So, what do I mean by "Agile?" (Part 3)

Release and Iteration Duration and Structure

Release and Iteration lengths are highly dependent upon local circumstances. But, given the ability, I prefer to do Quarterly Releases and Weekly Iterations.

Quarterly Releases

Quarterly Releases may seem like a long time. But, many businesses are incapable of absorbing change much faster than that. So, unless you’re at a web start-up or in a highly regulated industry, I say try to match your release schedule to an existing organizational heart beat, like quarterly financial reporting. (Though, perhaps you don’t want to try to release new code the same day, week, or month you release financials.)

As for the structure of a release, here’s what I like to see:

  • Twelve development iterations with one day of slack each
  • One review, deployment and planning iteration

Alternatively, I could also support a structure that looked more like this:

  • Three development iterations
  • One slack iteration
  • Three development iterations
  • One slack iteration
  • Three development iterations
  • One slack iteration
  • One review, deployment and planning iteration

A development iteration is a normal iteration. The customer pick stories for the team to build, as described above. A slack day or iteration is just like a development day or iteration except that Team decides what work to take on, from exploratory testing to refactoring items on the Technical Debt Backlog, to spiking new technologies. No new stories are implemented during slack time, though new tests may be added to shore up code coverage. And, the review, deployment and planning iteration is exactly that: review the release, deploy it, and plan the next release.

Weekly Iterations

Short iterations allow for rapid customer feedback. Longer iterations allow for more work to be accomplished. In my experience, Weekly Iterations provide the best balance between getting stuff done and running off into the weeds. Plus, it has the side benefit of guaranteeing you your weekends off!

I like to see the following structure to iterations:

  • Planning happens first thing in the morning on the first day of the week.
  • Review happens on the afternoon of the last day of the week
  • The rest of the time is devoted to implementing user stories, exploratory testing, etc.
  • Except for weekends, which are reserved for personal use

So, what do I mean by "Agile?" (Part 2)

As I hinted in my previous post, planning is broken down into three levels:

  • Product Planning
  • Release Planning
  • Iteration Planning

As I am not a product planner, I will not try to discuss how that process happens. Rather, I’ll focus on the active development process through Release and Iteration Planning. First off, I like some to see symmetry between releases and iterations. The only difference is the scale at which the two types of planning occur. Specifically, I like both releases and iterations to include:

  • Planning,
  • Review, and
  • Retrospective

Here’s what I mean by each…


Each release and iteration should begin with a planning session designed to select some number of user stories from the parent backlog for inclusion in the current cycle of the process. For example, during Release Planning, user stories are selected from the Product Backlog for implementation in the next Release.


Each release and review should end with a review meeting wherein the Product Owner (and other stakeholders) is shown the running acceptance tests and asked to approve or reject them. If an item is approved, it becomes part of the next release. If it is rejected, it is placed into the backlog for the next iteration (or release, potentially). These meetings are also often the source of additional user stories for the backlog. For example, the Product Owner may accept a user story as it is, but desire that something about it change in the next iteration before accepting the feature in the release review.


At the end of each iteration and release, after the review meeting, the whole team should get together to discuss process improvement. Some teams do this without the Product Owner. I recommend including them, as their perspectives are valuable and it serves to reinforce the concept of the “Whole Team.”

Next up: Release and Iteration Duration and Structure

So, what do I mean by "Agile?" (Part 1)

Since you’re reading my blog, I’ll assume that you’re either a relative, or you’re already somewhat knowledgable about agile software development. So, let’s jump right in... (Sorry, Aunt Gina.)

Given my drothers, I prefer to mix and match terminology and practices from Scrum and Extreme Programming. Here’s what I like to do:

Roles & Responsibilities

Product Owner is responsible for: 

  • Defining and/or collecting the set of features to be implemented in the product
  • Maintaining a Product Backlog of User Stories ordered by Business Value
  • Presenting user stories to the Team during Release Planning
  • Selecting user stories to place on the Release Backlog
  • Presenting user stories to the team in more detail during Iteration Planning
  • Selecting user stories to place on the Iteration Backlog
  • Accepting or rejecting user story implementations during Iteration Review
  • Presenting implemented user stories to other stakeholders during Release Review
  • Determining whether or not to deploy software during Release Review
  • Answering questions from the Team throughout the process

