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.

Patterns For Collective Code Ownership

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Reading time ~7 minutes

Following the somewhat schizophrenic challenges of dealing with person issues on collective code ownership, here we focus on the practices and practical aspects. How do we technically achieve collective ownership within teams?

We’re using the “simple pattern” approach again. For each pattern we have a suitable “anchor name”, a brief description and nothing more. This should be plenty to get moving  but feel free to expand on these and provide feedback.

Here’s the basic set of patterns to consider:

Code Caretaker

Let’s make it a bit less personal, encourage the team to understand what the caretaker role for code entails. It’s not a single person’s code – in fact the company paid us to write it for them. Code does still need occasional care and feeding – Enter the “Caretaker”.  Be wary though that caretakers may become owners.

Apprenticeship

Have your expert spend time teaching & explaining. An apprentice learns by doing – the old-fashioned way under the tutelage of a master craftsman guiding them full-time. This is time and effort-intensive for the pair involved but (unless you have a personality or performance problem) is a sure-fire way to get the knowledge shared.

If you need to expand to multiple team members in parallel,  skip forward to feature lead & tour of duty.

Ping-Pong Pairing

Try pair programming with an expert and novice together. Develop tests, then code, swap places. One person writes tests, the other codes. Depending on the confidence of the learner, they may focus more on writing the tests and understanding the code rather than coding solutions. Unequal pairing is quite tricky so monitor this carefully, your expert will need support in how to share, teach & coach.

Bug Squishing

Best with large backlogs of low-severity defects to start with. Cluster them into functional areas. Set a time-box to “learn by fixing” – delivery is not measured on volume fixed but by level of understanding (demonstrated by a high first-time pass rate on peer reviews). If someone needs help they learn to ask (or try, then ask) rather than hand over half-cut. This approach works with individuals having peer review support and successfully scales to multiple individuals operating on different areas in parallel.

A Third Pair of Eyes (Secondary Peer Review)

With either an “initiate” (new learner) or an experienced developer working on the coding, have both a learner and an expert participate in peer reviews on changes coming through – to learn and provide a safety net respectively. The newer developer should be encouraged to provide input and ask questions but has another expert as “backstop” for anything they might miss.

Sightseeing / Guided Tour

Run a guided walk-through for the team – typically a short round-table session. Tours are either led by the current SME (subject matter expert) or by a new learner (initiate). In the case of a new learner, the SME may wish to review their understanding first before encouraging them to lead a walk-through themselves.

Often an expert may fail to identify and share pieces of important but implicit information (tacit knowledge) whilst someone new to the code may spot these and emphasize different items or ask questions that an expert would not. Consider having your initiate lead a session with the expert as a backstop.

Feature Leads

The feature lead approach is one of my favourites. I’ve successfully acted as a feature lead on many areas with teams of all levels of experience where I needed to ramp up a large group on a functional area together.

By introducing a larger team, your expert will not have the capacity to remain hands-on and support the team at the same time. They must lead the team in a hands-off approach by providing review and subject/domain expertise only. This also addresses the single point of failure to “new” single point of failure risk seen with “apprenticeship”.

This is also a potential approach when an expert or prior owner steps in too frequently to undo or overwrite rather than coach other members activities. By ensuring they don’t have the bandwidth to get too involved you may be able to encourage some backing-off but use this approach with care in these situations to avoid personal flare-ups.

Cold Turkey

For extreme cases where “you can’t possibly survive” without a single point of failure, try cold turkey. Force yourself to work without them.

I read an article some years ago, (unfortunately I can’t track it down now) where the author explained how when he joined a project as manager, the leaders told him he must have “Dave” on the project as nobody else knew what Dave did. He spent a week of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to get Dave off the project. After removing Dave from the project, the team were forced to learn the bottleneck area themselves and delivered successfully.

(Apologies to any “Dave”s I know – this isn’t about any of you)

Business Rule Extraction

Get your initiate to study the code and write a short document, wiki article or blog defining the business rules in the order or hierarchy they’re hit. This is usually reserved for absolute new starters to learn the basics of an area and show they’ve understood it without damaging anything. It is however also a good precursor to a test retrofit.

Test Retrofit

A step up from business rule extraction whilst delivering some real value to the team. Encourage your learner to write a series of small functional tests for a specific functional area by prodding it, working out how to talk to it, what it does and what we believe it should do. Save the passing tests and get the results checked, peer reviewed and approved.

Chances are you might find some bugs too – decide whether to fix them now or later depending on your safety margin with your initiate.

Debt Payment

After a successful test retrofit, you can start refactoring and unit testing. As refactoring is not without risk this is generally an approach for a more experienced developer but offers a sound way of prizing out functionality and learning key areas in small parts.

This is also a natural point to start fixing any bugs found during a test retrofit.

National Service (also known as Jury Duty)

Have a couple of staff on short rotation (2-4 weeks) covering support & maintenance even on areas they don’t know. This is generally reserved for experienced team members who can assimilate new areas quickly but a great “leveller” in cross-training your team in hot areas.

Risks are generally around decision-making, customer responsiveness, turnaround time and overall lowering of performance but these are all short-term. I’ve often used this approach on mature teams to cross-train into small knowledge gaps or newly acquired legacy functional areas.

My preferred approach is to stagger allocation so that you have one member on “primary” support whilst another provides “backup” each sprint. For the member that covered primary in sprint one, they’re on backup in sprint 2. (expand this to meet your required capacity).

