The Agile Executive

Making Agile Work

Agile Across the Enterprise: Prioritizing Value in Support and Training – Guest Post by Anne Gentle

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If I could choose a subtitle to Anne’s guest post, I would pick How to Produce a Book in Five Days. While this subtitle does not take into account preparatory work prior to the five days, it captures the essence of the revolution in social publishing. The  intensive collaborative authoring that takes place during book sprints leads to hyper-productivity that transforms the economics of various classes of books.

A thread of particular interest in the post is the path innovation took. Anne walks us from Cote‘s simple question “Why does it take three days to get a PDF out for review?” all the way to producing over 250 pages of documentation in a book sprint. Her story is a great proof point that Experimentation Matters.

Here is Anne:

One of the Agile Manifesto’s basic balance equations is valuing working software over comprehensive documentation. This line of the Agile manifesto can be confusing to some supporting roles in an Agile development enterprise. As technical support staff, trainers, and content creators, what are we doing to fit into this Agile methodology, and what’s working well? Let’s explore some old habits that need to die, and some new rituals to fill that space.

Nowadays, Google’s search power offers software users access to documentation through forums, mailing lists, even through blogs and wikis maintained by the developers and authors themselves. These new conversational methods for documentation, support, and education have opened new opportunities for those groups to add value to software adoption. Ways to provide additional value to the working software include helping people learn the software, troubleshoot the software, or do their job with the software. Education, uptake, and support are all integral to the overall value of a software product.

Value proposition

First, a discussion on the value added by good websites, updated and relevant training materials, and a helpful support staff.  Those departments want to avoid the continual cost center perception. To do so, they find ways to add to the bottom line, such as:

  • increasing sales (enterprise) or increasing adoption (open source)
  • keeping users happy and satisfied
  • adding contributors to the community, whether helpful troubleshooters or prolific coders
  • decreasing support costs (in time and money)
  • converting participation into value
  • increasing positive perceptions of the software

In my experience, these values are universal to both enterprise software and open source software. Let me share my story.

Wikis are an Agile tool

I have been a technical writer on Agile development teams, and working in tightly collaborative environments has taught me a lot about adding value in the customer’s perception. I still remember being challenged by Michael Cote when we were at BMC Software. He asked, “Why does it take three days to get a PDF out for review? Why aren’t technical writers using wikis for documentation?” Those questions prompted quite a bit of research that finally resulted in my book, Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation.

I had a lot to learn to answer Cote’s questions. What to do? I decided a wiki apprenticeship was the answer. At the time, wikis seemed to be the realm of open source software. I was nervous about approaching an open source project with so little experience in open source to draw from, but when a former BMC director sent out a call for help with the One Laptop per Child project, I responded. They had a draft started and we put it on the wiki.laptop.org wiki to start with, as a too-long single article on the wiki. Soon after, FLOSS Manuals approached OLPC to see if they would like to have FLOSS Manuals host the wiki on their wiki site at www.flossmanuals.net. Adam Hyde, the founder of FLOSS Manuals, had built a wiki tool that allowed multiple chapters to be output as HTML or PDF. When I saw what the tool could do, I jumped at the chance. We copied and pasted the entire manual into the FLOSS Manuals site. Yes, copy and paste. But it got the content into a platform that enabled much more agility for the content.

Book sprints are one Agile method

After that initial content seeding, we discussed holding a book sprint to create a better book for more audiences, especially since SugarLabs had formed an organization separate from OLPC to work on the operating system separately from the hardware. A book sprint, much like the Agile sprint term, is intensive collaborative authoring in a week’s time. We run sprints as a five-day event, and use real-time collaboration tools, and sometimes bring all the authors in to a single location and have a bullpen of sorts. Lots of planning goes into a book sprint prior to the actual sprint, such as identifying sources of content that can be repurposed for the sprint, agreeing to the audience for the resulting documentation, and writing an outline for the deliverable, whether it’s intended to be a textbook, a curriculum workbook, an online help system, or a website.

After a sprint planning session on the Sunday of the sprint week, authors are ready to start writing immediately because the outline for the book is set in the wiki. Often we outline with Post-it notes on the wall to start, a familiar sight to many Agile practitioners.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are heads-down writing days from about nine in the morning until an enforced stop time at six each day. Just like a stand-up meeting, we use a daily conference call to stay in touch with the handful of remote contributors and find out if anyone is stuck or has questions. Thursday is a day for assessing how much we have so far, and what final tasks should be done to make the sprint a success. Thursday night we intentionally plan for a fun event, as the writers certainly have experienced an intense effort like no other and need to have some fun and allow for a release of built-up pressure! Friday is a clean-up and review day, and the final PDF is uploaded to Lulu.com for creating a bound book. We can also export the wiki content to HTML, and either embed it on a website or ship it with the software product itself. In the book sprint for OLPC and SugarLabs, we produced over 250 pages of documentation. You can learn more about book sprints (including examples of the budget for this sprint) by reading the free chapter from my book, or by reading the book about Book Sprints hosted on FLOSS Manuals.

In my journey towards Agile value-add across the enterprise, I learned that wikis are much more likely to be used internally for collaboration, and that there are far fewer examples of wikis where customers and Agile team members are collaborating on training materials, tutorials, reference information, or strategy guides for enterprise software. To shift that adoption rate towards external collaboration, I’m interested in book sprint experiments in the enterprise, as well as additional collaboration methods. Along the way, I’m finding ways to transfer lessons learned in open source to corporate environments. I offer this story as one way that Agile methods applied to other departments and their processes can increase overall value to the software developed.

About the author: Anne Gentle works as a senior technical writer at Advanced Solutions International in Austin, Texas on an Agile development team. She just finished a book with XML Press about using social publishing techniques for technical documentation titled Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation. She volunteers as a documentation maintainer for FLOSS Manuals, working on manuals for One Laptop Per Child and SugarLabs, both education projects dedicated to providing technology for children in developing countries. She writes a blog at justwriteclick.com and welcomes feedback and conversation there. As the mom of two young boys, she loves to be busy while upholding the value of an Agile principle of individuals and interactions (and sometimes refereeing battles over toys).

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6 Responses

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  1. […] Gentle blogs about doc sprints and other Agile techniques. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Approaching […]

  2. […] writer who did the techpubs for some of the projects I was involved in. As she outlines in one of the below links, I remember having fun discussions with her about moving techpubs out of the PDF and Microsoft Help […]

  3. It’s great to see all this finally culminate in an excellent book. I’d recommend Conversation and Community to any Agile team.

    cote

    December 13, 2009 at 12:55 pm

  4. Thanks for the link and your comment Cote! I do think the book sprint idea offer Agile teams a great method for end-user doc, and could even be used for internal doc, so I appreciate your recommendation.

    annegentle

    December 14, 2009 at 2:25 pm

  5. […] Agile Across the Enterprise: Prioritizing Value in Support and TrainingGuest post on The Agile Executive by Anne Gentle about applying agile methods to non-coding tasks, in this case the writing of documentation.agile AnneGentle […]

    Synesthesia

    December 14, 2009 at 4:16 pm


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