be larger.

What other ways does the language you code in impact your team or say something about you?