Monday, September 3, 2012

Agile Halogen Spotlight

I occasionally hear that Agile is the silver bullet and will solve all engineering problems. In some cases, someone in management heard about Agile and figured it could be a quick fix to solve the challenges within their organization. Unfortunately this is far from the truth. While Agile methods can help you adapt to customer needs and deliver more effective customer value, one key benefit that I find is that Agile shines a very bright spotlight on the many ailments of an organization or product team.


This is where Agile methods such as Scrum, eXtreme Programming (XP), Kanban, Test Driven Development (TDD), and others can be thought of as very effective problem identification tools. While this is not what most people think about when adopting Agile methods, it is one of the side benefits. It is important to understand that Agile methods won’t necessarily help you solve the problems that are being uncovered. More often these organizational, product, or project level challenges have been around for quite some time, well before Agile was introduced. In fact, management and team members have known about these issues, risks, and dependencies, but they conveniently get buried under the organizational carpet. In the Agile world, every impediment can impact the value and velocity of Agile.  Once Agile comes along, the spotlight focuses brightly on anything that gets in the way of efficient and effective delivery of customer value.

What are some of areas where Agile shines the halogens onto existing problems? In my experience, I have encountered numerous challenges during the deployment Agile. Here are some examples:
  • In setting up Scrum teams, it became clear that there is a lack of QA resources on the project (7 developers to 1 QA engineer). We assessed that our development to QA ratio really needs to be 5 to 3, then replaced some developers with QA engineers. Until we could hire the level of QA engineers needed, we had a few of the developers play the QA role.
  • In running incremental QA processes, it becomes clear that there is a lack of automation and, in fact, very few unit tests were ever written. We then spent some time building unit tests to provide at least 80% test coverage (we built this into our Definition of Done), then began automating the tests.
  • In running continuous integration, it became clear that there was a lack of understanding the branching and merging process. Developers were unaware of the importance of refreshing the private workspace with latest successfully built and approved code and also continued to retain local objects and executables in their private workspaces. An effective Checkout/Checkin process (with refresh and build and promote) was established and workspace education was conducted by the Configuration Management (CM) engineers for the team.
  • In working with a legacy product team, it became fairly clear upon sizing and building functionality on existing code, that we were continually breaking other parts of the code since there was tremendous technical debt within the code base. It was learned that there was no coding standards since the beginning. We initiated a refactoring strategy with coding standards to help us reduce some of the more problematic code modules.
  • In working with Product Owners (aka, Product Managers), it became clear that requirements were poorly written which led to a lot of churn between the Product Owner and the developers/QA engineers. The existing requirements list had requirements at multiple levels and it was hard to discern who the requirement was meant for. I educated the Product Owners and Scrum team members on how to write requirements in a canonical form (persona + action + business value) and the POs rewrote the requirements over time in a priority order.
For some teams that move to Agile, they can get overwhelmed by the problems that are identified by the Agile spotlight. In some cases, prior to deploying Agile, it is worth identifying the existing challenges so folks realize they are not caused by Agile. The key is to add the challenges to your issues list, prioritize them, then address them in priority order. Remember, the Agile halogen spotlight can help you identify some of your problematic areas on the product or in the organization. Take advantage of this but be prepared to address the challenges.  What existing problematic areas have you identified when you were implementing Agile?

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