The Agile Executive

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Archive for October 2009

Elbow Room for Handling Technical Debt

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It has become something of a pattern recently. Somebody contacts me about software that has become extremely difficult to maintain. Irrespective of the domain in which the software is applied, the situation is usually characterized by an overwhelming amount of technical debt accompanied by an unaccptably high error feedback ratio. Between those “twins”, both customer support and development are thrashing to the extent that development of new functionality has pretty much ceased. “Just” maintaining the software consumes 90-100% of the cycles of the development teams (and >100% of the cycles of the customer support team).

I do not really mind being considered kind of “Software 911” service. What I find fustraing, however, is that I (and other consultants) typically get called too late. The technical debt when we get called is so overwhelming that it is extremely difficult to generate the cycles required for refactoring the code and establishing solid software engineering  practices. The refactoring “medicine” can’t be taken because customer crises leave no time for learning how to refactor nor for carrying out refactoring in a thoughtful manner. Folks trying to refactor the code get interrupted so often to deal with crises that any attempt to establish flow gets in trouble. The elbow room required for systemic refactoring work simply does not exist anymore.

I am not quite certain where the fine line between “Software 911” and “Pathology 911” lies. My hunch is that once >50% of development resources are assigned to maintaining the software on an on-going basis, it is time to get into refactoring big time. If you don’t, sooner or later you are likely to find you can’t afford the software you developed.

Written by israelgat

October 7, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Your Agile Hype is Gonna Get You

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The graveyards are filled with marketers who over-hyped and sales reps who sold beyond the roadmap. Lack of coherence between desire and reality has proven lethal time and time again.

Last night in Agile Austin a panel was held about Agile in Borland prior to its recent acquisition by Micro Focus. One of the fascinating points brought up by the panel of ex-Borland employees was how the outbound Agile marketing hype was detrimental to continuous improvement inside. Declaring success with Agile to the outside world reduced the motivation (and the budget) to work hard at improving the methodology of their own Agile development teams. Expertise and energy of the various top notch Agile consultants that worked with Borland were primarily invested in marketing, not in R&D.

Beware your Agile hype! No matter what industry you are in, it had better be fully backed by corresponding excellence of the development teams.

Written by israelgat

October 7, 2009 at 7:54 am

Posted in Companies

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Paulo Coelho’s Good Counsel to the Agile Champion

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I am already used to the way things are. Before you came, I was thinking about how much time I had wasted in the same place, while my friends have moved on, and either went bankrupt or did better than they had before. It made me very depressed. Now, I can see that it has not been too bad. The shop is exactly the side I wanted it to be. I don’t want to change anything, because I don’t know how to deal with change. I am used to the way I am.

This magnificent paragraph from The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, captures the nature of the Agile transformation better than any Agile book, article or presentation I had ever read, seen or listened to.  The issue for the team the Agile champion works with is not objectify-ing Cobol, calculating Cyclomatic Complexity or learning how to play Planning Poker. The heart of the matter is members of the team struggle with the innermost feeling “I am used to the way I am.”

I very much doubt that I can summarize Coelho’s counsel on the subject. It would be like trying to capture the wisdom and charm of Saint-Exupery‘s The Little Prince in 500 words or in 140 characters . To fully grasp Coelho’s good counsel, you will need to read The Alchemist cover to cover.

Depth in Seattle

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To summarize it in one word, the October 1 Rally Agile Success Tour (AST) event in Seattle, WA was deep. Broad spectrum of topics – from CMMI  and SOX to Lean and “Lean+”; very knowledgeable participants; insightful panelists; plenty of hard Agile data; questions on real needs; dialogues that led to unexpected findings; and, 1-1 meetings focused on actions that could/should be taken after the event. Just like the recent AST event in Boston, MA, there was vibrancy in the air.

