Plan & Estimate, Only if You Must

It must have been the morning to challenge planning efforts, as GeePawHill did here. I was answering a post that had gotten around to discussing budgeting and planning for interruptions to fix legacy apps while teams are building new stuff.

When all of the sudden, I blurted this out:

Kanban is simple, in theory. Simply do one feature or bug fix all the way to being released. AKA focus. But there is a lot of things that have to be working well, for example: the cost of testing has to be low so that it doesn’t cost a fortune in treasure or time to get in that new feature or bug fix. (Expensive testing often leads to bundling a bunch of stuff into a given release and widening the time window, and introducing parallel development techniques.)

And, regarding budgeting in to prepare for the unknown maintenance efforts… That’s but one way to handle things. Another way is simply let the people who care about getting things done participate in setting your priorities. If you were given 10 things to do in a month, and halfway through you get an 11th thing to do. You probably don’t need to budget for that unknown. You simply ask for help deciding which of the original 10 should get axed to make room for the new “emergency” item.

Like it or not, you are all in it together, it is a zero sum game. If you fix the resources, fix the schedule, the amount of work that gets done has to give when new work is injected. Deal with it in an honest manner.

Hard to describe in words… and had to know your exact context… but what you are facing is probably more of an organizational issue than anything else.

All we software folks do for a living is produce features and fix bugs to keep paying customers happy. Just keep trying to improve your team’s efficiencies and squeeze out wasteful practices.

When you are producing software as an internal organization, you can sometimes be brave and forgo lots of planning stuff. If you have the priorities set, and if you have a delivery schedule, and if you understand your costs of releasing, you can make a pretty simple and smooth process. I’ve done it many times in companies formerly steeped in waterfall fantasy land. Why waste all sorts of time making estimates if you don’t have to?

The answers to these questions can help you decide how much ceremony your processes need:

  • Does it matter if the team does 5 things in an iteration or does 10?
  • Does it matter if they estimated 10, but only wound up being able to do 5?
  • Or, if they bid 5 and found they could do more and gobbled up 10, is that a problem?
  • Is it more important to hit a date with at least some features?
  • Or, is it more important to produce specific features as fast as you can, even if you miss the date?
  • Does the team need to be accurate on their estimates? How accurate and why?

Many times, we fall into traps of wanting to manage software process as if it were a brick-making factory. Unless you live or die by doing software as a fixed-bid project, you can often really get simple and make software really fun in your organization by doing less ceremonial planning crap!

Ideas for a Distributed Team

In response to a posting on Agile Project Management…

I am starting up a ‘Distributed’ Agile Project and looking at tools to assist the distributed team communicate the status of work undertaken, stories, estimates and burn down/up charts as well as general collaboration (forums, document sharing etc).
There are tools such as Agile Wall, Mingle, Trac (with plugins etc).
I am ideally looking for an externally hosted solution (something that we will not be setting up in-house).
I have a core team of 15 people and with an additional 10 people that would want access. I am looking for any ideas or suggestions on online tools that you may have.
Thanks in Advance.

I’ve been doing this sort of thing since 2000, so it is very easy and very possible to be extremely effective as a distributed team.

Here is a very simple approach using Basecamp (and you can get an add-on for burndowns if you like that sort of thing). I’ve been doing this on a small project since March or so.

Then I set up other simple collaboration tools (looked like this on many projects, though you might have to march around that hodgepodge of a site to find more tool ideas):

  • Wiki: Project stuff that is not issues or code needs a home; a.k.a.,
    (you can use basecamp, though not as extensive as something like confluence)
  • Chat Room for being the virtual cubicle farm and water cooler. Skype or IRC works great. You can establish key words that call out for attention, like “@ALL I’m going to kick the TEST server.” You can even have textual scrums if voice is not always possible. For a while, we had a bot that recorded the chats and logged them to the wiki 🙂
  • Issues/Bugs: You need a place to store your lists of things to get done. Some call that an issue tracker; others, simply a To-Do list. I have used Jira for a l-o-n-g time for both features and bugs. I have also used Lighthouse — which is just fine too.

Atlassian Studio is worth a look. You can add in continuous integration and code reviews and what not.

My suggestion: start really small and humble with the tiniest process.

That really simple Basecamp process I blogged about? We actually got to PRODUCTION with much less ceremony. There were none of the “To be QAd” or “To Be Released” because we did it more in iteration chunks, so we knew the overall state of a given iteration (in dev, qa, or released).

The slightly greater ceremony of QA and Release buckets allowed me to answer the need from the stakeholders and other non-developers to know the state of the project at a glance. It’s easy to see what is in the backlog, or what is in progress, or waiting QA, etc. Now we’re doing Kanban. I crank issues and (rare 🙂 bugs through one at a time usually.

Anyway, have fun!