Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Move Fast and Break Stuff

“Now what is the message there? The message is that there are no "knowns." There are things we now that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that's basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns.” –Donald Rumsfeld

I actually wrote this some time ago, got distracted, and forgot about it until I saw this tweet:

Okay, I admit that the title is slightly linkbait-ish in that I don’t exactly take the “Move fast, break stuff” approach. So let me propose a clarification: “Move well and don’t be afraid to break stuff”. Why? Because if you are building any sort of process, be it a software development project, a corporate business plan, or just a sales presentation, there are three critical pieces of information you must deal with. The things you know that you know, the things you know that you don’t know, and the things you don’t know that you don’t know. Failing to properly react to any of these introduces enough risk to sink your effort.

Things you know that you know

This is the easy stuff and any process plan should start here. You’re on solid ground and planning
becomes easy. But the common misstep here is to fail to act on what you know that you know. Your
domain knowledge is almost certainly incomplete, but you have something you can act on. This means you can begin working and solving problems quickly. You can gain measurable success sooner rather than later. And anymore, time wasted is success wasted.

Things you know that you don’t know

These things are also pretty straightforward, but are also a common trap. You know you have more
information to gather and additional analysis to do. But far too often the tendency is to stop here until you know all the things you know you don’t know. (If you need to, read that line again. I’ll wait.) Just like act action begets action, inaction begets inaction. The more you wait, the harder it is to begin. This is what “Move fast” means, but really you need to “Move well”. You know the things you don’t know, so while you’re acting, you take these things into account. You try as hard as you can to intelligently anticipate as much as possible. The idea is to have to redo as little as possible while being at ease with the fact that you will have to redo something. It's the acknowledgement that something is better than nothing. Except when it isn't. It’s a balance, and there are no right approaches here. The best piece of advice that I have is to be willing to draw a line and say “Factum dictum!” And that's really the point of "Move Fast, Break Stuff". If you wait until you have all the answers, you've waited too long.

Things you don’t know that you don’t know

This is the tough one. There’s always something you don’t expect. Something you don’t see coming.  You need to accept that as you proceed and accept the fact that something may very well happen that turns everything upside down. There’s both forseeable and unforseeable change. Understand that if your plan failed to protect you from unforeseeable change, that does not mean your plan failed. But also the whole point of “Move fast and break stuff”. If you continue to move, continue to produce, and refine your plan as you have more information, you will be in a better position to react to the things you don’t know that you don’t know. If you don’t, your best case scenario is that you’re only able to react to the unforeseen when you’re far enough into your process that it requires a major amount of effort to react. Worst case, you never move out of the planning and analysis stage because you delay action to account for the unforeseen.

“Move fast and break stuff” does not mean “Be reckless”. You’re process should not resemble a bull in a china shop. Move well and move with the understanding that projects, like life, can get messy. If you do what you can when you can, you put yourself in a far better position to succeed. And, as Melissa Perry pointed out, the learning has to come with the breaking.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Tale Of Two Service Providers

This is an tale of two services that I recently had performed on my house. It's merely a generalized recount of things that have happened in my life, and not a commentary on DevOps, collaborating with business partners, or the #NoEstimates movement. --Editor [That's me]

We recently needed a new garage door opener, which wasn't a surprise. We knew it would need replaced since the old one had been less and less functional as time went on. We ordered a new one, selected certain other services, including installation, paid, and an install date was set. A date that did not make it onto the schedule and as a result, was pushed. At the new appointed time, the installer got to work. When he was finished he told me that there were problems with the setup. In resolving that problem, certain modifications had been made. He demoed the garage door, but it was using a cable that he then took with him, leaving the garage door opener non-functional at the end. But helpfully leaving instructions on how I could finish the work myself. The next day, we discovered that other contracted services had not been completed. Of the four support avenues we tried, all apologized for the inconvenience, albeit one only after trying to tell me that there had been no work order in the first place. A resolution date was set. A date that came and went with no resolution. We finally escalated the support call, informing the new people we talked to that we would be filing daily BBB and other consumer protection cases until the issue was fixed to our satisfaction. The dip in their ratings on these services were finally the stick needed to get a resolution that leaves us with a fully functioning garage door. However, it is good to know that the original dollar estimate will remain the same.

