Agile Estimation

Baking In Quality with Agile

One of the things that I love about Agile and especially the related techniques of BDD and Test Automation is that if done correctly your teams are essentially baking Quality into your products AS they develop, not after. Traditional SDLC (read waterfall) took a very linear approach to project delivery which in turn translated into a similar approach to how we developed and delivered our software products.

In our traditional delivery methods, quality was not 'baked' in but tested out and we never ever got to the point where we are able to test out all of the 'defects' that are found, instead we create a bug database where 'bugs' go to die.  Every organization typically has some form of a bug database with bugs that were 'found' sometimes years ago and were never fixed (of course begging the question were they ever bugs in the first place?)  In Agile we really don't want to see a bug database because we should be instilling a zero defect policy for each sprint, meaning that we should never be introducing new tech debt into our product.

As I progressed on my Agile journey I came to realize that there are actually two types of 'bugs' that we encounter when we develop software:

  1. Bugs as Missed or Undefined Requirements
  2. Bugs as True Bugs

-- Bugs as Missed or Undefined Requirements - I will argue (and in a book that I am starting to write about this topic) that a majority of the bugs that we find and document aren't really bugs at all, but rather functionality that has been misinterpreted based upon the requirements definition that comes out of segregated development processes, ie Write Requirements, Develop Software, Test Software and Deploy Software.

Language is such an imprecise way of communicating that it almost virtually guarantees that if you have more than 1 person developing the software for your product you will get different interpretations of how to implement the requirement functionally.

Remember the old 'The System Shall' statement? that is commonly used in writing Business Requirements documents?  I always thought that this missed the scope of the requirement, what about what the System Shall Not Do?.  We focus so much on happy path for our functional development that we miss large segments of functionality based upon what an application shouldn't be allowed to do.

Let's take an example of an English word to convey what I'm meaning:

What do you think of when you see the word - BASS

Do you think of this:

Bass_Guitar

OR this?

Bass_Fish

These have the same spelling in the English language yet they have two entirely different meanings. Our life experiences become a prism for how we interpret what we read and how we react to it. (PS, I'm a musician so I think of the instrument before the fish)

Teams that rely on written requirements documents that are reviewed and worked on independently, meaning developers develop the code/functionality and then pass it on to testers will inherently have issues/bugs related to how something was interpreted and then developed.  In the above example the developers may have thought they were delivering a bass guitar, but the testers were expecting a bass fish (yeah extreme I know) but I believe this is the root of many of our issues when trying to deliver what the business expected in the first place.

-- Bugs as True Bugs - I believe that true bugs are more technical than functional (or should be).  Bugs related to how integration happens are very common because although we can describe the behavior of our feature we can't always anticipate issues related to how independent systems will work together.  Many 'true' bugs in Agile are caught in the moment and fixed before they ever make their way to production.  For the Finance people out there this is a tremendous cost saving that has been proven time and again.  ROI is greatly enhanced when you deal with tech debt up front rather over time.  And please don't ever think really that it is more important to get 'something' to production over making sure that the product is operationally sound.

So what to do?

To address the  inherent limitations with our  communication, we need to abstract our thinking into more concrete descriptions of behavior over broad-based statements such as the System Shall.

User Stories and the corresponding BDD acceptance criteria are a great way to do this as a BDD example table clearly defines the behavior of our product functionality via outcome based upon inputs.  The 'language' of BDD is unique so that everyone can begin to have a shared understanding of what the story and behavior of the product(aka system) will do.  BDD abstracts our communication and removes individual interpretation.

In Agile we start by ensuring that the teams understand that they OWN the quality of their delivery. One of the things that I absolutely love about high performing Agile team is that there is no finger-pointing, if a Sprint fails to deliver what the team committed to then everyone shares the blame, not just an individual or functional group.

How we bake quality into our products is by understanding how to write User Stories that provide context without the ability to misinterpret the meaning of the requirements.

To do this we must first ensure that we have a well written user story, what does that look like?

A good user story needs to identify the What and then the Value statement.  Many teams that I have worked with start to write stories that only identify the actor and What but leave out the value statement, which is really the proof that what we are working on is of sufficient value to devote our resources to.  A good user story should never have any Creative or Technical design conveyed, I know that many people like to show their technical knowledge by writing stories that convey what they think the design or system will need to utilize, but all that does is start the team down a path before exploring all options.