The cross-functional Development Team (or Team) is responsible for:

  • Estimating stories with T-shirt Sizes during Release Planning
  • Estimating stories with Story Points during Iteration Planning
  • Splitting large (epic) stories into smaller, more manageable stories 
  • Calculating their team velocity using Yesterday’s Weather 
  • Incremental Design and Test-First Programming of user stories
  • Maintaining a backlog of Technical Debt
  • Maintaining code and test quality with Refactoring
  • Presenting implemented user stories to Product Owner during Iteration Review
  • Assisting Product Owner with presentation of implemented user stories at Release Review
  • Asking questions of the Product Owner throughout the process

Coach (or Scrum Master) is responsible for: 

  • Identifying and resolving roadblocks hindering the Team, including, process, technical and managerial issues, and more.

The Whole Team, which includes the Product Owner, Development Team and Coach, is responsible for:

  • Conducting Release and Iteration Planning meetings
  • Conducting Iteration and Release Review meetings
  • Conducting Iteration and Release Retrospective

Next up: Release & Iteration Duration and Structure

Zero Defects™ – Part 2

As I suspected, my notion of Zero Defects was mildly controversial. I’ll try to clear up some of the questions in this post. But, rather than coming up with a cohesive argument, which I tried to make the first time, I’ll respond to some of the responses I received on the first post. (NOTE: Comments did not come with the posts when I manually imported them to Posterous.)

  • Defects vs. stories is just a semantic layer; they both boil down to work that needs to be done.

Semantics are important. Yes, they’re both just work items. But, a “defect” carries with it a negative connotation, whereas a “user story” does not.

I believe strongly that using the words “defect” or “bug” sets the inappropriate expectation with business partners that all defects/bugs can and will be removed from the software prior to promotion to production. And, I’ve seen first hand how using the term “defect” led to teams killing themselves trying to fix “bugs” that were never called out in test cases by the end of a Sprint. This is a recipe for failure and burnout.

I much prefer to set the expectation that anything that wasn’t explicitly called out by a user story and/or test case in the current Sprint is new work that needs to be prioritized with all other work. The best way to do this is to label that work the same way all other new work is labeled – as a new user story.

  • Defects tells me the QA's are doing their job.

To me, the statement above is akin to saying “Lines of Code tell me my programmers are doing their job.” Defect counts are meaningless. Point me at any modern website or program, I can probably identify 100 defects in an hour. Most of them will be garbage. But, if I file a defect on them, someone (or more likely, some team) will have to triage those things, beat down the stupid ones and prioritize the rest – probably outside their normal work item prioritization process.

  • My experience is our business partners are not be concerned with defects, unless they are not caught and are promoted into production.

My experience differs. I’ve worked with multiple PO’s, both at my current employer and elsewhere, who tracked defect counts and berated the team over them. In fact, my experience is that this is more common than not.

  • The only business partner of ours looking at Rally is our PO.

Yeah, that seems to be common here. But, there’s nothing preventing you from calling a meeting at the end of each Sprint where you demo the new functionality to a broader community of stakeholders. In fact, Scrum recommends this practice. It’s called a Sprint Review Meeting.

  • The requirements in agile are much less defined than in waterfall.

I disagree 100%. There should be zero theoretical difference in the quality of requirements between agile and waterfall. Agile just prefers to discover and document requirements iteratively, one at a time; whereas waterfall tries to define all requirements up front. In practice, this means that agile methods discover and document requirements closer to the time of implementation. They also allow for new requirements to be discovered by looking at how the software actually works. Waterfall doesn’t provide for that iterative feedback, meaning that the requirements get stale.

  • Defects provide us with a good method to track these issues to resolution. If the issue is new scope... then an user story is a much better alternative.

The problem I see in tracking defects separate from user stories is prioritization. How does the developer know what to work on next? Sure, Rally (and other tools) allow you to see all work in one bucket. And, that helps. But, in my experience, teams end up with silly rules like “defects found during the current sprint will be resolved in the current sprint.” That seems like an innocent enough rule, but what happens when you find more bugs than you can fix?

  • My interpretation of reading Alan's blog was that those items that are actual defects (do not meet defined requirements)... should be a new user story.

