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Over the years I have worked in software development, one discussion I’ve often observed is the benefits of structuring software in projects, as most of the companies still do today. It seems that the de facto standard for software in an enterprise still is (rough sketch, this process varies a lot from company to company):

  1. Someone has an idea
  2. Idea is considered good enough to be invested in
  3. A team is assembled, and they discuss the vision and set up a plan
  4. Plan is executed with software being written
  5. Team hands over the project to a support team
  6. Software is being used (hopefully)
  7. Support team keeps software alive and kicking throughout the years

Admittedly, this is just a simplified version of what actually happens. Organisations differ in how they execute all of these phases and how long it takes to go from one to the other, but my main point is that there is usually a project team, that creates and puts a product live, and they will leave once everything is done. In some cases there will even be a country difference, where a local team will do the development, handing over to an offshore support team with the aim to keep the overall cost low.

As a consultant, I’ve seen the consequence of this behaviour too many times. Since no one is actively working on that product anymore, it keeps decaying, with some patches made once in a while to add new functionality. After a few years everyone realizes that it is cheaper to just throw the big ball of mud that they currently have away and rewrite the product from scratch… and the cycle starts again.

Now this helps to keep developers employed, so I should be happy about it, but from a company’s perspective, there are a few problems with this model:

It assumes that a software project is something static, that you can write, finish and then just use it for ever. Since it isn’t, the result is that bugs are being fixed by people that didn’t write the code and don’t have the same understanding of it, which results in poor support and probably more bugs.

It assumes that not only software is static, but also that the business is. So instead of thinking about software as something that is there to help an ever evolving business, it delivers a package that the business or their customers have to adapt to, probably resulting in worse business performance.

With the devops movement gaining momentum around the world, this scenario is currently changing in the development phase of a project, as Jen described here. We are starting to see more and more cases where development team support the application while they are building it, which is definitely a step forward, but it is not all that needs to happen. Supporting a product during its initial development phase is one thing, evolving and supporting it throughout its existence is another.

If a product is live and being used, than it should be evolving as the needs within that user group (and even new user groups) evolve. And if that’s the case, it should be treated as a first class citizen, where maintenance and evolution of the code walk together, guaranteeing that code doesn’t turn into legacy. It doesn’t mean it needs a team the same size as the one used to build it in the first place, but it needs a team that is in contact with the customer and aiming at evolving the product, not just patching it and keeping it running.

We should stop using support as a bad word. Actually, we should stop using the word support completely. We should start talking about software evolution.

If you ever worked with me you would know I’m not a big fan of estimates, mostly for the reasons better explained here, here and here, but there are still moments within a project where there are a bunch of stories written and teams need to have a guess on how much time will be needed

  • the project might be beginning and we need to know what is realistic or not
  • there might be go to market activities that need to be synchronised in advance
  • there might be a fixed deadline and we need to understand if there is any chance of making it or not

In cases like these, I’m still not a big fan of using planning poker or similar practices. First of all, it takes a _lot_ of time. Whoever has experienced a long session of estimation can probably remember people rolling their eyes as soon as we get to card number 54 (or around that…).

And handling the short attention span of tech people (which could probably be increased for the better) is not the only problem here. In every project there will be a lot of similar cards, and reestimating similar things over and over is probably not the most productive thing a software team could be doing, and also tests the patience of anyone involved.

Instead, what I’ve used in the past is a simple technique for group estimation (that I’m sure I saw somewhere before, so don’t credit it me for it) that will allow a group to get to some numbers with less time and effort.

1. Write all the stories you have in cards, and put them on top of a table.

2. Create 3 separate areas within the table, based on different timeframes. What I normally use is 1-5 days, 1-2 weeks and “too big”.

3. Ask the team to go over the stories and position in the categories they find appropriate. Let individual people move (and move again) cards however they want for a few minutes.

4. Let everyone go through the table and look at the cards, and observe the ones that are being moved between categories frequently.

5. Get the unstable cards and the ones in the “too big” category and discuss them within the team. Rewrite cards as appropriate.

6. Rinse and repeat if needed.

Is it precise? Probably not that much. Are any estimates precise? Definitely not. So far every time I’ve used we got a good level of results that were in the right timescale, which is probably the most you will get from software estimates anyway.

Regarding the fact that every story is not individually discussed within the team, a common argument in favour of detailes estimates, I believe there are better times to do that than when looking at all the cards with no context or experience working on them. Time to establish some story kick-offs maybe?