Behavior over language interpretation is what you are striving for when writing contextually rich user stories.

BDD with its accompanied Example statements takes an otherwise basic user story and brings it to life.  Much like we do when we take basic ingredients for cookies and then bring them together in the right amounts to deliver awesomeness every time.

Software quality is much like baking, you need:

  • The right ingredients - Good individual team members, honest communication, commitment to quality
  • The right process - Write good user stories, add quality BDD acceptance criteria, code and test in parallel and then deliver, involve the entire team in writing BDD, involve the entire team in the estimation process.

By taking the time to build contextually rich user stories and define the story with BDD acceptance you move towards a shared understanding of the 'behavior of your product' over one that is driven by functional requirements.  Requirements tend to convey to little of behavior and focus more on the big win that is being conveyed to Sr. Management regarding what is being delivered.

Agile is a very disciplined delivery process and in order to bake the quality into your product you need to develop efficient processes that keep the User Story/BDD train running smoothly.  If you are entering a sprint and then writing your BDD then you are already behind, you need to develop a process by which teams are working on current sprint development AND building context for the next one.  It can be done and when it is you get what I call progressive regression with the automation that comes out of your BDD work.

Agile is very disciplined and to think that going Agile will make your current life easier, well guess again.  What Agile will do is highlight EVERY current weakness you have in your current product delivery process and then focus your attention on finding ways of improving on them.

For those of you looking for workshops regarding User Story/BDD techniques, please reach out to me at soundagile@gmail.com.

Delivery Management vs Project Management

In Agile we have evolved from a 'project' oriented mindset to a product one. That is not to say that we don't undertake a something that looks like a project to build or enhance our products.  However in Product Management we are more focused on the ongoing nature of how our product will unfold, in shorter durations and without the end in site.

I believe successful Agile Project Managers need to focus on Delivery Management over Project Management.

What is the difference?

  1. Delivery Management - Is the management of work in an iterative fashion that focuses on delivering product that delights our customers.  It is not focused on Time, Scope and Budget, but rather on customer experience, high quality code and low defects. Delivery management focused on long-term value and benefits over planned short-term objectives.
  2. Project Management - is the application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills and experience to achieve the project objectives. A project is a unique, transient endeavour, undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits.

Having been a project manager in a waterfall/PMI world before my move to Agile some of the mental challenges I faced included:

  1. Lack of a plan - One of the first things I did as I was moving to Agile was to track the amount of 'change' that happened in one of my waterfall projects.  I created a Project Change Request for everything that was not originally identified in the Business Requirements and Technical Design Documents, assumptions that changed, scope, etc... This process drove my team absolutely crazy because as with all waterfall teams, we fear change requests, they are bad news to management.  However what this effort did was provide visibility to the type of change that happens in every single software development project (and these changes were never socialized outside of the team so they had nothing to worry about).
    1. Realization - 
      1. My project plans provided no real ability to know if a project was going to be successful, they looked good but didn't tell the real story of what was happening with the project team and what they were developing.
      2. Agile provided me with much more visibility to the real issues that a project team faced and that my project plan was really just a place holder for future Sprints.  I only needed to know that the Sprints were planned and then communicate what the team was committing to.  Once I had that information THEN I could hold them accountable.
  2. Story Points over Time bases estimates - I had a really hard time initially wrapping my head around Story points over time and spent many an hour mentally putting the points back into hours.
    1. Realization -
      1. I finally stopped thinking in time once my team started 'delivering' consistent points and work for every sprint.  At that point all I ended up needing to know was the story points of work begin committed to.  The point here is as a Project Manager you need to instill good estimation behaviors with your team and hold them accountable, that IS your job.
      2. Velocity is the primary data point you want to focus on, consistent velocity = consistent delivery.  It's not your job to determine the What for the product but it is your job to ensure that what they commit to does get Delivered (though if you work to be a valued member of the team, you should definitely be able to provide input).
  3. Status Reporting - Ah the bane of our existence as project managers and something that I had to deal with recently, the dreaded status report.  Honestly I hadn't been a project manager for many years and as a Manager I never needed one with Agile teams.  All I needed was a dashboard (Jira or Rally are the ones I'm most experienced with) to observe a teams backlog, Velocity and Progress towards a Roadmap they were working on.
    1. Realization - The status report will not every go away but I think you need to ensure that your reporting is consistent with the rest of your Agile processes.  Tools such as Jira and Rally provide you with abilities to manage Roadmaps, teams, budgets, etc... Everything is still there but your reporting needs to take advantage of the data elements within Agile, don't translate your Agile into a waterfall type status report.  This will only ensure that Sr. Management stays disconnected from Agile and the entire organization needs to be plugged into Agile and walk the walk.