Somewhat less recently, we needed a new toilet installed. Our plumber came out and showed us his recommendations after listening to what we wanted. He set a work date and estimated price. When the installation was underway, the plumber pulled me aside and told me that there was something we needed to talk about. It turned out that the reason our toilet was degrading so badly was that our water softener was not working. Limestone buildup was corroding our fixtures. Replacing the toilet was necessary, but would not fix the problem in the long term. He told us that if we wanted to push the decision, it would not cause immediate problems. However, if we did not do this work, we would end up buying another new toilet. And probably faucets as well.

He told us his recommendations for a replacement, based on our water usage and gave us a revised quote. Making sure that we knew that the additional work was not necessary for fixing the immediate problem. He also showed us one other small problem, but told us that it was simple to fix. He quoted us a price for the part, but told us that the nearby hardware store had it for cheaper. Our decision. He also told us that the fix was too simple to bother charging for labor. Given all of that, we decided that it would be less of a disruption to our lives to have the work all done at once. We agreed on the new cost and time frame. The work was completed. The cost, time, and our level of involvement were all higher, but we knew why. And all steps of the decision making process were in our hands, with the plumber explaining the cost and benefit of all of our options.

Thank you for you patience with my tangent from the normal DevOps focus of this blog.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dear Entrepreneurs

"Regard your soldiers as your children and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death." --Sun Tzu

An open letter to entrepreneurs, from someone who has worked for quite a few of you.

Normally, I go through a lot of examples and points and then summarize at the end. This one is important to me, though, so I'll give you the summary now. Up front.

Your company is your baby. Not mine. You're invested, not me. To me, you're a job. Just another employer. Unless you do something to get me invested.

In my experience, a good number of entrepreneurs don't quite get this. I get that your company is your baby. You've worked for it, lost sleep for it, and probably skipped a meal or two for it. To you, this is personal. But it isn't to me. Not right away, and not just because you hired me. If I'm going to be personally invested in your company, in your idea, you need to give both reason and opportunity to do so. And it's worth it. If you're just a job to me, I'll walk away as soon as a better one comes by. If I'm invested, I'll have to be dragged out.

To that end:

Just because you believe, doesn't mean I do.

Most software developers I've encountered fall into one of two categories. First you have the mercenaries contractors. They work for the people who give them the best compensation. And I don't just mean money. Pay, benefits, environment, all goes into it. But as soon as they see a better place, they're a developer-shaped puff of smoke in the air.

Then, there are the developers who want to work for the company they work for. Because they want to be a part of what that company does. Believe me- those are the guys you want. But you have to give them a reason. And that's the bit that, in my experience, many entrepreneurs overlook. They think that the fact that they know how awesome the company is, then any employee should, too. Automatically.

Look- I'm a software developer and I'm familiar with the territory. A lot gets asked of us, and we take a great deal of professional pride in delivering quality work. But there's got to be a better reason than "Because I said so". If I'm working 50-60 hours a week just because "That's policy", then I'm probably going to have my resume out in a couple of months. Definitely before my one year anniversary. If I care, then I'll do what needs to be done, but you have to give me a reason to care. 

I've worked at both extremes of this. One entrepreneur mandated 50 hours a week, minimum, 24/7 support, and made us track our time down to the quarter-hour. For few benefits, and frequent communication that profit sharing and ownership would only come to those who deserved it. Which was, at least at the time, no one. I had taken the job in order to gain a specific skill set. Once I felt I had it, I moved on. I had no investment in the company because the founder hadn't given me a reason to care.

