Category Archives: IT/IS Management

Agile as something you do

I have spent the last 2 evenings in Birmingham listening to talks by @diaryofscrum at @ScrumUK and @stevejpitchford at @bcsbrum about management and ‘Agile’ software development, which brought some of my own concerns into sharper focus, particularly about the Scrum framework. In many discussions with practitioners over the last couple of years, I’ve heard the following phrases:

“Agile is an adjective not a verb”
“Agile isn’t something you do, it’s something you are”
“Agile is a philosophy not a method”
“Agile isn’t a process”

Someone who ISN’T agile has to start somewhere. They typically need to DO something, to write software. Would we claim,”Scientific” is an adjective not a method? We wouldn’t, because it is both. The scientific method is a function which delivers what we call “scientific knowledge” as its value. If it didn’t, it would be pointless.

Managers are generally trying to get things done. Each team must agree its own Agile Operating Model (thanks to BCS’s ‘Agile Foundations’ book for that useful phrase.) What came out of the last couple of evenings was pragmatic application of philosophy. Many organisations take Scrum as a starting point, without realizing that “framework” is to be taken very literally. Scrum doesn’t paint the complete picture. It is (part of) a process to organize work. It says almost nothing about how to do that work. It is an alternative to writing a project plan “up-front”, when you know least.

An Agile Operating Model is a process which delivers a value, so it is a function. My scientific hypothesis is that it delivers valuable business function change, sometimes in the form of software. It is itself a business function. Agility has business functions as first class citizens. It doesn’t meet general expectations of a process because it can recursively self-modify. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one. As the kids say, “get you an agile function that can do both”.

On Hacking and Sharpening Tools

Mrs. Woo watched Monty Don. That always means trouble. Monty said ‘we’ must stake our raspberries at the weekend. He appeared to use brand new fence posts for the job but our raspberries came under the fence from next-door, so I wasn’t going to spend money. Last year, I replaced half a dozen cross-members in fence panels, so they’d  do. They were triangular in section, like carpenters’ pencils, which I sharpen with a Stanley knife. I couldn’t see any reason why the operation wouldn’t scale. I fetched my hand axe and started to whittle, at industrial scale. In my head, I was already writing a Tweet about hardware hacking.

I soon knew that I should have sharpened the blade before I started but it might take me ages to find the sharpening stone and some oil. I could even remember thinking the same the last time I used it. It might have been worthwhile if I had a bigger herd of yaks to shave but this wouldn’t take long.*

An axe is an interesting tool, relying on the momentum of the head, once the cut has started. Unfortunately, when hacking tangentially at a lump of wood, getting started is the biggest issue and this depends on blade sharpness. The more my efforts honed each giant pencil, the slower I progressed. When I was close to finishing each one, any possible last stroke seemed to have a more than equal chance of breaking off any point I’d created. It wasn’t until I’d had a particularly frustrating time with the last piece and was gripping the axe head between both hands, trying to use it like a chisel that I remembered my Dad’s old spoke-shave. I was long past the point where going and sharpening its blade, so I could use an appropriate tool, would have been a wise move. If I was going to do that, I might as well have sharpened the axe two hours ago.

There IS a point to this story, beyond self-flagellation. Hacking techniques are great for immediate, fast progress, and the sharper your tools the faster you’ll travel, so investing in preparation can be cost-effective but sharp, crude tools can only take you so far. I hadn’t been aware enough to see that I’d moved into the precision stage of pointy-stick development and should have changed to precision tooling, the low gear of change implementation.

The archaeology bit

Have you ever watched a pre-historic archaeological dig on TV? Sometimes they find a few flint axe-heads which they get very excited about and loads of flint scraping tools which they say were probably used for scraping animal skins. They should try sharpening a stick with a hand axe. I think our ancestors were busy incrementally inventing the spoke-shave. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the wheel was invented by a stick sharpener, probably a woman, as she chuckled at the men showing off how many rolling-logs they could carry at a time.

* – For “yak shaving”, see The Jargon File.
http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/Y/yak-shaving.html
Beware: it is a yak watering-hole and many of them could do with a trim.

The Tao of Corbyn

Owen Jones wrote an article called ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’ on Medium. This is my response.

I am not a ‘Jeremy Corbyn supporter’. I may sometimes support the same ideas as Jeremy Corbyn but not all of them. I am not ‘of the Left’.  I would defend Owen Jones right to hold different views to his party leader (though posibly not “to the death”), and to express them in a non-destructive way. I am over 50. I may be atypical.

I like Jeremy Corbyn because seems a decent bloke. All his enemies admit that he is. In a world of spin and misdirection by politicians and the media who are supposed to hold them to account on our behalf, that’s his greatest strength. “But he’s not a leader”, they say. Corbyn’s been described as a signpost rather than a weather-vane. He knows what he thinks and so do we. That’s his appeal to those outside the Westminster bubble, to those of us who have taken the trouble to fight through the media smoke screen. We are really sick of being lied to and the EU referendum feels like the final straw that broke unrepresentative democracy for many.