If you are a traditional PMI type project manager and are moving to Agile here are some things you should consider:

  1. You are not responsible for the success of a project/ delivery - Yeah I know it sounds wrong, but in Agile it is the TEAM that is responsible for delivery.  You need to plug into your team, get to know what they do, the challenges that they face, become a sounding board for ideas, get your hands dirty, learn how to test, etc...Becoming a valued member of the team is what moved me out of Project Management and into Quality Assurance. 9
  2. Be an Agile advocate - Embrace agile so that you do more than go through the motions. Read, learn, join a meet up group, do more than just the minimum.  As a Project Manager you can help your organization get better at Being Agile, you have the connections and understanding of the organization that many in the technical side may not.
  3. Don't be Defensive- As you will learn, Retrospectives should be frank and open conversations about what is working and more importantly not working in your processes.  Encourage your team to openly talk about issues, but protect them so that they can continue to work effectively as a team, remember attack the problem not the person.  For example at Disney where I both QA Manager and individual contributor my duties as QA Manager were getting in the way of my ability to test and give good feedback to the team.  They rightly called me out in a retrospective as being the issue for them not moving as fast as they could.  I was not defensive but understanding, that is what you want in Agile, because they were absolutely correct, I was the problem at that point.

So as you look at what you manage in traditional project management, understand that it is not the Project that you are delivering but a Product and Products have much longer life spans than projects.

You need to keep your teams focused in consistent and disciplined delivery that brings real value to your organization. If you are working on something that doesn't have value you should be questioning and challenging your team as to why.

Agile isn't easy, though I think it is often thought of as easy.  No Agile is very disciplined and when you undertake Agile it will highlight every inefficiency and poor process that exists in your organization today.  You simply cannot go fast until you address these issues.  As a Project Manager you can help drive this change.

Monetizing Agile Projects

Coming from a finance background my education and experience is grounded in ensuring that money invested returns ROI.  We think of things such as ROI, IRR Cash Flow, etc... For example when a manufacturing company decides to make a hardware purchase for machinery (any kind) to produce some type of 'goods/product' they perform financial analysis regarding the cost of the equipment, the rate of return that it will generate, how quickly they can amortize it and ultimately what is the net profit that the machine is expected to generate over its anticipated lifespan.

For most of my career we start on projects that have a goal in mind, potentially new revenue or cost savings, some have gone so far as to try to determine the ROI, but in general I haven't seen the type of due diligence that manufacturing type companies perform, applied universally to software development.

This may be an underlying cause of many of the software development projects never seeing the light of day or failing to deliver the expected outcome because we never performed effective financial plans that would establish the scope and speed necessary to deliver a software product so that it warrants the investment.

In Agile I think we have ways of providing some level of financial analysis that can provide us with an understanding if an idea is worth pursuing.

  1. Using the following as a guideline we can begin to estimate costs:
    1. Team Size - 5
    2. Blended Rate - $125 an hour
    3. Hourly team rate - $625
    4. Cost of Sprint(2 weeks) - $50,000
  2. Let's assume that the feature that we want the team to work on has come back with an estimate of 5 Sprints.
    1. Estimated Development Cost - $250,000
  3. Let's now assume that this investment is expected to yield an additional $1,000,000 in annual revenue.
  4. Expected ROI in the first year - 300%

Before we engage our teams we need to be sure that the $250k investment will return an appropriate level of return.   In this simple example its a no brainer.

But our world of software development isn't always so clear-cut, we often don't know what the expected outcome will be until we release the product into the wild.  There is often additional cost for refactoring before the product hits the mark with your consumers.