I went to another startup. The CEO gave regular meetings, not just on how the company was doing but why they were doing certain things. He told us quite frequently that his vision was to change a market in order to put more power and more control, and thus more opportunity, in the hands of customers. He ended every meeting with "Welcome to the revolution!" He believed. More importantly, he got others to believe. Nights? Weekends? No problem. Answer questions while on vacation- sure. Why? Because I wanted that company to succeed- still do, even though we've parted ways. And even so, I'm a touch sad about having done so. Because I believed.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sprint Planning Pt. 1: Stop with the Points Already

"Our culture thrives on black-and-white narratives, clearly defined emotions, easy endings, and so, this thrust into complexity exhausts." --Caroline Knapp

I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about story points lately, and over time I have been edging toward what I now see as a necessary conclusion. Story points are meaningless. Even... Wait for it... POINTless. Yes, I just did that.

To recap, when planning a development sprint, it's customary to assign a user story a point value as a measure of... Well, to be honest, I really can't tell you what it's measuring. I can recap what people say about what it's measuring, however I've become skeptical of whether or not points are measuring what people think they are. And even moreso of whether or not it's a good use of time to do so.

Definition of a "Point"

Here's the root of my problem with story points. What are they and what do they measure? These aren't simple questions, either. If you read here, you get the idea that points are a measure of complexity. However, this StackExchange answer tells the reader that points need to be a measure of size, not complexity. Both will tell you that points are not a measure of time, but everywhere I've run into the practice, someone has always defined a point something along the lines of "What one developer can do in one day". Which certainly implies that points are used to give some measure of time. So I have a hard time getting started here, because I don't even know what I'm supposed to be measuring. Time? Size? Complexity? The amount of effort it takes for two women to have one baby? 

What's the Point, anyway?

I promise- I'll stop doing that now. Maybe talking through why we need points, we can come to an agreement on what they are. We need them for estimating, right? But estimating what? The amount you can do in a two week sprint? The amount of time you need to finish a certain set of features in a product? After all, you assign points, add them up, and divide by about what your velocity has been, right? Because that works.

Except, of course, it doesn't. Addressing the latter poi ISSUE ::ahem:: first, we all know that doesn't work. Regardless of what some may say, points do not mean you don't need to re-estimate. Software development is a process that builds on itself with every build adding to the whole an impacting the effort/size/complexity/time needed for future changes. I'd be very dubious of the point value of any story not going into the next sprint. I'd be even more dubious of any time estimates derived from arithmetic on points, velocity, and time.

So, maybe it's a good way of determining what can be worked on in the coming sprint. Problem is, without definitive answers to the question "What does a point measure", using points to determine what stories can fit into a sprint is a terribly uncertain process.

If we take the definition of points being a measure of the size of the story, then we truly have no idea how long a story will take. In fact, the StackExchange user in the link I referenced illustrated this very thing. He gave examples of the complexity of a 5-point sized story varying by a number of factors, leading to wildly different completion times. I don't really see that as a practical way to plan a sprint. More importantly, I don't think the people who expect me to plan sprints will see that as a practical way of planning sprints.

If we take the definition of points measuring complexity, we run into a different problem. How do you measure "complexity"? It's not like defining the length of a metre or defining a joule. the only way is to compare the complexity of one thing to the complexity of other things until you get something that feels like a match. Inaccurate, sure. But that's why it's called "estimating" and not "precision". I'd be basically okay with this except for a couple of things:
  1. That which is complex to one developer may not be to another. Planning Poker is supposed to account for this, but it doesn't. In fact, it ironically exacerbates the problem it claims to solve. My 5 point complexity story may be another's 2 point complexity. To assign it 5 or 2, then, is meaningless outside the context of the developer who will be working on it. And splitting the difference to make it 3 or 4 is just compounding the uncertainty of an already uncertain process.
  2. Complexity has nothing to do with the amount of time it takes to do the task. Planning Poker assumes that every developer handles every type of complexity in the same way and at the same pace. Maybe one guy tackles a complex story by diving in and coding until he grinds to a solution. Maybe another takes time to read more on the subject, asking questions, and only starting when he feels he has a better understanding of the subject. Given this, complexity can only correlate with time if every developer approaches complexity the same way.
Either way you look at it, you're trying to objectively quantify a series of subjective data points. Logic 101 tells us that this is a highly inaccurate way of measuring anything.


