Where’s My Tools?

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Reading time ~4 minutes

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The most effective tool in the box

Most of the really big successes and game-changers I’ve seen in my career have been initiated through individuals seeing a problem and fixing it themselves rather than waiting for others. 

If you need something done that isn’t already happening, nobody else is going do it for you.

Here’s 4 lessons learned from adopting TDD…

It takes time & effort to get TDD into place

You will have to sacrifice “new code” time in the short term. From my experience, time is probably the biggest barrier to successfully introducing TDD on most teams (closely followed by motivation & accountability). Seeing the pay-off on the other side is notoriously hard to when you’re not there – either starting out or sitting at the bottom of the change curve.

If you’re coaching teams, sometimes you might just need to say “Trust me, I know what I’m doing”

“It can’t be unit-tested”

When you or someone else makes this statement they probably mean one or more of the following:

  • “I don’t believe I have the time to make this testable”
  • “Nobody has provided the infrastructure/harness/test data for me”
  • “I don’t know how to unit test this” (and need some help to figure it out)
  • “We have some architectural impediment to resolve in order to achieve this”

From these statements, which do you think is least common?

Break this cycle by encouraging accountability for making code testable. 

This doesn’t just mean the product code it includes taking ownership of your testing tools and abilities as well.

If you’re struggling…

There’s 2 options for you; “abdicate” or “own”

Option 1 – Abdicate responsibility.

  •  You’ll set the tone for your whole team. The next time someone hits the same problem, the cycle will repeat.
  •  At best, someone better than you may eventually address the issue. (And I hope they make you feel mediocre or inferior).
  •  At worst you may find them saying that you didn’t provide the solution for them.

The “best” case is highly unlikely to happen during your current project – maybe even the one after.  Just think how much testing debt can build up over the life of a single project. We should be avoiding that, right?

Someone has to break the cycle.  If you’re facing pain, why aren’t you responsible for fixing it?

Option 2 – Take ownership of the problem yourself

Great! You’ve recognized that your accountability is part of the problem.

Nobody else will do this stuff for you!

  • Establish a Personal strategy for implementing TDD – how are YOU going to solve the problem?
  •  The teams and individuals I’ve seen that are successful with TDD have all got there by taking a personal responsibility to do so.

Just Do It

Here’s some suggested steps to get going – you can either do the first few alone or as part of a team.

(If there’s an accountability gap in your group you’ll probably need to start alone)

Round 1

1. Get a unit test harness and environment in place – there’s plenty online but write one yourself for starters if you have to!

2. If you have a database, break that dependency and channel it through something replaceable.

3. Write your first round of tests and see what hurts – now resolve those pains.

Limit the time spent on this first cycle and determine whether you should ask for time in advance or for forgiveness later – it’ll depend on your local context.

Round 2

4. Educate & support your team on what you’ve provided so far.

5. Get other team members to write their own round of unit tests (treat it “as  an experiment” if there’s concerns over the effort required). See what hurts and resolve those pains.

6. Encourage and develop shared long-term ownership of the test harness, test data, stubs and mocks (if used).

Remember you’re setting the tone. If someone needs something that isn’t available, pair up, help them provide it and share the results with the team. Don’t leave them alone but don’t do it for them either.

Round 3

7. Repeat round 2 during development until writing tests is fast, easy and natural. (Don’t give up too soon – this is hard work and takes time!)

8. Capture any “wins” and “losses” during this cycle – what benefits are you seeing and what new pains are coming through?

9. Review the wins & losses. Decide what to do about the losses and how to promote the wins up the management chain and across the team. For example either publicise as you go or use as fuel for your retrospectives.

Think about the positive impact that little bit of extra effort and ownership has on you and your team in leading by example – doing a great job that others will want to share, not just a good job.

Abdication or accountability is a personal choice but it affects everyone around you. What are you doing to help your team?

The Joy of Peer Reviews (Part 2 – Documentation)

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Reading time ~5 minutes

Another agile management myth to dispel – agile projects have no documentation…

The level of documentation you provide depends on the needs of your stakeholders.

About a month ago I spent some time discussing code reviews and promised a follow-up on document reviews.  Since then, the number of documents I’ve needed to work on or review has been pretty slim so there’s not been much scope for inspiration.

One of my teams are coming to the end of a major release and our product managers are re-evaluating parts of the portfolio. Both of these events drop us into some more traditional documentation areas for a while.

Before I progress, there’s three types of documentation we tend to deal with on a project.

  • Product documentation (user-facing)
  • Control documentation (mostly management-facing)
  • Technical documentation (mostly team-facing)

We produce a lot of information in all these areas but of most of it isn’t as formal documents.