3-6 months of a national service approach should be enough to cover the most critical functional gaps on your team based on customer/user demand

Tour of Duty

Have your staff work on longer term rotations (1-6 months) working on a functional area or feature as part of a feature team. This couples up with the “feature lead” approach.

Again, this is an approach that is very useful for mature agile teams that understand and support working as feature teams but can be introduced on less-experienced teams without too much pain.

The tour of duty can also work beyond an individual role. For example a developer taking a 3-6 month rotation through support or testing will provide greater empathy and understanding of tester and user needs than simply rotating through feature delivery. (My time spent providing customer support permanently changed my attitude toward cosmetic defects as a developer)

Adjacency

This takes a lot more planning and management than the other approaches described but is the most comprehensive.

From the areas each team member knows; identify where functional or technical adjacent areas lay and then use a subset of the approaches described here to build up skills in that adjacency.

Develop a knowledge growth plan for every team member sharing and leveraging their growth across areas with each other. Although this is an increase in coordination and planning, the value here is that your teams get to see the big picture on their growth and have clear direction.

All these patterns have a selection of merits and pitfalls. some won’t work in your situation and some may be more successful than others. There are undoubtedly more that could be applied.

Starting in your next sprint, try some of what’s provided here to developing shared ownership and knowledge transfer for your teams. Pick one or more patterns, figure out the impacts and give them a try.

(Coming soon “Building a Case for Collective Code Ownership” – when solving the technical side isn’t enough)

Your Baby Might Be Ugly

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Reading time ~4 minutes

Everyone thinks their own babies are beautiful. Some probably are but there are plenty that really aren’t. In fact I remember one particularly interesting comment -“ugly people produce ugly babies”

This happens in code too.

Collective code ownership has many challenges. Here I focus on the person pitfalls.

Imagine you’ve just spent the last 3, 5, or even 10 years nurturing and grooming an insanely complex (and dare I say “clever”) functional area of a product. This has been your working heart and soul for years – apart from the occasional customer to distract you. It follows your own unique,  “perfect” coding style and conventions. You’re so damn good you don’t need unit tests, you instinctively know and understand every intricate tracery and element of logic in there.

Why then if it’s so perfect are you not willing to share?

This is where “Bad Captain” starts to kick in with me…

  • Do you believe that every other developer in the building is less capable than you?

(OK, sometimes it might be true but that’s very rare.)

– That’s fine, you can peer review and provide feedback if they don’t meet your standards right? It might be an emotional lurch to start with but seeing someone else succeed and recognize your greatness must surely be rewarding right? I’ll help you if you need.

  • It’ll always be quicker if you work on it. It’s just a waste of time and effort to train someone else up.

– Sure. Except if we had 3 or 4 people capable of working on it in parallel we might get everything that’s on the wish list for it done this year and you might be able to do that other interesting stuff that the rest of the team have been playing with. In fact, I’m willing to invest if it’s that important…

Bad Captain starts to twitch…

…and if it’s not, why do I have someone who believes they’re “one of the best” working on it – I want my “best” people on my priority tactical and strategic items.

  • You’ve been doing this as your own pet-project on the side and it’s not ready to share.

– If it’s important I want a team on it. I’ll happily lobby for some strategic investment. If it’s not as important as anything else we have committed right now I want you helping the rest of the team out…

Bad Captain…

– even if you’re good, you’re not “special”, don’t expect to be treated any differently than the rest of the team.

These first reasons are almost valid. But not good enough for me. The more of these I hear the more I start to twitch, the more terse I get and the more I start to frown and tense up.

Suddenly it’s too late! Captain Hyde takes the helm!

Here’s why Captain Hyde thinks you’re not sharing…

  1. You’re lazy, you’re only any good at this one area and don’t want to have the responsibility of teaching it or learning something new that you’re not so good at. – Time for you to learn a bit about intellectual humility.
  2. If you relinquish control of this code, you relinquish your seat of power, you’ll make yourself dispensable and that can’t possibly happen, you think you’re far too important for that. – I believe in good people, if you’re one of them I’ll fight to keep you. If there’s a squeeze, even the indispensable will get the push. In fact in my experience, the all-rounders are more likely to find new homes.
  3. Secretly in your heart you know it’s loaded with technical debt, years of warts strapped onto the sides, a catalogue of compromises and mud that doesn’t mirror the patterns of the outside world in the 21st century. – In fact I could probably find something open source that does the same thing. Quite frankly it’s an ugly baby that should have been put up for adoption or surgery years ago but your professional pride won’t admit it.

Captain Hyde can’t think of any good reason other than personal self-preservation or embarrassment that someone who is a single code owner would be unwilling for other people to work on and learn their code.

Maybe I’ve just been in management too long but I distinctly remember in my early coding years a call with a colleague in San Francisco where he said:

“Damn, you’re the only guy in the world that knows this stuff man”.

– at which point I felt that little clench inside that said. “I need to find and train my replacements up as soon as I can!”

A similar counterpart of mine in the US at the same time got thrown another pile of stock options every time he threatened to leave – that wasn’t my style as a developer and it’s not my style as a manager either.

Now despite all this ranting, there is another very real problem.

Developing collective code ownership from single points of failure on complex products is time-consuming, expensive and probably not what my business stakeholders want my team “wasting” their time on when we already have experts who are “perfectly capable of maintaining this themselves”.

It’s a fair point.

With a team who are willing to share but have no slack, if I want collective code ownership to succeed I’ve got to be able to market it properly.