Finally, we get to Velocity, which I'm pretty sure is the whole reason we bother to keep track of points in the first place. Velocity is nothing more than the sum of the points of the stories in a given sprint. It purports to measure the amount of work done in a sprint so you can compare to other sprints and then plan a timeline for future features.

Where to start.

First off, all this gives you is a comparison of how you've been objectively quantifying the subjective sprint over sprint. But as a comparison of the actual work done? All you're doing is comparing arbitrary numbers to arbitrary numbers and pretending it's a meaningful measure of productivity.

Secondly, using this as a future planning tool is a recipe for disaster. In order to make that work, you'd have to give point estimates to everything in your backlog and then continually refine those estimates in light of what the previous sprints have accomplished. Do that for long enough, and sure. your velocity will become a more and more accurate tool for predicting the amount of work the team can handle. But at what cost? At what time commitment?

Conclusion (WHEW!)

I'm not saying we need to stop estimating anything. Projects, stories, releases, versions, whatever unit of work that is needed, all need to come with some idea of what it takes to accomplish them. What I am saying is that we need to re-think the whole point estimation bit and ask ourselves if this isn't just an overly complicated process. Effort, complexity, productivity- these are all complex issues that are impossible to quantify in a simple context. Maybe we need to stop trying. Because I really hate unnecessary complexity. I'm not even much of a fan of necessary complexity. I'm lazy and don't want to work any harder than I have to in order to solve problems.

Next article, what I see as the real root of the problem and what I have started doing about it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

New Challenges

"Be careful of what you wish for. You might get it".

Hard to say where that comes from, although some cite it as a misquote of Goethe. The image, of course, is from the amazing mind of Bill Watterson and his Calvin and Hobbes comic.

Regardless, that is kind of the source of why I haven't been writing much lately and why I'm starting again. I tend to write about what I'm seeing and experiencing. Which, over the last few years, has become fairly routine. After writing a good bit about my thoughts on Software Architecture, it became the task of taking my own advice.

So what changed? A chance to get what I asked for, namely a chance to go from helping insure quality in a software system to helping insure quality in a development team. The company I work for has a relatively new development team that operates fundamentally differently than our other teams. This team doesn't support a product. Instead, they handle smaller projects that have a more rigid "Definition of Done", as opposed to continued development and support of a product. This has come with more than a few challenges. Challenges that I have a pretty free hand to solve, but challenges that will take a lot of solving.

All this has put me in an interesting opportunity. Processes are getting built from the ground up. We have leave to borrow from other teams the processes we feel are helpful, as well as to ignore the things we feel won't benefit us. The end goal is increasing the rate of shipping quality software, and with very few exceptions I don't think the head of software development much cares how it happens. This gives me the freedom to take my biggest piece of advice to anyone designing software. Or, for that matter, anyone currently living and interacting with the world in any way:
In other words, "Question everything". Some ideas are worth leaving alone. Questioning the necessity of engagement between the business and development is a lot like questioning gravity. Feel free, just stay away from ledges. But how do you do these things when the business units aren't used to that engagement and don't understand the value in it. And that's not looking down on anyone- how can you know the value of something until it's been shown to you?

Beyond that, what traditional roles in Agile projects do we need? Which can we live without, and which should we live without? What do these roles mean, and how do we make sure everyone knows what an iceberg is?

What about the team? What common practices do we need? What offers us the best value in our situation. Not just what others are doing or what generally works well, but what works well for us?

These are the questions I'm asking myself and the ideas I'm exploring. I'm sure we'll go down some odd paths, and probably even the (hopefully) occasional bad path. And hopefully, my philosophy that understanding the world leads to understanding software still holds.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Preconceptions of Architects

"Science progresses best when observations force us to alter our preconceptions." --Vera Rubin

Been doing a lot of reading, been doing a lot of thinking. Having moved to a new company, I'm seeing my role in a different light, which is expected. Being the company's first architect, helping better define the role, and starting to work with development teams who are not used to working with an architect has really gotten me thinking. And reading some more.

I've read a lot of concerns about architects. Concerns that surprised me because they haven't been my experience, so I'm a little curious if these concerns are holdovers from days gone by (or at least going by) or if they are still relevant concerns. Either way, since the concerns are still talked about, I see a lot of value in looking at them and learning from them.