Here’s the bits we treat formally…

  • Vision, business needs & minimum marketable feature set
  • High level plan (priorities, scope, cost, schedule, quality)
  • Significant, complex or high level designs (functional or technical)
  • End-user and admin guides
  • Significant scope changes (change control)
  • Closure (agreement from stakeholders that we’ve met commitments)

Before going any further. The main rule of thumb in documentation I follow is:

Strive to keep your overheads to a minimum

Focus on the level of documentation needed by the relevant stakeholders and seek alternatives where feasible. For example user guides & help files may be better replaced with automated drive-throughs, screencams and audio descriptions. Project reviews may be best served with a conversation, a single slide with some visual anchors and a sign-off.

My teams have had cases where we felt we needed more documentation because we weren’t happy with the level of traceability from our less-formal approaches.  This tends to vary depending on what levels of organizational trust exist and how much protection you may need.

Where you do need formal documentation – regardless of which of the above types it falls into here’s my basic document delivery and review guidelines…

Delivery

It’s remarkable how much good documentation is very like code.  My mantra is “deliver early and often”.

  • Start by delivering the scaffold, walking skeleton or spine of your document and get that out for initial feedback on structure.
  • Consider swarming your team around parts of the document to accelerate delivery.
  • If you have interaction across teams, ideally have the teams write their components for you – do the editorial but they cover the “meat”.
  • Balance time invested with expected value – especially before initial reviews
  • Start adding flesh to the bones one section at a time.
  • As each section is “good enough”, send it out for a draft review.
  • Following review, rework the meat and polish
  • As major themes come together for completion, review again for cohesion.

I find there’s one large challenge in writing documents – Inertia – don’t underestimate the effort needed both to get moving and to be properly finished.

Most experienced coders understand about getting into “the zone” or being in “flow”. This same situation holds true for writing documents however personally I find it’s much harder to start moving on a document, takes more sustained effort for completion and requires more polish than my code. Once you are in flow. Stopping is equally hard. Much like delivering small frequent reviewable coding tasks takes practice, so the same applies for documentation. The team approach to documentation is a great way around this once you have a scaffold in place.

Review

If producing documentation is like cutting high quality code, then it should be no surprise that reviewing documentation should be treated with similar respect.

Bear in mind, usually when you’re reviewing documentation, you’re probably at a point in the cycle where you can prevent major defects and costs in future by asking the right questions.  Reviewing documents is not a hurdle to overcome it’s an essential quality step in setting your projects up for success and in ensuring we have consensus and understanding on results.

I’ve divided the checklist into 3 parts. “Thinking”, “Approach” and “Review”.

Thinking

A few considerations to make before starting the review itself (and before submitting for review)

  • Discipline – treat this review just like you would a code peer review.
  • Should it be a document , could it be something else?
  • Who is the intended audience, is it pitched at the right level?
  • Is this technical, control or product documentation (and how does that impact our approach)?
  • Is this primarily for management, the team or our customers/users?
  • Is this document transient or permanent?
  • How critical is accuracy/precision? (compare for example to scientific or medical papers)
  • How will this document be maintained and who by?

Approach:

What form is the review going to take?

  • Round table vs offline – will the review be individuals at desktops, as a round table session or a mix of the two
  • Piecemeal or big bang – I mentioned my preference for part-deliveries. This only works if you’re willing to perform part-reviews.
  • Feedback cycle – how will you manage feedback? For large critical documents I usually forecast 2 rounds of review/rework and a total elapsed time of 2 weeks from the initial draft to completion. (that’s assuming a well-managed but not top priority review cycle). The author/coordinator should have this at the top of their stack until it’s “done done”.

Review

Points to look for – these start simple and get trickier as you go through the list.

It’s disturbing how many people only review using a subset of the top items here and get no further. Lazy reviewers may read a document without actually reading it. (Although perhaps this is a reflection that we’ve missed something in the perceived value of a document)

  • Document information and headers/footers are correct
  • Consistent formatting & numbering e.g page numbers, typefaces, sizes
  • Spelling & grammar
  • Tables of contents & figures are up to date (ctrl+a, f9, update all – in Word!)
  • Cross-references work and point to the right locations
  • Related documents or prerequisites are both accessible and necessary
  • Use of correct templates where required
  • Proper heading formatting – helps with maintenance of TOC
  • Use of change tracking and versioning
  • Identify reviewers, owners, approvers
  • _________________________________________
  • Lots of words when a picture would be better
  • Emotive descriptions (where not valid)
  • Unfounded facts and numbers (particularly sales, estimates and time lines)
  • Impacts on other teams (especially without consultation)
  • Expectations from other teams (especially without consultation)
  • Over-optimistic statements (see unfounded facts and numbers)
  • Unbounded requirements
  • Missing assumptions
  • Alternatives and rejections
  • Over-technical or not detailed enough for audience
  • Length/brevity (much like some of my posts)
  • Emotional attachment to content or single approach/ideas
  • Any prior examples of similar to compare, reference and/or improve from
  • Voice of the customer (and their future accessibility)
  • Who are the decision makers and arbitrators,
  • A clear problem statement
  • Well-defined vision
  • SMART or Elephant goals
  • What does “good”, “done” or “success” look like?
  • Quality, acceptance criteria and tolerances
  • Any disconnects between related documents or teams
  • Anything missing

Phew! – as before, I’m sure there’s more.

