Category Archives: agile techniques

Hard to Capture Fluid Agile Practices in a Static Graph

Well, this is sort of what I like to do on software development projects…

I feel like there are some necessary startup processes to get you up and running quickly with a glimpse or vision of the product/end goal. And then some set of similar, or refined,  or slightly modified practices that carry on during the life of the main product development period. I liken it to getting the skeleton up and running, or the “tree trunk and main branches” upon which we can rapidly build out the app.

This was part of a “Day of Agile” immersion course where the attendees step through a mock development project…

PDF: Iterative Development Path Agenda.

PNG: Iterative Development Path


User Stories and FDD


I bet you never heard of Feature-Driven Development, eh?

Well, Mike Cohn wrote this recent post:

Not Everything Needs to Be a User Story: Using FDD Features

Having worked with Peter Coad since the early 90s, and Jeff De Luca in the late 90s, I’ve been a fan of FDD and naturally turn to that style when “user stories” are not so user-centric. And yes, those are typically the minority items on our backlogs.

Software development is working through a prioritized to-do list. Most of the to-dos should be about addressing user needs. Call them user stories, call them features, maybe even call them requirements. Whatever works best to help you organize and communicate what needs to be built.

Another element of FDD is breaking down (or building up) the system into

  • Major Feature Sets (Quote Management), and their
    • Feature Sets (Clone Quotes, Create Quotation Documents), and their
      • Features (create a quote, edit a quote, archive a quote).

Major Feature Sets might loosely equate to epics 🙂

One of the keys to successful software development, is to combine the list of features with a domain model (and some UI mockups don’t hurt). The domain model need not be to the nth degree of UML detail. But one that clearly describes — in just enough detail — what your problem domain is all about. This eliminates the need to write all sorts of detail in the development issues, leaving that to the model. Then the feature list become more about the order in which we are building up various aspects of the product feature sets.

Thanks for paying a bit of homage to FDD. A blast from the past!

Easing New Developer Ramp-up Time

On a recent healthcare start-up team, it grew from my buddy (who moved on after 6 months or so) and I, to a handful of developers/sub-contractors.

Here is how we tried to make it fairly efficient. We just started tracking what was needed, getting feedback as each new developer went through the process, and improving the instructions and process along the way. If something was missing, we added it. If something was not clear, the new developer could amend the wiki.

By the 3rd new developer, or so, we had it down to where they could get started and begin a legitimate issue in less than a half day — from getting set up to being able to commit and deploy a new “feature.”

There was a section at the top that shared a good team chat room session with a new remote developer:

Getting Started Chat Room Conversation

That was followed by the FAQ-like list of links:

One of the first reasons I wanted to make it easy for a new team member to get rolling, was so that our friend Max — who would be doing our QA from Russia — could get started. As we added the first couple of devs, we probably decreased the start-up time as follows:

As part of “Getting Started,” I would include a simple Jira issue that helped them ensure that everything was working and that they followed our dev process:

  • Git and Dev and database (MongoDB) environment obviously had to be set up
  • Access to Jira to assign themselves to the issue, and move it — Kanban style — to the In Progress state.
  • Commit the work and the passing tests
  • Drag the Jira issue to “Done”


Since Atlassian’s Confluence Wiki does a stellar job at versioning pages, I actually looked back to see how the page grew and morphed over time. It started out rather modestly (and empty):

After it grew a bit bloated:

It was successively refactored into its current state, here is a snippet of the 70 versions that this page underwent from March 2011 through July 2012.

Wikis, like code, need to be tended to, nurtured, and refactored to provide the best value.

Working Remote

Imagine software development with an entirely remote team.

Using modern technology (IM, IRC, Skype) and 24×7 connectedness, team members can even do remote pairing without sitting side by side. When you think about it, whether developers are 10 cubicles apart, 10 floors apart, 10 blocks apart, or 10 states apart, today’s modern collaboration tools make it almost as easy as sitting next to each other. After all, being 10 cubicles apart for most devs is about the same as 10 states apart.

Admittedly, there could be some efficiencies to being co-located. Sticky notes can be more easily shared on the local wall. Sketches on whiteboards are more collaborative as folks can easily share pens and authorship in real time. And, there are some inefficiencies: you can interrupt your co-worker ad infinitum. you can discuss things around the water cooler, etc.