To close my participation at LAST Conference, I’ve presented a follow up of the talk I’ve done at LESS 2011, talking about why I believe most organisations are not set up for learning.

In the presentation I’ve explained my thoughts on why I believe change programs are often unfair to employees, asking them to embrace change, but only the one that management is putting forward.

I’ve also talked about learning within organisations, product teams, and how management teams should step back and understand their new role as leaders instead of controllers of the company.

If it sounds interesting to you, there is more info here.

After working in IT for a while, one thing I’ve noticed is that there is a lot of legacy code hanging around. Some companies are better than others in dealing with it, but there are a lot of reasons while code becomes old and very hard to maintain (some discussed here), making it quite a difficult task to keep an organisations’ codebase up do date.

Since every problem must have a solution, legacy code comes hand in hand with “technical” projects,  where the main goal is to rewrite an application (or part of it) in a new technology, or in a “better” way.

There are different reasons for this. Sometimes the company traditionally developed things in a specific technology and has since evolved, leaving behind a few systems that were never updated. Sometimes the original code was developed without long term aspirations (some would say hacked together) and it became more useful than expected, surviving years running in production, but also with high maintanance costs and lacking in efficiency.

Just making it clear, I agree with the need of retiring legacy code. I do believe it’s better not to create it in the first place, but once it’s there, something has to be done. However, these kind of projects come with more risks than usual in my opinion, and as John once told me,

“any project thas starts with a laundry list of problems is not a good project”.

First of all, how can you tell what has to be delivered? If something got to the point of being called legacy code, you can be sure it has stayed a few months (or years!) without being properly mantained and evolved. In the current times, any customer needs that were being solved a few years ago are most likely not current anymore. In other words, if you are rewriting the same thing again you are definitely writing the wrong thing.

Besides the business issues, any legacy code that has been around in an organisation for a decent amount of time has lived in the imagination of most developers long enough for everyone to be sure they know what needs for it to be developed perfectly this time. And as in any technical solution that has no customer goals at the end, teams end up spinning their wheels and polishing the codebase over and over again, until they reach perfection or the money runs out (which, sadly, usually happens first).

But how to approach this by not focusing on the problems to be solved? Go back to the origin and find out what problem you are trying to solve. Then find the customers who care about it and start from there. There is nothing different from any other customer facing project organisations deliver.

Every line of code should exist and be mantained for a reason, and if no reason can be found, then it might as well be deleted.

It is well known that Agile (not sure about the big/small “A” thing, it always gets me confused) has gone mainstream nowadays. With big companies and conferences endorsing it, long gone were the days when you actually had to convince people this was a good idea… and that’s great!

However, with the early/late majority now adopting Agile, we are not talking about small companies anymore, and that means that the challenge is not how to get teams delivering better, but whole departments and organisations. So yes, scaling agile is one of the current challenges, with the preferred approach being the dreaded (at least by me) “Change Programs”.

I don’t believe agile is a fad or just a small team thing, since empowerment, short feedback loops and delivery of results it’s never going to be a fad and isnt IT specific either. There are many other examples, in different industries (errm… Toyota?) which show that the same principles can be applied successfully in a much larger scale, on complete different problems.

The problem begins though, when by scaling agile, companies try to scale the practices, keeping the control mindset, instead of scaling what’s important, i.e. the principles.

It is common to see companies, for example, adopting a hierarchical structure to create multiple agile teams, all “reporting” to a main office, killing most of what was good about the idea.

If agile in the organisation is the challenge, we need to think about empowerment, short feedback and delivery of real results for the whole company. Unfortunately, the more common behaviour is to talk about bigger walls, how to standardise velocity across teams and synchronisation of iterations.

And if we go back to the roots, and look at the manifesto, I believe we can find a good guidance of what can be done:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools: Instead of scaling processes and tools to control teams, why not increase the ability of individuals to traverse the organisation, making software developers talk to real customers and sales people talk to qa’s?

Working software over comprehensive documentation: Scale by making a working product the final goal, removing the necessity of internal product briefs, extensive training of sales staff and long delivery cycles.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation: It is actually impressive how this still makes sense now. We just need to change the customer. It’s not the product owner anymore, it’s _the_ customer, the one who buys your product and pays the bills.

Responding to change over following a plan: Feedback, feedback and feedback. Not from a showcase though, but from the market.