Is a clear political message important? #Leave won with a very clear pack of lies. Is that what we want more of? I think the next General Election will be won by whoever the public trust. I think the rebel MPs may have ensured that it won’t be a Labour leader but I am 100% sure that it won’t be Owen Smith because he’s a flag. He follows the wind AND he flaps!

This entry on a current leadership style  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_leadership demonstates that Corbyn is both ahead of the political game and very far behind it:

It contains the following passage from the Tao Te ChingLao-Tzu written, between 570 BCE and 490 BCE:

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When you are lacking in faith,
Others will be unfaithful to you.

The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’

View at Medium.com

Software Development Science

I’ve tried to write this post before https://andywootton.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/software-life-cycle-part-2-from-craftsmanship-to-computational-science/
but I just answered a question about ‘software engineering’ on LinkedIn and I’m pleased with the brevity:

Agile software development is the application of the scientific method to understanding the requirements for a software product. Each iteration is an experiment to confirm a hypothesis of what the customer should really have wanted at the beginning, if they’d known what they know now.

Is this Important or Urgent?

This post refers to a technique often used in Agile software development, including within the Scrum framework. It is not an introductory text so not recommended for non-agilists.

‘user-stories’ are classified as: Must (do), Should (do), Could (do) and Won’t (do), known as: MoSCoW. User-stories are then usually prioritised by an integer representing value, which represents a calculation of return on investment, or benefit:cost.

Paul Oldfield, Chief Referee at LinkedIn ‘Agile & Lean Software Development’ group said:

I find a bit of a problem with MoSCoW – distinguishing between “Must have eventually” and “Must have in release 1”. Get beyond release 1 and a high value “should have” can be prioritized in front of a low value “must have”.

And then, a lot of the “must have in release 1” turn out not to be, if we look closely.

“If you want all these in release 1 you get nothing for 6 months.
Or you can get these in 2 weeks, those in 4 weeks… would you like that?”

I gave (a slightly worse version of) this reply:

I think MoSCoW is about ‘importance’ not ‘urgency’.
Urgency comes into the prioritisation choices when the benefit of the story is time sensitive.

Delivering benefit early starts summing value for longer, so total value delivered in the life-time of the product or service will be higher but now we’re talking about delivering a different absolute ‘spot value’. Putting it another way, value can be a function of time.
e.g. “If this isn’t ready in 2 weeks then we’ll be fined by the regulator” or
“We need this before the Summer Sale starts. If you miss that, it’s useless until Christmas.”

I didn’t know this before today. I’m sharing the idea in case it helps someone else or they can improve it and give me a copy. It’s how things worked before science had to make a profit.


Talking Trees

I ‘done a speak’ at Ignite Brum recently.

I have a rational fear of public speaking to large audiences. I decided to face it. At ‘Staffs Web Meetup’ I gave a fairly techie 10(/20) minute talk about Ted Nelson’s concept of intertwingularity. When I saw a plea on birmingham.io for speakers at Ignite Brum to replace others who had dropped out, I imagined my usual cluster of geeks in the upstairs room of a pub, not the lights/action/movie comedy glamour of the stage at The Glee Club. I’m all for a bit of clubbing but I was well outside my comfort zone.

‘All I had to do’ was reduce my talk by 75%, simplify by about the same, for a general audience and produce exactly 20 slides that would auto-advance every 15 seconds. It was described by someone on the night as “Powerpoint as an extreme sport”. That was a true story. I recommend the challenge as an exercise for the reader. It is hard work in preparation and frantic in execution but it doesn’t give you much time to panic about the faces looking up at you; anyway, you’re blinded by the spotlights.

Watch as I drop behind the pace set by the projector. My best joke and some local politics was lost in the bunching on the corners but I present ‘Everything is Deeply Intertwingled (Smash the Hierarchy!)’

Thanks to @iamsteadman for allowing me to try this and making the video available (I’d never have agreed if I’d known that,) the other speakers and the people who made us all feel welcome: @probablydrunk, @carolinebeavon, @grunt121 and the audience.

We broke social

I discovered something alarming yesterday: social media is losing to messaging.

There must be a drift back, from open collaboration to closed channels, from thinking in the open to “Can I have a word in my office, please?”. It isn’t healthy for anyone to be in control of The Message, or for conclusions to have been agreed before meetings begin.

Everything I have done in the last couple of years has led me towards networks, away from the control mechanisms of hierarchy. Please let us not give up now, just because being more open is harder work for dishonest people. If good team players are better, imagine what the awesome creative power of players in multiple teams with overlapping goals could achieve.