Conversely, remote teams require more attention to being very open, visible, and sharing. Web-based issue trackers and wikis become invaluable. Doodles often become either camera phone snapshots uploaded to the wiki, or they become collaborative drawings via a wiki graphics plugin, or drawing source file put into version control or otherwise shared. Co-worker interruptions take on a certain hierarchy of importance once you get a few rules of etiquette in place. for example: if an answer can wait, use email (and use an email list!). if you’d like it within the hour, IM. if it is urgent, phone. If it is private use, a back channel — but ensure text “conversations” that should be public are moved into the visible realm. Similarly, it is best to answer things via the wiki or issue tracker, and email links if needed. This avoids the dreaded “management/requirements by email” problem. Keep it visible and shared for all!

So, remote teams that do a real good job of being visible probably spend more time *being* visible and more time creating (mildly) more formal artifacts than a co-located team would require. That could be considered less efficient. However, more artifacts being one side effect of being remote is not all bad and wasted effort. On the contrary. This often leads to greater efficiencies as the team grows. Each new member helps grow and improve the “getting started” wiki page, for example. Or, each new person added to the team helps grow the “FAQ” page.

If only i had plotted the time required for a new team member to get up to speed (and they were almost all remote), it dropped steeply with members #2 and #3, and is now a very flat line at a very low level. I can bring on new contractors and have them doing issues within a day or so.

In some cases, we’d get the teams together every so often — usually when there was at least one “office” of sorts (often the client). But not always.

Having been doing remote work for over a decade, and being on a kick to have shared project knowledge bases for the past 20 years (when early on, the best I could muster was a shared network drive and local web server kind of thing), i am comfortable in my remote ways.

I have also successfully instilled this on other teams that had remote offices and team members.

But it does take effort and commitment. It can easily degrade if members do not feel comfortable being always visible and sharing.

I’d be interested in your trials and tribulations at working remotely.

Jira vs Post-It Notes

Had some recent discussions on the subject of using tools or just sticky notes…

for me, a digital board representation of the kanban style 3-column view is merely one v-e-r-y small aspect of using something like jira.

though i could probably live with just post-it notes, i bet it would be an interesting challenge for me. i have been:

  1. doing only distributed work for so long (since late 90s)
  2. using jira so long, it is as simple as a pen and paper (or post-its)
  3. dissatisfied trying to do a project with something simpler like Basecamp, without the richness of jira
  4. working on long-term projects that have different people rolling through, and years of life (4000+ issues)

and i ask myself what other benefits do i derive from jira (plus, admittedly, a companion wiki)? why might i be uncomfortable with just post-its?  do i have an unnecessary “crutch” in the form of jira? hmmm… do i do more than is necessary in the way of using jira/wiki to add other pertinent documentation for the project?

well, here are the following things i can think of off the top of my head:

  • it is easy to
    • assign myself to an issue
    • move it to be in progress
    • move it to be resolved
  • our virtual chats hover around the greenhopper view
    • we’ll edit stuff on the fly as needed
    • quickly create a new issue if something pops up during the call
    • everybody refreshes their browser
  • we put a fair amount of supporting docs — details, helpful things — into the issue (or into the wiki and then that link goes in the issue)
    • that way you always know where to look 🙂
    • you can find it 24×7 and regardless of your GeoLoc
    • sometimes we’ll have skype chats and voice calls about the issue, maybe about design ideas. I’ll shove those things into the issue.
  • we can link related issues
  • we can use the search to look up old issues and refresh ourselves on what was asked for/done
  • we can have asynchronous, threaded conversations in the form of comments
  • we can track any myriad of other stuff against the issue
  • i log my hours against the issue
    • useful for billing if you need it…
  • i can use it to help generate pretty charts for management
  • we use the issue status to trigger QA (in addition to our chats)
  • i use jira to help ensure product version notes are up to date
    • jira manages the iterations
  • pretty easy to maintain a backlog, even chunking it up into groups if needed
  • easy to indicate that an issue has been rejected, and why

the point is, i find it incredibly useful to have modern technology at my fingertips…

in my experience, there is so much more to a project tracking “tool” than what post-it notes would seem to represent.