Architects are Ivory Tower Theorists

I've run into this before, and for good reasons. This is one have seen as a problem- designs getting passed on and the architect disappearing. Now, the disappearing act was often due to the fact that another effort had been dropped on an architect in a sorely understaffed group, but that doesn't mean the perception doesn't need changing.

Architects value theory over practicality

I'm kind of split on this one. There's a fine line here. Architects have to take the long view. I've sometimes said that I'm not working on this project, I'm working on the next one for this product. On the other hand, strict adherence to OO theory and complete Protected Variation (If indeed there is such a thing) are worthless if you can't get the project out the door. One of the biggest challenges of my career has been justifying a design that takes into account change that only might happen. I've found that YAGNI is a moving target.

Architects over complicate everything

Kind of an extension of number 2, but it goes a bit farther. A former manager of mine once said that an elegant design is one that makes the solution seem simple to the point of obviousness. I've often told developers that if I have to answer more than two clarifying questions about my design, then I made it too complicated.

So, what's the answer? I'm a pretty big believer in the idea that there isn't a "The" answer to much of anything, but I've been mulling over one answer. 

Architecture is an Agile project with the development team.

The parallels hit me recently. We provide a product for developers and should interact with them under the same principles under which developers interact with the business on a project.

Constant interaction

A sure sign that something has gone off the rails is an architect not knowing who is implementing a design. Just as an Agile development project requires constant communication with the client, so should we have constant communication and feedback from developers. A good development team doesn't need low-level guidance, be it from an architect, manager, or anyone else. But if the development team can't give feedback to the architect, then one of two things happen. Either they implement a flawed design or they ignore the design. Toss a coin as to which will cause more problems.

This doesn't mean an architect always has to incorporate developer feedback into the design. Sometimes you just have to say "No, this is the way we have to do it". I've done that once. Ever.

Factum non dictum

Deeds, not words. While thinking things through is important, even mandatory, at some point you have to act. And that point should be sooner, rather than later. Action is a funny thing. I've found that acting refines my thinking faster than thinking does. I've also found that action breeds more action. When I'm providing designs, rather than thinking about them, I get feedback faster (See the last heading) and thus work more efficiently.

But this isn't just about translating thoughts to deeds. How does one "act" as an architect? Over the years, I've come to three methods of communication:
  1. For simple things, talk to the developers. More than that isn't necessary if things are simple. "We have a web service that manages this functionality. Let's use that rather than developing a new library." "Let's use SSIS for this task"
  2. For moderately complex projects, I'll go ahead and use UML, but only if the resulting diagram doesn't look like a spider threw up a Visio diagram. If I have to actually follow a line with my finger to see what elements it connects, UML isn't helpful.
  3. Code is best communicated using code. There's a reason we call them "Languages" and there's a reason we have the phrase "Lost in the translation". With some things, I'll create a library with stubbed classes and a few examples based on project use cases and acceptance criteria. I don't mean this as a final design to be carved in stone, but rather a communication of a thought using a language natural to the discussion.

They don't work for you, you don't work for them

Developers and Architects are two sides of a coin. And while Architects may be used to giving guidance and oversight to developers, we sometimes forget that developers can, and should, give guidance and oversight to Architects.

In his book Software Architecture for Developers, Simon Brown compares Architects to Master Masons, responsible for design and oversight of the work and the workers. I think there's a lot of truth to that, but that's just one part of the relationship. Architects, I've found, love to talk theory. I've spent hours comparing design patterns, arguing the possible effects of a given DI Framework, or just whether or not a particular class should be considered an Interface or an Abstract class. Which is all a heck of a lot of fun. But if discussion hinders progress then the development team has the oversight, and even the responsibility, to say "Knock it off and deliver something already!"