But using some of these simple ways of working through anticipated costs we can easily modify the example to reflect additional Sprints for refactoring once the product is released.

In this example let's assume that the team requires an additional 8 sprints to move from MVP to final product.

The final cost of the product would climb to $625k and our return would drop significantly to 54%.  Still not bad but not the eye-popping number we initially thought it would be.

Factor in sustainment costs into this over the life of the product and you begin to see that your investments in your software absolutely need to go through the same level of analysis as other types of large infrastructure purchases that non-software organizations go through.

I'm currently working on creating a lightweight model based upon Markowitz's Efficient Frontier investment model that money managers use today to ensure that your risk and return threshold is aligned.  I'll be posting my initial thoughts and approach in a coming blog.

Agile Planning and Delivery

Agile is often viewed as the way that small organizations and teams can build product quickly and in fact I believe that to be true. Being quick and nimble allows smaller/growing organizations the ability to get into a market quickly and deliver features that larger organizations haven't delivered yet or haven't thought of.

This very ability to deliver new features to a market that desires them is the very reason that larger organizations need to change the way that they deliver their product.  As an organization becomes larger, the entropy that comes from that growth causes the organization to stop being a market leader and start being a market follower.

In the technological world we live in, you can go from market leader to out of business in just a few short years.  I read an article recently that suggests that Walmart is starting to show signs that its dominance in retail may be coming to an end.  I wouldn't be surprised, as I think they have lost sight of the fact that low prices don't always solve the things we as consumers value.  Walmart isn't a market leader anymore, they may just not have come to that realization.

It's this lag in reality when big companies start falling behind  Somewhere along the way almost every organization will lose its way, lose site of the very thing that caused them to be great in the first place.

When you look around in the Agile learning space you see many of the original creators of Agile and Scrum trying to figure out how to help large organizations get past their own entropy.  I don't think that Agile can help, it can highlight where your planning and delivery processes are inefficient but it doesn't provide the language that senior management needs to hear in order to effect real change.

If we want to help organizations transform and be 'agile' then we need to speak in the langauge of management, which is money.  I've yet to have a cogent conversation with management regarding how their lack of focus costs them money and more importantly fails to deliver the speed to market that they need in order to stay market leaders.

If you think that Agile provides you with a means to quickly change product direction in order to play defense or catchup when new features that you have been planning on are released by a competitor, then you are missing the point.  Agile does accept that change will happen, but we expect that the change will take the form of measured change in how we can make the product more valuable, not wholesale changes in direction.

Changing direction within a Sprint is something I've seen several times and it's almost always driven by management.  Whether you have too many idea's/opportunities or are just trying to stay relevant give you team time to work on one thing at a time.  Context switching reduces productivity and that you can translate into money.

The example I've been using recently is this:

If you managed your Sprints the way you manage your money you would go broke.  Take this example for consideration (note this is what good Agile teams should be forcing into the planning conversation).

Consider a team that has planned 20 points for the current sprint and someone (Product Owner, Sr. Management) has decided that something else is more important, like completing a feature for a key client.  The appropriate response from your Agile team is 'Great, let the team review the request and provide an estimate'.  Right there you have probably lost 2-3 points in analysis and estimation by the team.  Once they have completed their estimation, they come back to you and tell you that it's a 5 point effort.

You think to yourself great we can do that in this sprint,  let's do it.  A good Agile team will tell you yes we can do it but you need to remove 2-3 points for the estimation effort AND 5 points for the new work that you want us to take on in the current sprint.  So you have LOST 7-8 points of productivity, aka value) to get 5 points of value.

If you invested 8 dollars into a business and only were able to get 5 dollars back you would quickly realize that you can't sustain that monetarily, right?

Put this to your executives next time you have a priority conversation.  I didn't even bring in the  technical debt we typically take on to hack something together and the lack of testing that will happen because we weren't ready to take on the work (read no automation).

As a Finance guy I would say that this is a bad investment.  Yes I want to satisfy my customer but if they are a good customer you should be able to have an ability to manage their expectations so that the team can take on the work in the next Sprint.  Depending on when the request came in they may only have to wait 2 weeks.

Effective teams I've worked with use this process as a first line of defense against changing priorities within a Sprint.

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