Agile Development in Large Organisations
Computing is one of the few disciplines where its entire history could be encompassed in the lifespan of a single person, and given that within a few years the entire ecosystem of technologies that underpin the industry can change radically it should come as no surprise that the methodologies are equally transient.
Agile development, and more specifically Scrum and XP seem to be the current dominant methodologies and in this post I want to discuss what that means generally but also more specifically for large organisations.
I’ve noticed that most of the people who speak a lot about Agile are ‘expert non-practicioners’ when it comes to programming, who either have programmed a long time ago but not actively anymore or are direct from a management background.
Conversely world-renowned programmers and computer scientists are generally mute on the subject — I’ve yet to read anything written by Torvalds, Knuth or Dijkstra on the topic of Agile development — and working developers seem to be rather divided in private on the virtues of Agile but sometimes feel pressured to extoll the methodologies publicly.
If this post sounds like a bitter criticism of Agile then I’ve missed the mark, for my part I’ve experienced good and bad projects under numerous software development approaches including Agile and Waterfall and I think the success of a project comes down more to the project having a stable base (adequately mature technologies, maximum automation, skilled people, sufficient time to experiment, etc).
My pet-peeves with ‘Hard-Agile’
It seems that some organisations take to making press-releases claiming incredulous increases in productivity. Perhaps I’m just cynical here but I suspect that some of these figures are just made up to appease investors. If I’m doing any given activity which takes a significant proportion of my time and you could offer me something which increases productivity by 5% I’d bite your arm off, but if you tell me that it will immediately increase productivity by 500% I’d have to assume either I’m doing something very very seriously wrong or you’re lying to me.
In any other industry a claim of a 5-gazillion percent performance improvement would probably be laughed at, but I can see how it might be taken seriously in Software Development given the sheer variance in the speed at which individual developers work at and also the way projects are affected seemingly by the way the wind is blowing.
An ace developer who cranked out an amazing piece of software in a week can spend years languishing as part of a large team trying to complete a project, so it is easy to rationalise (perhaps the stakeholders were indecisive or the technology immature) and apply those rationalisations to other projects without knowledge of the details of those projects.
Anti-intellectualism and intransience
The hyperbole leads to the ‘one true path’ fallacy familiar to mysticism and martial arts — if you’re applying Agile and you’re not getting 5-gazillion percent productivity increase, then you’re doing it wrong. You need to be more agile, and try harder or perhaps your programmers just don’t get agile.
Programmers themselves seem to have rather mixed views on Agile, and personally I’m on the fence. But to tell an agile advocate you’re undecided on a particular approach is often to invite evangelism or derision. The assumption will often be that 1) you’ve not used agile, or if you have that 2) you’ve not used the evangelists flavour of agile, or if you have that 3) you’ve not used it correctly.
Point 3 is of course a fair one seeing as I’ve never actually worked anywhere where Scrum is done ‘by the book’, but then again isn’t the whole point of Agile flexibility and adapting to the real-world of shifting requirements rather than expecting the real world to come to us?
I think most programmers subscribe to a form of empiricism if not falsificationism and reductionism, and therefore they want evidence and reason, they want a compound system to be reduced down into its components so each can be examined in turn. By contrast Scrum does not want to be reduced down — it’s all or nothing (“Scrum’s roles, artifacts, events, and rules are immutable and although implementing only parts of Scrum is possible, the result is not Scrum. Scrum exists only in its entirety.”). Why?
Evidence and reason also tends to be fairly light on the ground, for example pair programming is often cited as a ‘must-do’ programming practice in Agile circles, to the extent that some organisations arrange their desks to place engineers as close to each other as possible ostensibly in order to foster more collaboration — the theory being that the closer the developers work the better the development process goes. I received an email once from the centers Lead Scrum-Master instructing all developers to pair program and that anyone not ‘understanding the benefits’ of pair programming should report to them. Passive-aggressive undertones aside, there are world-class developers who are very private and advocate solitude as a way of working. The most notable probably being Linus Torvalds. There is also no empirical evidence that I have seen to prove that pair-programming is universally beneficial to programmer productivity nor code quality. Meta-studies appear to suggest that in some cases it helps (mainly in skills transferrence as you would expect), but in others it hinders — sometimes considerably.