To summarize in one sentence…

If your documentation is important to your stakeholders, treat it with the same reverence as your production code.

Escaping the Oubliette (Part 4) – The Litter Patrol

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As promised in my last installment on oubliettes…

Your team might not be fully ready for the merciless refactoring encouraged by some agile approaches but this will help you stay heading in the right direction whilst keeping the delivery vs refactoring impacts balanced out.

The cost of change has a (roughly) logarithmic relationship to debt. I’ve seen first-hand how high-debt systems become almost impossible to change and it’s not pretty.

In a debt-ridden system we are eventually faced with a choice; refactor or replace. Eventually even once-newly-replaced systems build up debt and the refactor/replace choice returns. Craig Larman & Bas Vodde’s most recent book covers the debt/cost relationship brilliantly in the section on “legacy code”. They also describe the oubliette strategy of “Do No Harm” or as I call it – The Litter Patrol“.

This is a particularly powerful debt management approach as it’s both a prevention and reduction strategy.

Here’s the basic concept…

When working with an area of legacy code, you’re working in a particular “neighbourhood“. If that neighbourhood is untidy your care and attention to that neighbourhood is diminished. Much like the “broken windows” principle; once the damage seal is broken, neglect and further damage follow and overall code quality deteriorates rapidly.

So (without going overboard), every time you’re working in a particular neighbourhood, what can you do to clean up a few pieces of litter?

Not the run-down shopping district between lines 904 and 2897 but more the abandoned classic car between lines 857 and 892 or the overflowing trashcan on the corner between 780 and 804.

If you introduce a litter patrol in your teams and encourage a hygiene cycle with every change to your code, your debt load and future cost of change will rapidly reduce for the areas you hit most frequently.

Unfortunately although this is easier than a complete refactoring of a poorly designed class-hierarchy or monolithic god-class, in order to perform the litter patrol in safety on your code you need good unit tests or small functional tests for that neighbourhood and ideally some refactoring support (I like to call these your gloves, garbage bag and litter picker).

This challenge doesn’t mean don’t do it. In fact if you don’t have tests already, maybe your next patrol isn’t changing the code at all but to write just a couple of small, independent tests to demonstrate how that area is expected to behave. (You might even need to make some tweaks to make it testable)

If it’s hard, don’t avoid the problem, focus on making life easier one bite or constraint at a time.

Every time we successfully deliver a small clean-up task, the future cost of change to that area is reduced and our incentive to keep it clean is improved.

Look out for part 5 – sponsorship – coming soon.

Escaping the Oubliette (Part 3) – Bug Blitz

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Every product team I’ve ever worked in had a bug blitz at some point and often one every year or two.

There’s no arguing that a decent bug blitz is a powerful way of getting the numbers down and clearing all the bugs in a good, solid drive feels good but the necessity for them is caused by a buildup from somewhere.

If you find you’re needing a bug blitz on every release, take a look at your defect and debt prevention activities and make sure you’ve got some topping & tailing practices going on.

Usually bug blitzes are performed at the end of a project but if you’ve not done so before, try having a 4-8 week blitz at the beginning instead. You’ll run quicker afterward and (if you keep things under control), you won’t have to worry about having time to mop up at the end.

Once you’ve got the numbers down, set your maximum defect threshold (or ratchet) at this level for the remainder of the project and keep this new lower level sustained throughout development.

What’s good about a bug blitz?

A blitz is particularly useful if you can focus on areas of the product you’ll be working with soon. It’ll get your team working together (particularly if they’re newly formed) and familiar with these areas before all the major work starts.

Couple this up with developing some decent automated tests in those areas as part of the defect fixing and you’ll be developing a much safer scaffold for your new work and reduce regression risks during your next release.

You could take things further and perform some refactoring but I suggest keeping different types of activities separate at this point and just stick to straight bugs. If you have a specific functional area needing a real overhaul, it doesn’t fit the bug blitz mold. I’ll cover this aspect  in more depth when I talk about “sponsorship” for debt reduction.

