Agile has gone from ‘people over process’ to ’no process’

In practice ‘agile’ means ‘we have no process in place and each team does whatever random thing the manager wants to try next’. Sometimes that is SAFE sometimes its SCRUM, usually it’s a combination of different things. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there are trade offs. 

The first is standardization. If every team follows a different process it’s difficult to understand what is going on at a management level. Which teams are productive? Which teams are in downward spirals? If you don’t have a standard to judge against you can’t find out. 

Secondly, away team work is much harder. Working with a team that uses the same development process, pipeline setup, programming language and frameworks is easy. On the other hand working in the code base for a team which uses a different language, framework, architecture, etc is very difficult. Not supporting away team work severely limits your ability to integrate internal software components.

Thirdly, Estimates are not possible in this kind of environment. Since the process changes constantly historical data becomes useless. In response to this most companies don’t even keep historical data. The main use for estimates is ensuring that ‘burn down’ charts follow the 45 degree angle managers love. 

Subjective expert predictions are a valid form of estimating software tasks. But if you don’t have historical data to calibrate against estimates devolve into gaming the system. 

When you change how estimates are made, when tickets are considered done and the sprint cadence every 3-6 months there is no way you can have cross company data on productivity. The lack of process empowers management to obfuscate the productivity of their teams. The pursuit of the best process gives technical organizations a great excuse as to why they have no idea if their processes have improved over the last two years or not. 

In this type of environment all judgements have to be made based on subjective gut feelings and corporate politics. You don’t know which VP’s processes are better than the other because neither has any accountability. You don’t know which technical department is more efficient because neither the estimates or logged hours can be trusted. 

‘We’re being agile’ has become the excuse to follow whatever process you want. Instead of ‘people over process’ it has become  ‘no process’. 

What is your design budget

We all want to have good longterm software architecture. Build it right the first time. But some organizations fall into the trap of trying to get a perfect design before they start building.

They include more stakeholders, try to plan for contingencies, develop a high availability strategy. 

Those things are all good to have. But you don’t need them before you have users. If you have no users you shouldn’t be thinking about high availability. If your product doesn’t work yet you don’t need scalability.

Users > working product > scaling limitations > high availability

Another problem is having a committee to approve architecture proposals. One or two people is fine. But having three or more people who can block the start of the project is a recipe for pointless delays.

The reason we switched to agile methodologies is because it’s hard to know what the difficulties will be before you start building the software.

Be careful to structure your organization such that design doesn’t become more important than delivery.

A working product with customers is always more valuable than a product that doesn’t have customers but is highly available.

A design budget is a way to avoid falling into this trap. Simply budget a week or a month or whatever for designing up front. At the end of that time enforce a hard stop on doing more design. No more committee reviews or deliberation. If the architecture isn’t developed enough to start building, do a spike on a smaller scale. 

Away team work

Away team work is a critical component of high performance software organizations. It is a way for high priority teams to work around other teams’ manpower constraints to deliver software. Without a well established culture of away team project work your organization will default to a standard of ‘shut up and wait while your item is in the backlog’. 

What is away team work exactly? Away team work is when your team implements a feature or integration in another team’s codebase. Strictly speaking in away team work the host team does not review or approve pull requests. Your team’s senior engineers will get approval at an architectural level then handle pull request review themselves. 

The Away team process allows your team to unblock itself when dependencies don’t have manpower to spare. The key component is first that your team not the dependencies team does the work. Both the implementation, testing and code review. Some effort obviously is required of the host team, but it should be minimized. 

Away team work acts as a release valve on the conflict between the host team’s priorities and potential client’s goals of delivering features to customers. If the host doesn’t have manpower available your team can provide the engineers to make it happen. 

Without away team work your organization will have to make more tradeoffs on the scheduling side. More often than not you’ll have to pick a migration over the new feature. But Away team work would have enabled your organization as a whole to deliver both. 

What do you need to make away team work happen?

The key thing is that you have to make a formal process that specifies the maximum standards. You can’t allow teams to be squeamish about it. If the requirement is that two senior engineers approve that’s fine. Or maybe only senior engineers can do away team work in your company. Thats fine but you need a formal standard to avoid negotiations happening on a per project basis. 

Bookshelf Post

I have gotten back into reading Software Engineering books. It has been a good change of pace to study a bit in the mornings. My current focus is on Estimation. I want to come up with a better more accurate way for us to estimate software projects in agile environments. 

These two books are great references. Designing Data-Intensive Applications is a good read and believe it or not my workplace still uses Java 8 so Java Performance is not out of date.

I got these two management books back when I was a manager for a few months. But I haven’t dug into them yet. 

Agile Software Development was a textbook back in University. It is a funny book since it has about as much space devoted to Agile as it does to Object Oriented programming. The Mythical Man-Month is fun because of all the references to technology in the old days before the modern web. 

Building Products for the Enterprise is a product book, but I really like how it really explains what those Product Owners are up to all day.