06 January 2015

Measuring estimates in uncertain environments - another view on agile methods

I've spent the majority of my career working in the outsourcing business. Outsourcing its an exciting domain if you love technology, learning and are an adrenaline junky. Luckily I'm all three, so I fit right at home.
Outsourcing is all about making the biggest return of investment (oh, well no big surprise there) by reducing as much the development time possible in order to satisfy all the key client requirements.
When approaching any outsourcing project you have the following guarantees:

  • You are never going to know everything you need to build the project
  • Some of the technology involved will be unfamiliar to you
  • You are not going to have enough time.
In order to succeed in outsourcing you need to have the following three characteristic:
  • A self measuring and self correcting software development process
  • Strong requirement gathering and managing skills
  • Will to learn outside of regular working hours
I like to call outsourcing projects , "The big unknowns" or "Chocolate boxes" (like you never know what you are going to get). As you may fathom, knowing how much its going to take to complete a project is something of a critical information. 

In the classical, bad example model, the evil overlord of the project pressurizes the team to give the shortest estimate on the delivery which is then turned into a strong commitment. 

Notice that I'm talking about pressure here. Mark Horseman from Manger Tools talks about three different powers in an organization:
  • Role power
  • Technical power
  • Relationship power
the pressure in the above sentence is related to the abuse of the Role power, e.g, the might which lies on you by virtue of the job you are doing and its bestowed and enforced by the organization. The principal issue with the use of role power in any engineering organization is that you are dealing with intelligent, educated people working on a project which requires constant high order mental exercises day in , day out. 

You generally can't treat software engineers like they are factory workers, or farm workers where their outputs can be reasonably measured and compared and standard benchmark of operations is actually derived the lower level ability to execute a set of manual operations repeatedly. 

On the other hand you really can't let the cats fly out and what may come will come which is also the donwside of working with smart, intelligent and educated people. They tend to stray, a lot if left alone to much. 

Here we are talking about a case where estimates are forced on a team that has a low certainty level of actually delivering on them. In practice I've seen several different outcomes of this behavior:
  • Lots of overtime
  • Lots of technical dept
  • Lower quality of the delivered solution
  • Lower maintainability of the code
to give a summary we have tears and pain to spread around. Yes, yes, we all know that and we all have lived trough those moments.

And here come the agile model. The promise of freedom. Of actually delivering software that works where estimates are estimates which are actually handled properly where we are not committing to a whole bunch of work and doing a whole bunch of things at once without heads or tail where we talk to our customers who are actually part of our teams. Hurray.

By now we are all agillists and we all work in agile environments. We all know SCRUM, extreme programming and the Kaizen of Kanban. A burndown chart is not a wierd excel graph type but a living and breathing artistic expression of our ability to draw on a white board. 

From all agile practices I would presume to point one which I find most valuable (yes I know agile practices can not be taken alone, they must be bunched together, but bear with me), the built in control, measurement and correction mechanism provided by standups, sprint scrums, retrospectives and other "lets huddle around and see where we are at moments".

Lets call all those practices with the same name, lets say - PING. A "Ping" is a regular query to gather measurements about the status of the project. The only difference between each Ping implementation is the time and work scope each ping covers. Daily standups cover well one day of work so their scope is smaller, while sprints and retrospectives each cover a bigger time period.

So why is pinging so great? The greatest benefit of pings is the ability to gather real, actionable data about the status of the project without introducing any pollution in the data set. We are actually measuring what is. And when we have done a couple of such measurements we can derive the current speed of the project. And when we change something in our project or development process we can measure how much the speed of delivery is going to be affected by collecting data from our pings.

I always picture a software project like an organic machine, with gooey parts sticking and intricating them selves. The machine moves but with all the gooey parts you actually can't now at the beginning until it started moving what its speed is going to be. So you start it and it goes slow. You change something and then move it again with periodical check ups to see how its going, 

With this analogy I generally think the best approach is to pick a time frame (short one) a chunk of work and start the project. Until we have gone trough a couple of weeks with regular measurements we are not going to be able to effectively gauge the speed of the project and thus correctly estimate its length and our delivery capability.

Nothing new here, its just the old agile promise everybody is talking about. For me agile its not continues integration or test driven development, planning poker or user stories with neatly arranged burndown charts.

Agile in its essence is the acceptance of the intrinsic chaos and fallibility that is software development where each development effort is generally compromised by wild guesses, blind luck and leap of faiths. Agile accepts the chaos that is our industry, and instead of trying to change it, to mold it into well ordered bits it rids the wave and leverages its strength to deliver value to our customers instead of mounds of stinking shame. 

In my experience the best mechanism to gather an measure the speed of team is to regularly monitor it by just querying the regular status without expressing judgement or implying pressure. The results are always going to be 

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