Ah, therein lies the misperception. In my original post, I meant to state that every requirement MUST be expressed as a test cases on a user story, and that all test cases MUST be passing before I show the work to my business partner(s). Therefore, by definition, the code has met all of the “defined requirements” and can only be deficient if there remain undefined requirements, which should be defined as new test cases on a new user story.

  • Bottom line, i do not think defects are bad...

I disagree. I’ve experienced enough problems from the semantic difference between defect and user story, that I no longer want to use the term defect ever again. (It’s not the IT folks that generally misinterpret the word “defect.”)

But, that's just my opinion. What's yours?

Lean Software Development

In my previous life, as a developer on the Microsoft Visual Studio Team System Process Team, I helped design workflows for user stories and other types of work items. These workflows were to be integrated into the process as a status field on the work item. At one point, we identified a workflow that boiled down to something like this:

  • New
  • Grooming
  • Groomed
  • Developing
  • Developed
  • Testing
  • Tested
  • Deploying
  • Deployed
  • Accepting
  • Accepted

At the time, we felt that it was important to make a distinction between items that were actively being worked and those that were waiting for the next stage of the process. In the end, we simplified the status field by dropping all the active verbs (those ending in “ing”), in favor of assuming that all work in the current sprint was active.

Part of me likes that decision – it certainly simplified the workflow. But, part of me, to this day, bemoans that decision because it limits a team’s ability to identify waste within the process that needs to be eliminated.

Imagine a process for building widgets. In this process, each widget starts life as raw materials. These materials get flobbled, marned, and volmed before becoming actual widgets. As materials move through the process, sometimes there are too many to marn all of them at once. So, those “in-process” materials sit and wait for their turn at the marner. Similar delays may also happen at the flobbling and volming workstations. And, of course, at any time, one of the machines could break causing downstream process points to run out of work.

This is a typical manufacturing process. And, it’s just like the software process described above.

In Lean manufacturing (a process improvement method invented by Toyota) the time a piece of work has to wait for a machine is considered waste. (It was a waste of money to buy more materials than the process can handle.) Likewise, the time a machine has to sit idle waiting for the next piece of work is also considered waste. (Idle infrastructure is a waste of the investment incurred to obtain and operate said infrastructure.) Lean manufacturing seeks to eliminate all of that waste. Out of this movement have come innovations like just-in-time inventory.

Likewise, in Lean software development, time spent in the inactive states (those verbs ending in “ed”) is considered waste to be eliminated. In other words, why groom 20 stories when the developers can only work on five at a time. The Product Owner may never prioritize some of the other 15 groomed stories high enough for the team to work on them, rendering moot the effort spent grooming those abandoned stories. Likewise, why continue developing code when there are broken tests? Until the tests are fixed, nothing can move forward in the process.

Scrum lends itself to Lean software development through its iterative, incremental approach to building software. So, the team only needs to groom enough work for the next sprint, for example, reducing the potential for time to be spent grooming stories that will end up being abandoned.

The metaphor breaks down a bit, though, when you run into a particularly urgent but poorly understood request from the business. It may take so much time to groom that development stalls, waiting for well understood requirements. This is wasteful in that the developers and testers (the infrastructure of software development) are idled. Extreme Programming’s approach to this situation would be to punt the poorly understood requirement until such a time that it can be adequately articulated. Scrum is less, um, confrontational, but no less dependent upon adequately articulated requirements.

As with everything else on this blog, I just needed to get this out of my head. I hope you found it interesting and/or useful. But, if not, at least my brain can now move on to something else.


As much as I love Rally for managing work, I think I may have found something better. Votebox is where Dropbox users can request features and vote for those they’d most like to see. What I like about it is how simple it is:


Here you see the three most popular feature requests on their site. Each feature request contains a title, a short description, a category (not shown) and some metadata (in red). Users may vote for and comment on feature requests (in blue). And, Dropbox can update the status of a specific request (in green).

This is the simplest, most elegant site I’ve ever seen for managing a backlog of work. It simultaneously a) houses the backlog, b) tracks feedback, c) gauges interest in competing priorities, d) communicates progress, and e) manages expectations. It’s like a suggestion box that worked out really hard, but never took any steroids. It has all the muscle it needs, without all the bulging veins and other side effects (er, features) of larger sites like Rally.