[important]but i have NO (zero, nada, zilch) experience being part of a co-located team using post-it notes. so take it with a grain of salt :-)[/important]

Design Debates

many times there are two (or more) seemingly viable approaches that people can be arguing for…

when in doubt, sketch it out… that is,

  • quick model diagrams, or
  • quick sequence diagrams,
  • compare and contrast

now let’s (hopefully continue to) presume this is about an exceedingly critical aspect, a make-or-break design decision. because surely, you aren’t spending precious project resources deciding whether or not to use 2 or 4 spaces per indent level!

so, if sketching out the ideas and comparing still did not reveal a clear winner, then code up the competing ideas and put them to the test. give the designs a day or two of effort, or more — in proportion to the critical nature of getting the decision right. then, have some a priori metrics by which to pick the winner via “testing” the designs.

  • better performance
  • less code
  • easier to grok
  • suitability to task
  • etc

and if you still can’t choose a clear winner, well, man-up, be a leader, and make a freaking decision (even if it is flipping a coin), and don’t look back.

Considering Sprint Length

A friend of mine had an interesting situation:

  • Novel product, many unknowns
  • Multiple teams grouped into 3 product areas
  • Experience doing 3-week sprints

Only a fool would do anything other than the 30-day official sprint cycle that I saw on some website and in a few books.

(Just kidding. Unfortunately, like most of agile development, context has a tremendous impact on what you choose to do, process-wise.)

A lot could go into what the Optimal Sprint Length should be… You could ponder the dependent variables and try and guess an optimal length to optimize the independent variable(s) — which would be, what, maybe cost and rate of feature delivery and quality? You could do the “democratic process” and allow the team to vote, or even do “rock-paper-scissors” to figure out 2 or 3 weeks.

However, what if we built a continuum of sprint lengths for the sake of discussion. On the one end, we start at the idealization of doing one useful feature at a time and deploying it immediately — think simple web app. Anything longer than this is a compromise based on some (hopefully valid) reason. On the other extreme, we could wait until the entire system is done before deploying or integrating, maybe after 6 months or a year.

The cost of “batching up” the “work in process” at the upper end of long sprint lengths, is pretty obvious to everyone. I submit, that if you agree with (or experience first-hand) the premise that batching work has a non-linear impact on overall cost (including the hidden and subtle cost of everything that we know is bad with waterfall), then it stands to reason one might favor shorter cycles and less batching.

Not to digress, but the parallels exist in industry. To allow WIP to be large, and to allow certain parts of the process to run at high levels of batching, is a risk. A risk that the items in the batch, once released into the wild, are discovered to not be as valuable as first thought. Well, it’s water over the dam, time and effort you will never get back. (Think: extra features built because someone thought they would be useful, and it turned out that the marketplace thought otherwise.) Nonetheless, sometimes weighing the risks will lead you to some level of batch that makes the most sense.

There is often much more to the decision on sprint length than purely the development team. For example, what is the cost of QA? If the cost of QA is no different for 1 feature at a time versus a week’s worth of features, than QA cycle time/cost is not an issue. However, if it requires a week of QA time to regression test the system in the case of even a single small feature or bug fix, then you have a serious input into what the optimal sprint length should be.

Naturally, one could do development sprints at one frequency, and QA sprints at another… and even customer ship sprints at a completely other cycle time.

Regarding multiple teams… this is a solution that can be recursively applied, much like you would at a software architectural level. If the teams are horribly coupled, your costs will balloon and no amount of pondering sprint lengths will have a significant impact. If the work dependencies are carefully controlled between the teams, sprint length could vary between teams due to their own local reasons.

Much like the QA process can be a “tax” on each Sprint, what other taxes does your process incur? Running down to a one week sprint will likely reveal expensive parts of the process that could be ripe for improving.

So having said all of that… Here’s a thought. Why not simply agree to try out a few different lengths for enough sprints to get a feel for the differences. Try one week sprints for the next 6 weeks. Try 3 week Sprints three times. See if you can monitor metrics that will tell you what worked better. Consider that different teams might also work at different frequencies to test the “costs” of thinking the teams should be synchronized.

Much like with our USA republic, surely don’t let democratic, mob rule win the day.

Do I Still Do Domain Modeling?

Got a very nice “blast from the past” contact (4 levels deep) on LinkedIn. Scott was a member of a team where we went through object modeling for their business application.

The reason I wanted to contact you was two fold:

First for some reason that training has stuck with me more that many trainings and I still go back to the cobweb section of my brain and bring it out every time I have a object modeling task, so thanks you did a good job helping me.  This is true for many of the people that were there.

Second as I have been given another task of modeling a large system from scratch I was wondering  about how you feel about the Domain-Neutral model that was presented in the training you did for us.  I have found it useful over the years but do you still use this model in anything that you design this many years in the future?