Yes, if it feels like you’ve heard these ideas before, it’s because they are not new. Product teams are the way to scale agile in my opinion. Small and independent groups of people that can get to the best results in short iterations with feedback from the market, in a Lean Startup style. The game shouldn’t be about execution anymore, it is about innovation.

Ive been involved in quite a few discussions about shared code lately, mostly because I’ve been working in a team that has developed a set of internal tools that are going to be used across the company. One of the common topics to debate in this area is what happens next?

After the main part of development has been done, who is responsible for mantaining and evolving this shared codebase?

I’ve written a little bit about shared code and I don’t think it is the best solution for most cases, but in a few situations sharing is necessary, so how should we handle it?

As any popular topic, opinions are diverse, but here are my two cents to the conversation:

It depends : )

The way I see it, there are two main types of shared codebases that can exist in a company, and each of them should be treated in a different way.

Components that are not critical for any team

This is the case of the famous “utils” package, or any other component that was once written because someone needed it and then was reused since it was useful for other people. The main characteristic here is that this code doesn’t sit on the critical path of any team/application. In other words, I could choose to use it or not if it fills my needs.

In this situation, I believe that using an open source model is just fine. Think about your packages as an open source library, that someone can use it or not if they want, and if at some point it needs to be maintained or evolved, the people using it can spend some time doing it.

It doesn’t matter that much if they break things or take the codebase in a direction no one expected, since people can always use older versions or just find a replacement for it.

Components that are critical to teams 

Now this is a more delicate situation. If teams depend on your component working all most of the time, I believe the open source model is not appropriate anymore.

As I mentioned before, developing internal applications should also use a customer-centric view, and that takes time and effort. As the number of users grow and diversify, it’s important to have people in your team that can steer the development in the right direction, thinking about the roadmap for the future and also development quality.

Being a critical component, the open source model makes it hard for anyone to own the responsibility to maintain the code, and hard decisions that will have to be made start to get postponed, while patches start happening more and more.

It doesn’t take long until everyone is attached to a codebase that no one really understands and is afraid to change. In other words, legacy is written.

In this situation, the biggest step is to realize you have a product to maintain, and that will cost, as it costs to maintain any product. There is the need for a focused team that can plan the future and guarantee that users are happy with what they are receiving, and avoiding the pain will just guarantee a greater amount of it in the future.

In different opportunities IT organisations need to develop internal tools/code to be used for its developers. The reasons for it are a lot of times questionable, like in some cases of creating shared code, but there are moments when they are the right option. With the rise of continuous delivery, deployment automation tools is one of the examples where common tools can be useful for a company.

When that happens, internal teams are often assembled to deal with this problem, and create solutions to be used internally. Unfortunately, these teams seem to suffer from a “too much introspection problem”, and often forget lessons learned about product development when going on their mission.

There is a perception that because something is developed internally and “approved” by the head office (after all, they are putting money on it), other people will be much more receptive and understanding about problems and poor customer service.

Since there are no real paying customers and everyone will have to use the tool at the end (at least we hope for), the need for short product iteration and constant feedback doesn’t seem that necessary, plans are made to architect something that could solve all the problems, just not the one that the users are having.

The problem is that, in reality, market laws operate internally to a company as much as they do in the outside world, and poor over architected solutions that are forced upon users are still not a big hit, even between the organisation’s walls.

For real products (the ones that people pay for), the current solution are lean startup techniques and product teams, and I believe the frame of mind when entering the world of internal development should be the same.

Start with a vision, not a complete solution - Even when the problem is supposed to be known and understood, it usually isn’t as much as we hope. Over-architecting is a problem here as in any other software project and the only way to avoid the plan to fail when facing reality is to start small and validate your idea as you go along. Yes, Im talking about a MVP.

Get out of the building - In this case, your users are probably inside the same building, so there are really no reasons to avoid them. Walk around the floor, find the people that you will help with your product and get them to help defining what needs to be executed from your vision.

Iterate fast, close to the customer - Get your solution out there to be used from the beginning. Sit with your users, help them adopt it and treat feedback appropriately (as in hear it and do something about it).

Use metrics, track adoption and problems - Metrics are there to be used, so why not get them to help understanding how your tool is being used and adopted by your colleagues (or not)?

In summary, despite not having paying users, internal software is also supposed to help somehow, and if it doesn’t, it will be left behind and forgotten, so companies should give it the importance it deserves.

That’s it!

“Software, agile and some nonsense” - That used to be the description of my blog.

With the extreme popularisation and use of the word “agile” in the IT industry from anyone who wants to be part of the in crowd, sometimes referring to practices and thoughts that are well beyond what I believe is correct, I’ve decided to just stop using the word.