I use bug blitz approaches when training up new staff. I review the defect backlog for a particularly grubby functional area and have a pair of staff take custody of it as caretakers. We pipeline the defects so that they can start with some simple introductory ones (usually low severity, noise or cosmetic stuff) and once we get confident in these we expand out into adjacent areas – it usually takes a month or two for them to really get warmed up.

The bug blitz is also a great opportunity to start new release development with a clean slate. It means no mixing types of work during feature development and gives you an opportunity to scrub the grime out and get a few new scaffolding tests in place.

What about the down-side?

First; they cost time and money. If you dedicate a team (or most of a team) to a blitz you’re not delivering anything new. This is obvious but important. What’s the impact of a month’s delay to your next release? (assuming you can ship with those bugs in there). And what will that delay do to your stakeholder relationships?

Be mindful of the impact a bug blitz can have on your customers. A high level of churn on existing functionality can be really dangerous. You might need to make a point of jumping through a few hoops to retain backwards compatibility.

Don’t be too hasty to refactor if customers are expecting certain things. If you don’t have decent automated regression tests, you really need to ensure you write at least a couple that hit the same area before you fix any defects. (I usually expect my developers to deliver at least 2 or 3 new automated tests with each bug fix).

Worse still, I’ve seen a batch of fixes in a functional area radically change behavior “for the better” according to the developers that raised the original internal defects who then discovered that customers were actually depending on existing behavior or had developed their business processes around the issues.

Sometimes, even if you think it’s ugly, it might be that way for a good reason.

With enterprise software, you’re often looking at heavily customized implementations, some of which have taken years and millions of dollars to evolve.  Smacking these with a mountain of churn on existing functionality can be painful and expensive for your customers. Whilst it makes your numbers look good, consider whether some things should really be touched.

In summary. Bug blitzes are a great way of starting with a cleaner work area and ramping up teams but beware of backwards compatibility, customer impact, time and cost pitfalls.

Read part 4 – “the litter patrol

Building a Case for Change

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I recently led a short evening session discussing strategies for collective code ownership. We opened with a set of patterns and practices but the team highlighted something painfully obvious that I’d overlooked…

What’s the business value and driver behind collective code ownership. What’s in it for your product owners and customers?

So often we focus on the people barriers and technical challenges to collective code ownership without recognizing that the barriers may be organizational or financial.

This challenge happens when you attach yourself to “the right thing to do” and seek to progress without recognizing that the population you’re likely to be working with will fall across a spectrum from complete support, through “don’t care” to disagreement and dissent.

If you want to pursue a strategy for collective code ownership, step back and work through the following questions (some of these are hard – consider starting by brainstorming with a small supportive team):

  • If we just got on did it, would we be successful?
    • Yes – Great, you’re working with a team and business that “gets” this or trusts you to do the right thing. You could stop reading here, but you might want to skim this to see what ideas & thoughts are triggered.
    • No – OK, you’re part of the more normal population (for now) read on for some ideas. You might not need to cover all of the following (and if you do, it might slow you down)

Still reading? – Good!

The following apply to pretty much any change or investment program but answering them is surprisingly hard. Your context will probably differ to mine so I’ve not given all the answers today.

  • What are the top 1-3 benefits of pursuing this?
  • What are the top 1-3 costs of pursuing this?
  • Are there people outside the team that I’m going to need to “sell” to?
  • Are there people inside the team that I’ll need to sell to?
  • What are the risks, pitfalls and political or personal agendas?
  • What do we sacrifice – what’s the opportunity cost?
  • Who are my supporters and how can they help me?
  • Who’s on the fence, do they need to be involved and how can they help/hinder?
  • Who will fight against this and how big a problem is that really?
  • Do I ask for permission and support or press ahead and ask for forgiveness later?
  • Who will this impact and in what ways (positive and negative)?  **detail below

**How about those stakeholders?

For the set of stakeholder questions I suggest you’ll achieve better flow and find natural breaks if you cover positive and negative aspects for each role by “switching hats” as you work through rather than batching up all the positives first.

  • What’s in it for you and what’s the down side?
  • What’s in it for your peers and what’s the down side?
  • What’s in it for your boss and what’s the down side?
  • What’s in it for your team and what’s the down side?
  • What’s in it for your business and what’s the down side?
  • What’s in it for your users and what’s the down side?
  • What’s in it for your customers and what’s the down side?
  • What’s in it for a product manager/owner and what’s the down side?
  • What’s in it for a project/program manager and what’s the down side?
  • What’s in it for an individual team member and what’s the down side?

Wow! that’s a lot of questions.

As I said – you might not need to answer all of these and you really don’t want to have to write them all down but it’s worth spending a few minutes or hours considering these if you’re planning to invest your time, effort and credibility in something you believe in.

Beyond everything here, I also recommend a read of Fearless Change to help you on your way.