Thanks for the help.

And yes, I still do domain modeling the basic way that we did 11 years ago (gulp). I only have my old copy of Together anymore, so I am stuck back in time there. In person, I always use post-it notes, flip-charts, and markers. Once I want to make a computer version, I’ll use different tools for modeling depending on the need. For example, UMLet is a great little simple tool to bang out a quick diagram in no time flat and that can be used by anybody.

Another good approach from what we went through 10 years ago, is to follow the color modeling order to help in the discovery process… that is focusing on the following as you walk through the assorted primary user scenarios:

  1. First trying to discover what time-sensitive aspects does the business care about most (the pinks)
  2. Then looking towards the roles that may be at play there (yellows).
  3. Are there any specific things (like contracts, purchase orders — greens)?
  4. And finally, any descriptive elements (blues) to go alongside the greens?

For the past 18 months, I am in major love with Ruby, Rails, and MongoDB — plus all of the surrounding tools and community (see my recent blog posts). Ruby the object-oriented language I wanted when I was doing C++, and MongoDB/MongoMapper is the OO-like DBMS that I always wanted. Putting it all together makes for real productive, high-quality, consistent development — I can quickly model out domain things and try them in a working application.

I’ve never done an adequate job of explaining how I like to approach doing just-enough design up front, but you can find a few snippets here:

Some tips that I find useful when doing initial up-front Domain Modeling (what you are about to do):

  • Spend time with subject matter experts and the business/product owners
  • Build out as you gather high-level features
  • Do breadth first, then depth
  • Only go into details when it will help reduce an unacceptable level of risk

That last bullet is key. I like to do just enough up-front work to please the stakeholders and myself that we can answer the question about: how much? and when? to the level of desired specificity. When you attempt a high-level estimate at a given feature, and it is too big for your comfort, then you can get more detail and break it down further so that it becomes acceptable.

If you do not do enough up front, and your estimate is off by an order of magnitude or three, you might upset the client!

On the flipside, if you do too much up front (detailed modeling), then you risk not getting frequent, tangible, working results into the hands of the client soon enough.

It’s a big balancing act.

You Can Start at Login!

On one of the lists I hang out at, Marton was wondering about how to start off a project that required authenticated users…

How would you decouple the sign-up feature from the login feature to keep the stories independent and testable from the UI only. The acceptance criteria should not fiddle with any implementation details such as concrete url-s or field types. I’d like to leave that entirely to the developers. Let’s say I have the following story coming to mind in a workshop:

As an Anonymous user I want to sign up to website to enjoy the benefits of a registered user.

Acceptance Criteria:
1. I navigate to the signup page
2. I enter my full name, desired username and my password
3. I have to verify my password to avoid any typos
4. I submit my information

And here comes the “tricky” bit:
5. I can log in with the credentials I provided.

Some folks suggested he start on real functionality first, others implied login was a lousy first story.

My take: It’s not a hard story to start at and have a meaningful test that can grow over time.

For example, to start, you can simply check that the response has “Login Succeeded” ( or “Login Failed” for testing that a bogus login attempt does indeed fail).

In Cucumber flavor:

Scenario: Registering as a new user
    Given I am a new user
    When I visit the site
    Then I can register

Scenario: Logging in as a registered user
    Given I am a registered user
    Then I can login
    And enjoy the beauty of the website

Or, even more simply:

Scenario: Successful Login
    When I login as admin
    Then I should be logged in

Scenario: Failed Login
    When I login as asdf56ghasdkfh
    Then I should be not logged in

And your steps would hide the logic for filling in the login form and checking for success:

Given /^I login as "([^"]*)"$/ do |login|
  @login_name = login
  visit login_path
  fill_in "login", :with => login
  fill_in "password", :with => "password"
  click_button "login_button"

Then /^I should be logged in$/ do
  response.should contain "Login Succeeded"

Then /^I should not be logged in$/ do
  response.should contain "Login Failed. Please try again."

Your login details can change over time, adding the password confirmation box, handle validation errors, etc.

Your next step might be to show Admin-user-only functionality as I have here (snagged from a current app):

Feature: Quickly exercise the primary UIs just to make sure nothing blows up

  Background: We need to pre-populate the database with the simulator results, and be logged in as admin
    Given I login as "admin"

  Scenario: Brief tour around the Admin UI
    Then I should be able to click on "Dashboard" and see "Admin Management"
    And I should be able to click on "Accounts" and see "Search"
    And I should be able to click on "Sign out" and see "Login to Your Account"

And so it goes, step-by-step.