Denial of specialisation and dependencies
According to the Scrum Guide, ‘Scrum recognizes no titles for Development Team members other than Developer’. Developers are interchangable and pair-programming should cause sufficient cross-pollination of skills to ensure there is no indespensible person on the team.
Real development team members however often do have deep specialisations, so we see Scrum teams with Graphic Designers, UX designers, content authors, dedicated Scrum Masters, Business Analysts, Pen-testers, QA analysts, subject matter experts, etc, working alongside developers.
Often the developers cannot create the web-form until the Business Analyst has spoken to the client and the designers have produced the wireframe design, for example.
This leads to planning weirdness where each discipline is giving an estimate for the number of story-points from their perspective which is summed up then rounded to the nearest fibonnaci number and a dev cannot begin a task on the story board until 2/3 of the way through the sprint.
Agile and Scrum are meant to be empowering for developers by clearly laying out the working process and decentralising the communication, but in practice it can simply result in more a new layers of management materialising, some defacto and some dejure.
In many cases the Scrum Master becomes a defacto ‘manager-lite’, often without the experience to handle a nuanced role in a way that is helpful to the team and instead resorting to delegation and micromanagement.
Large organisations typically have a deep management structure, many of whom neither know nor care about software development methodologies. Scrum requires the active participation of the stakeholders and the team being empowered to question the assumptions of the stakeholders.
In a large organisation the real stakeholders may be several layers of management up from the development team and as such do not have the time to liase with the team. As such they will often appoint representatives. These representatives will often not be able to say ‘no’ to their boss, leading to both requirements being dictated by Chinese-whispers and cherry picking the aspects of Scrum which are deemed acceptible to upper management.
For example some scrum teams are unable to declare a sprint to be failed in the event of a change of the sprint goal mid-sprint for the reason of not upsetting the chain-of-command. In many cases the upper managers would likely be sympathetic but lack the time to become familiar with the way the development team works.
Feedback Loop of Tactical Estimation and Bad Planning
An ugly feedback loop can occur with Scrum where developers are not able to kick back tasks that are not sprint-ready. Instead they may compensate by factoring in more time both to add more detail to the story mid-sprint or simply as a contingency. Not knowing how much buffer to add it is better to add as much as possible, so the task gets assigned a number of story-points based upon the worst-possible scenario. This reflects well on the developer as they typically complete the task much faster than predicted, it works well for the BA’s and others as it means they spend less time typing into Jira, writing out cards or on the phone to SME’s and it looks good for the team as velocity goes up sprint-by-sprint.
Inside the team there is also the possibility of rewarding bad behaviour at the expense of the team if story points are used as a metric of progress. Avoiding helping peers, taking on ‘easy-win’ tasks and dodging the difficult tasks are possible avenues as well as the traditional ‘job security’ approaches of writing illegible code and not documenting it.
Example meatspace analogies might be in genetics where a trait occurs that benefits the individual at the expense of the species or the principle agent problem in economic theory.
Unwillingness to learn from Libre and Open Source projects
Scrum works best with a small colocated team all with the same job-title. The Debian Project has thousands of developers working on different timezones who speak different languages and with vastly different skillsets. What are they doing that we are not?
- understanding of dependencies (CPA)
- time not t-shirt sizes
- reductionism and axiomatisation
- these problems might look very different but are they in some way the same?
- avoid the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome
- don’t go inventing your own crypto libraries
- admit that productivity may vary but ‘iron triangle’ still exists
- inherent tradeoffs in some areas
- more pronounced in the short term
- inherent tradeoffs in some areas
- some technical, but non-elitist, management
- some non-technical managers can still be very effective
- culture of technical excellence
- lots of brown-bag sessions
- don’t punish people for disagreeing
- proof and demonstration matters more than clever arguments or incumbency
- avoid slipping into faddism
- development methodologies are there to support development - not the other way around!
- lots of slack in schedules
- the more I rush the longer I take
- acknowledge some projects might not be suited for Scrum
- N versus NP is not a spike!
- Complex dependencies
- Precise non-flexible requirements - the cooling system for the reactor is definitely part of the ‘MVP’!
- Regular audit of technical debt
- quantify if at all possible
- craftmanship is more important than features
- should not be punitive, otherwise devs may push bad code under the rug