I believe the risk of being misinterpreted when you mention “agile” nowadays is bigger than the benefit you get out of using it, so let’s start talking about feedback, transparency and delivering value and see where that will lead!

A common topic when discussing IT in organisations is how to structure software teams, more specifically, how do we divide work when a company grows enough that one team is not enough anymore, and how do we deal we shared code?

This is not a simple question and probably deserves a few blog posts about it, but now I wanted to focus on one specific aspect of it, which is the duplication of effort.

A simple example would be if my company has multiple teams delivering software, they will eventually find the same problems, as in how to deploy code, how to do logging (the classic example!), monitoring and other things like that.

And in almost all organisations I have been, the response is unanimous: we should invest in building shared tools/capability to do that! It’s all in the name of uniformity and standardisation, which must be a good thing.

Well, as you might imagine at this point, I disagree.

Building shared applications in IT is the equivalent of economies of scale for software, and it is as outdated in IT as it is in other industries.

In knowledge work (as we all agree software development is at this point), no effort is really duplicated. You can develop the same thing 100 times and you are most likely getting 100 different results, some quite similar but yet different. And that small difference between each other is where innovation lies.

This is the trade off that companies should be aware of. If people don’t have freedom to experiment and look for different solutions for problems, is very easy to get to a place where everyone is stuck in the old way of thinking. And that’s what companies are really doing when making people use common tools, shared applications, etc.. They are putting cost-saving in front of innovation, a lot of times without realising it.

And I don’t mean we can’t all learn from each other and reuse solutions when they are appropriate. After all, there is still a place for economies of scale when appropriate.

We are all standing on the shoulders of people that came before us and should keep doing it, even internally to an organisation. But that should be an organic and evolutionary process, not one that is defined by an architecture team.

I’ve been thinking about and researching the topic of organisational learning for some time now. Last year, I presented on the topic at LESS 2011, but realized it was time to take some time and write about it. So this is the first post of a series to explore the topic, which I’m also hoping will help me clarify my view on the subject.

Organisational learning. Should anyone care ?

My hope is that this goes without saying, but I guess that the first question to be asked is why should anyone care about learning? Some businesses make money staying still, while the world keeps moving. Full stop.

While this could be true for established business in the past, it’s something that is not so clear anymore. Gary Hamel makes a good point in his “Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment” presentation: Change is changing, and it’s much faster now than it has ever been.

The world is changing, and faster than ever, so (every) company has to adapt, not only once but constantly.

Why is it so hard ?

A company has to learn. If this was an easy task, it wouldn’t be so rare, but creating a learning organisation is one of those things that gets harder the more you try and control it. If you want to form a learning organisation, a few questions you might think of are:

  • What does my company need to learn ?
  • If I had to setup the body of knowledge necessary to run my organisation, what would it be ?

While these could have been easy questions to answer 50 years ago, nowadays, in this ever changing (specially IT) world, whatever you write as being essential today might not be useful at all in one year’s time.

And the big issue is that most companies are not setup to deal with this problem. Instead of an evolving structure, modern organisations still have a very hierarchical structure based on top down control, with the vision of a CEO (put any other senior role here) that drives the strategy while most of the company just follows.

They have Project Management Offices that dictate how to deal with projects, architecture teams that say what can and cannot be done and common policies that dictate behaviour for everyone. Bjarte Bogsnes  has a good tale about how companie’s policies try to establish control over the employees:

“A friend of mine works at SAS. Even if he is trusted to fly planes around the world, if he wants to change his shirt more often than what the policy states, he needs a written authorization”

So the common alternative to evolution in this kind of structure are the well known “Change Programs”. They try to implement a top-down approach to change, that can be explained in two simple steps:

  1. Senior people decide how to move forward
  2. They teach the rest of the company how to do it

While step 1 is always a success, step 2 is usually more troublesome that people would like to think. And it’s not hard to understand why, since the whole idea of a change program is quite an unfair proposition to the affected employees, which could be described like this:

“You have to embrace change, but only the change we want”

As expected, people resist. Peter Senge has a quote that explains this situation quite well – “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed” – It’s natural that most employees will doubt and resist something that they haven’t been asked about. I would, and I’m quite confident that most people would too.

And as a result, money is spent, time and most importantly people are consumed through the process, and not much is learned in the end.

So is there an alternative to this situation ? Do you agree with this view ? Let me know what you think

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