Check your ego at the door

Fortunately, there's one thing that makes this all far easier to manage. In a good development department, everyone's a professional working towards the successful delivery of a quality product. That goes a long way. If the development team accepts the realities of an architect and the architect accepts the realities of practical software development, then it's highly unlikely there will be significant problems. Which begs the question, when conflict arises am I the one holding too tightly to my ideas or not communicating them well? Part of why I'm writing this is to remind myself to ask these questions of myself.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Tipping Point

"You can push that car just a little too far any Sunday afternoon. And if you break your neck in some damnfool wreck, they forget about you soon." --Charlie Daniels, "Stroker Ace"

I generally prefer to work at small to midsize companies. The reasoning is fairly simple, too. I like flexibility. Not a complete lack of defined policies, mind you. Policies are important. They give companies a road map for, if not efficiency, then at least predictable inefficiency. But smaller companies tend to have the flexibility to know when you need to stray off the beaten path. Large companies do not. And there's a certain logic behind that. The more you do, the more you rely on that predictability. Policies have saved my neck a time or two. Being able to say "I can't start this effort because our policies have not been followed" has forced projects to refine requirements and has gone a long way to prevent train wrecks. But there's a flip side, too.

At larger companies, it's harder to change policies that either no longer fit, or need refinement from the original draft in order to produce the intended result. There's also more risk in proposing new policies, I think. There generally tend to be more people that need convincing, which tends to mean more people that don't want to "Change what has been working for us". It often comes to a point where it's easier to just live with the inefficiency than try to change it. Or worse, at least in some ways, ignore policy and try not to get caught.

Okay. So far, I haven't told anyone something they don't know. This is one of the factors that need to be weighed when deciding whether or not to accept an offer or to leave a company. It's, hopefully, one of the factors you investigate when interviewing a company. As an aside, please note that I didn't say "interviewing with a company." You're as much deciding whether or not to offer them your services as they are offering you a position. Never forget, you're a contractor.

The point is, while working for smaller companies, I've noticed a reoccurring phenomenon, which I've started calling The Tipping Point. As smaller companies grow, they start to take on more work and start to do more. At this point, I have observed two results.

If the company does not at least have some policies guiding their work, the company tends to collapse. There comes a time when it's simply too late to gain control of source code, whether because nothing is in source control or there's no structure. When it's simply too late to implement good project policies because stakeholders aren't interested in becoming properly involved in projects and that disinterest is too entrenched to change. When projects are dangerous to deploy because no one knows what anyone else is doing. At this point, while the company may struggle on, it's no longer possible to fix the problems, and the only smart move is to leave.

The second result I've observed usually happens when there are a modicum of policies in place, and is usually hastened by bringing in An Expert. Perhaps a new CIO, perhaps a contractor. The buildup, again in my observations, tends to start slowly. No deploying projects without communicating with other groups. Nothing terrible there. Common sense, in fact. Issues, bugs, and defects need to be logged. Again- why would you not? And we need to get a sense of how much we're spending on projects, so we need people to log time spend on projects. Not my favorite activity, but I can't deny the importance.

But then things grow. Communicating deployments becomes getting signoff from other groups before deploying. The bug tracking system becomes a full-on change management system designed to integrate with every step of any process. Except yours, inevitably. Rather than turning in time tracking spreadsheets, either a web app gets build, or you're to use a built-in feature of the change management system.

Finally, comes the tipping point. I wish I could say this is an exaggeration, but in one case, I was entering time into an application that had a database lookup for projects, yet my projects never seemed to show up. I also had to email the same to my manager. The time tracker was in half hour increments, but my manager wanted 15-minute increments. Every change, even to dev environments, needed to be entered into five different systems (again- not exaggerating) and cleared in a bi-weekly Change Control Board meeting.

And all this doesn't even take into account well-documented problems when you mix in an Expert Scrum Consultant. I think I've made my opinions on the subject pretty clear, but it's pointless to deny what often happens when Scrum policies get blindly applied. And that's the problem- policies getting blindly applied. The "Monkey See Monkey Do" style of "Best Practices".

It's a rare gem when you find an organization with the self-discipline to recognize a policy that needs refining or simply removed. Or temporarily ignored on a non-precedential basis. A good set of policies are a balancing act. Too many and you get buried under their weight. Too few and you get buried under your own weight. That's The Tipping Point.