The only thing I’d be hesitant to do with a tool like this is turn over product decisions to the crowd. What makes Votebox work for Dropbox is that Dropbox has stayed true to their original product vision – a simple, 100% reliable way to backup files to the Internet and sync them across multiple computers. Feature requests outside that vision may be popular, but they would dilute the brand, causing more harm than good to the product.

Rather, I see Votebox as a tool to help talented Product Owners with strong visions for their products interact with their audiences.

An Agile Approach to Mission Control

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been studying Saturn, it’s rings and moons for nearly six years, despite the original mission being slated to expire after only four years. But, due to better than expected performance and lower than expected fuel consumption, NASA has extended the mission for an additional seven years, to 2017.

In order to negotiate the flight path for the next seven years, the engineers in charge of planning the orbital maneuvers consulted with the five science teams affiliated with the project. Each team is assigned to study different things: Saturn, Titan (Saturn’s largest moon), the rings, the icy satellites, and the magnetosphere. Each team presented their wish list for the places they’d like to see over the next seven years, and the engineers got busy running the numbers:

The first time [the engineers] met with the discipline teams, they offered three possible tours. The next time, they offered two, and, in January 2009, the scientists picked one of them. Last July, after six months of tweaking by [the engineers], the final “reference trajectory” was delivered. It now includes 56 passes over Titan, 155 orbits of Saturn in different inclinations, 12 flybys of Enceladus, 5 flybys of other large moons — and final destruction.*

In essence, this team of engineers had to balance the wishes of the five research teams with the remaining fuel and gravity boosts available. The approach they took was to present alternatives and iterate on them until they found the best solution, given the requirements and the constraints:

“It’s not like any problem set you get in college, because you have so many factors pulling in different directions,” Mr. Seal said. “The best way to measure it is to look at how much better the next iteration is than the previous one” until “you’re only making slight improvements.” Then you stop.*

I can’t think of a better way to describe the iterative development process espoused by most agile software development methodologies, including Scrum and XP. You know when to stop when the remaining improvements are no longer worth the investment.

I wonder how many of our customers would like to see three options, then two, then one…


Stand Up!

If you have experience with Scrum or other agile software development methodologies, you are likely familiar with the concept of “stand-up” meetings – the short, daily status meetings where each team member answers three questions:

  • What did I do yesterday?
  • What do I plan to do today?
  • What is the way?

To keep the meetings short, discussion is deferred until everyone has answered the three questions. To encourage short meetings, people often stand – thus, the name. The point of these meetings is to keep the team and any interested outsiders informed of what is happening on the project.

But, you may not be aware of some additional things that help teams keep their stand-up meetings effective and productive:

Only team members speak

To keep the meeting focused, only team members are allowed to speak. A team member is defined as someone who is pulling tasks from the current Sprint backlog. Interested parties, including the Scrum Master, Product Owner, executives and others, are encouraged to attend the meeting to receive status updates. But, they are discouraged from speaking until after the stand-up meeting ends.

Many teams host a short “collaboration” session immediately following the stand-up. This is the appropriate time for interested parties to make comments, ask questions, etc.

Speak to the backlog

When answering the three questions, team members should only refer to work that directly affects the Sprint backlog. Your teammates need to know where the project stands, not how many meetings you attended.

Here’s an example of how NOT to answer the three questions:

  • Yesterday, I went to some meetings and then had lunch with John. I wrote some code in the afternoon, but I had to leave early for a doctor appointment.
  • Today, I have some more meetings.
  • The only thing in my way is that I need to take Fluffy to the vet.

Here’s an example of the correct way to answer the three questions:

  • Yesterday, I worked on Story 412. I completed the database and web services tasks. And, I started on the UI task.
  • Today, I plan to finish the UI task then start working on tasks for the next available story. Right now, it looks like that might be Story 416.
  • There is nothing preventing me from finishing Story 412. But, I have some questions about how to implement Story 416. Can we talk about it after stand-up?

For more on the subject of running effective, productive stand-up meetings, take a look at It’s Not Just Standing Up: Patterns of Daily Stand-up Meetings from Martin Fowler. (For those who don’t know: Martin Fowler is the Chief Architect at ThoughtWorks and the author of several highly respected books, including UML Distilled, Refactoring, and Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture.)