Hope that helps!

As an update… one of the list contributors went so far as to indicate “Login has Zero business value, always.” No wiggle room there!

well, okay, if you are parsing the act of logging in to achieve a status of an authenticated user to provide a means of secure access as separate from the need to have secure access, well, ok.

yes, i didn’t separate the two. The point was merely to show the OP how you could easily write his desired login and registration story, and it is not that hard.

As an aside, another project I did with two friends required a “marketing” site where you could sign up and see info about the core application. The project also required the site where registered users would do the real work of the application.

Since I knew login would be easy to add, I suggested to my one friend how to do it, and proceeded ahead with the other functionality. This was based on knowing full well that I would be able to feather in the user authentication and access rights into the core app once they were completed in the marketing app.

So, I am not hard over one way or the other on this issue, and in the past 12 months have done it both ways on different projects. Hence my surprise at folks’ having such stark “black and white” edicts banning ever starting at Login as a story.

Now, were I on a project where there was some very risky bit that, should we not solve that problem adequately, nothing else matters, guess where we start? Not login. 🙂


Oh, George posted a reply of sorts here.

You Don’t Always Have to Follow “The” Rules

A user was asking the following on the Agile Modeling list:

What experience does anyone have about standards for stories written for
non-UI components? I’m working with a proxy PO who feels the standard story
format (As a <user> I want to <activity> so that <purpose>) simply won’t
work for something that doesn’t have a user interface. Imagine, for this
example, a project that has the sole purpose of encrypting data without any
user interaction.

For my needs, I often apply the principles behind the concepts, if not always the exact template of a suggested practice. Take for example, the use of my favorite tool, Cucumber, to write Acceptance Tests. Typically, cukes are written from the user point of view in classic “Given – When – Then.” But sometimes I like to use the cucumber style for testing APIs that I am building.

Here is one example at the Cucumber level (with the companion RSpec shown below):

Feature: Version 2.0: As we parse PDFs, we need to be able to collect a list of fonts
  as a way to help discern the structure of the parsed document based on
  heading levels, density of upper case text, and what not.

Scenario: Parsing a simple document
  Given a sample set of text
  |R9| 10| Patient: FRANKLIN, BENJAMIN|
  When i parse the text
  And provide a set of base fonts
  |ref |basefont|
  | R9 | Helvetica-Bold|
  |R10 | Helvetica     |
  Then I should have the following font stats
  |R9       | 10   | 4       | 1       | 83    |
  And the following font names
  |reference |points|basefont|
  |   R9     |  10  |Helvetica-Bold|
  |  R10     |  10  |Helvetica     |

Scenario Outline: Parsing a simple document
  When collecting a set of text , ,
  Then I should have  and  word counts and  Uppercase stats

  # Note: the counts are cumulative
    | R9| 10| "Patient: FRANKLIN, BENJAMIN" |  2 |  1 | 66 |
    | R9| 10| "CHIEF COMPLAINT:"            |  4 |  1 | 83 |
    | R9| 10| "PRESCRIPTIONS"               |  5 |  1 | 89 |
    |R10|  9| "Motrin 600mg, Thirty (30), Take one q.i.d. as needed for pain, Note: Take with food, Refills: None."| 0 | 13 | 0 |
    |R10|  9| "(Discount Medication) < Michael L. Panera, PA-C 7/13/2010 17:40>"| 0 | 17 | 0 |

And here’s another one:

Feature: Extract meaningful data from Discharge Message

  Scenario: Extract headings
    Given a discharge message
    When the message is parsed
    Then I should see meaningful information, structured as headings and paragraphs
    And I can get formatted values for HTML display

  Scenario: Extract headings from second message
    Given a second discharge message
    When the message is parsed
    Then I can get formatted values for HTML display

But wait! There is more!

At the “Unit Test” level, RSpec’s can be made rather “english friendly” yet still be all about the underlying API as this diagram and snippet show:

RSpec for an API

The Font Collector RSpec tests

describe PdfParser do
  describe PdfParser::FontCollector do

    before(:all) do

    context "initialize" do
      it "should reject missing font reference" do
      it "should reject missing points" do
      it "should reject missing value" do
      it "should accept valid inputs" do

      it "should start off with simple stats" do

      it "should recognize reference+size is unique" do

    context "clear" do
      it "should clear the font list" do