Getty’s Jeff Oberlander quantified the progress they made on fairly large scale releases (~900 user stories), shortening time-to-market (TTM) from 24 month to 4 months. He indicated this impressive change in time-to-market occurred in parallel with improvement in quality. Reader of this post might want to take a look at Chapter 1 of Agile Project Management by Jim Highsmith for a quantitative analysis of the correlation between the two (TTM and quality).

The impressive results reported by Jeff were supported by the classification given by Liberty Mutual’s Steven Johnson. Steven observes three kinds of projects, as follows:

  • Grass roots initiatives. Such projects typically lead to: {New TTM = 2/3 Old TTM}.
  • Organized pilots. Such projects typically lead to: {New TTM = 1/2 Old TTM}.
  • Overall R&D transformation. Such projects typically lead to: {New TTM = 1/3 Old TTM}.

From what I know of David Rico’s forthcoming book The Business Value of Agile Software Methods, the results reported by Steven are consistent with David’s findings.

Boeing’s Ryan Kleps focused on the impact of Agile methods on developer satisfaction. He presented the following data from a survey conducted in Boeing:

  • 30% improvement in satisfaction with respect to tools
  • 25% improvement in satisfaction with respect to involvement
  • 10% improvement in satisfaction with respect to trust

Interestingly, Ryan indicated that various “pirates” were starting to do Agile at Boeing as a result of the higher level of satisfaction noted above. We did not have the opportunity to cross-correlate data from Boeing with data from Liberty Mutual. My intuitive sense is that Ryan’s “pirates” and Jeff’s “grass roots initiatives” are synonymous.

thePlatform’s Reena Kawal and Microsoft’s Stein Dolan provided insights that are not often reported. Reena analyzed the much improved ability to assess trade-offs from a customer perspective. Stein highlighted how effective emulation can be in enabling teams to deal with code that has not been written yet. Their thoughts were vividly complemented by the 4X100 relay race metaphor given by Ryan: only 1 sprinter “works” at any point in time, while 3 are “idle”. Yet, there is no faster way to get the baton to the finish line…

One part of the event that was particularly gratifying to me was the role playing during the breakout session entitled “Socializing Agile with Your Executives.” Stein and I played the role of mean executives who do not get Agile. Participants in the session who played the role of the inspired Agile champion beat us up pretty effectively. As a matter of fact, one of the participants – CyberSource’s Tom Perry – gave the report from this breakout session to the whole audience when we reconvened. He delivered a very effective “why you should do Agile in spite of all your misgivings” message.

As indicated in a recent post, the AST “train” stops in Chicago, IL on the 15 of October. We are quite likely to address specialized topics that have not been brought up in previous events. The makeup of the panel in Chicago is unlike any of the nine panels I have prepped so far…

Toward Vertical Approach to Agile

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Yesterday we held a great Rally Agile Success Tour (AST)  event in Seattle (which I will describe in a subsequent post). On the 15th we will be doing the AST event in Chicago. This post is about an intriguing element of the forthcoming Chicago event.

Every one of the 9 events we held so far (click here for sample video clips from the events) was unique in some ways. The demographics in Atlanta, GA were not like those in Boston, MA. The issues brought up in Los Angeles, CA were different from those in Washington, DC. The panelists in New York, NY addressed a set of topics that did not come to the fore in the Santa Clara, CA event. Each event was characterized by locality of reference – topics, discussions, breakout sessions and 1-1 meetings that were of relevance and importance in the context of the local Agile community.

Having worked with the Chicago panelists in preparation for the forthcoming event, my sense is that we will immerse the participants (and ourselves, of course) in a set of Agile/Lean challenges that could be quite different from those we addressed in other cities. Some very unique companies are represented in the panel we will hold in Chicago.

I actually consider Chicago on the 15th a potential pivot in deepening our understanding of the way Agile applies to various verticals. We are progressing from a horizontal approach to applying Agile toward a more vertical assimilation. The differences between the two might be subtle, but they are all important for the success of the Agile champion.

Written by israelgat

October 2, 2009 at 11:37 am

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