Friday, 25 September 2015

Choosing a Supplier: The Hackathon

One would hope in this day-and-age that when hiring a candidate for a role as a developer the interview process would include some element of actually doing what it is we do - programming. This could be as simple as submitting an offline coding test, but better yet a face-to-face session where you pair with one of the people you’re likely to work with. Either way, just as an artist would expect to show their portfolio, we should expect to do something similar – not just write a CV and then talk about it.

If that’s the case for hiring a single developer, why shouldn’t choosing a software supplier follow a similar process, after all there is probably far more money at stake. And that’s really what the whole interview process is all about – it’s a form of risk management – you’re trying to find a supplier that you’re confident is going to deliver what you really need in a timely manner and for an acceptable cost.

Show Your Workings

The Hackathon, which probably sounds a bit too hipster for some people’s taste, is the embodiment of this idea – get the potential suppliers to show how they actually produce software, albeit on  a very small scale. My last two days have just been spent on one of these and it was great fun, if a little nerve-wracking.

The consultancy firm I’m currently working through (Equal Experts) has been involved in one of these before, quite recently, and they relish the chance to do this kind of selection process more as it plays to their strengths – delivering working software incrementally using modern development techniques [1].

By all accounts this particular one was slightly different to the previous one, although it still followed a similar outline. There are a number of very small teams (3) representing the different suppliers. Each team has a small number of people (~4) that covers whatever skills they think they’ll need based on the brief. In our case we had 3 devs and a UX person, but obviously we could also act in a lesser capacity as a BA, QA, Ops, etc. too to cover all the bases.

The overall structure was that we would spend a short period learning a bit about the company we were pitching to and about the problem they wanted us to tackle. Each team was then given a separate “war” room in which they could work for roughly two days before presenting back at the end.

Where in the previous Hackathon they got more freedom about what they wanted to tackle (i.e. a higher-level problem statement) this one had a more specific problem to be solved. The problem was also directly related to the actual problem they chosen supplier would eventually be asked to work on, which makes sense.

During the two days various people involved in the selection process would come round and visit us to see what we’d been up to and that would also give us an opportunity to ask any questions we had about the problem. If we really needed to we could have called upon The Business at any time to come and help us but their visits were frequent enough that it meant we never needed to go that far.

Our Approach

Naturally I can’t say anything about the problem itself, but suffice to say that it was far bigger than anything we could expect to build in just two days. However that didn’t stop us tackling it in the same way we would a real project. We did some up-front analysis to explore the problem domain a fair bit, make some key architectural decisions to decide what we were going to build, create a backlog with some stories on it and then start coding. We also littered the walls with sheets of magic whiteboard [2], post-it notes and index cards that covered our questions, answers, architecture, backlog, etc.

We were able to to do a little bit of work beforehand, such as creating a GitHub repo that we could all check we had access to, along with a dummy build in AppVeyor to cover the CI part. The guest Wi-Fi wasn’t brilliant [3] which meant pushing and pulling to/from GitHub was a bit laggy, but it was usable and the cloud based CI monitor was stable enough.

Despite it being unofficially described as a “Hackathon” we decided we would do the best we could to show how we worked in practice, rather than try and push out as much code as possible. Whilst we no doubt could have got more code working if we had cut corners on some of the other parts of process (e.g. analysis or testing) we would not have given a fair representation of what we do (IMHO). I’ve touched on this before in “Keeping the Faith Under Pressure” and I’m pleased with what we produced. I’m perfectly happy to call the code I wrote over the two days “production code”.

Day One

After doing our early analysis we started putting together the walking skeleton which was a text-book example of Conway’s Law as we initially kept out of each other’s way whilst we got the boilerplate stuff together. Of course this separation didn’t last long as by the end of the day the temporary assemblies and folders had all gone in a simple refactoring exercise so that we had a coherent codebase to build from.

We finished the day with our technology stack up and running (browser-based client + REST API), watched over by AppVeyor, and a very thin slice of functionality in play which we demoed to a couple of the stakeholders.

Day Two

The following day was essentially a few hours shorter to allow time for each team to present to the panel, that also meant we’d need to factor in some time to put the presentation together. In essence we only had ~5 hours to implement the next set of features and so got one of the stakeholders in first-thing to make a priority call so we knew where to focus our efforts during the morning.

During the time we three devs were building a working product our UX expert was building a clickable prototype to help explore the problem further ahead. This had the benefit of us being able to see the context in which the data was used and therefore we could better understand the bigger picture. In such a short timeframe it was perhaps difficult to see what beneficial effect it had on our design and thinking but what it did show clearly was how we work and how important we believe UX to be to the development process in general.

We stopped coding an hour before our presentation slot to give ourselves plenty of time to think about what we needed to say and show. Our UX expert had surreptitiously taken plenty of photos of us engaging with the stakeholders along with the evolving boards and backlog so that we could put together a compelling story about our approach.

We talked for 30 minutes about the process and architecture, and gave a demo of what we’d built to date. We then had about 15 minutes to answer questions from the panel, both about our approach and how we might tackle some of the questions we hadn’t yet answered in the code.

Each team got to present to the panel in isolation, but we all hung around until the end at which point we each did a very brief version of the presentation to the other teams. This was really interesting as up to that point we had no idea what the others were up to. For example we chose a thin-client whereas the other two chose thick-clients. We used post-its and a makeshift whiteboard for our notes and product backlog whilst another used an online tool and the third didn’t mention their approach.

Wrapping Up

Did the exercise achieve what it set out to do? As I’m not the client I have no idea what their final decision is or whether the eventual product has met their needs, because clearly it hasn’t been built yet. But I believe their behaviour suggested that they were pretty pleased with what they had seen from everyone. I think they seemed surprised that the three teams had behaved quite differently and so they probably got a lot more out of the exercise than anticipated as each team would probably have asked different questions and explored different avenues. Given that this was a real problem we were working on I’m sure there is a lot of value in that alone.

Personally I went into the process somewhat nervous. My current role is a real departure for me - it’s not a hands-on development role. As such I thought I might not be “match fit” even with 20 years of coding experience behind me. What I forgot though was that the point of the process was to be ourselves and write code as I would for real and that just came back naturally. Hopefully I added an equal amount of value to the team and gave as good an account of myself as the others appeared to.

So, is this is the way I think tenders should be done? Yes, but I’m just a developer :o). I did ask someone at Equal Experts about how it compared cost-wise for them given that the RFP (Request for Proposal) process can also be pretty time consuming too and he suggested it wasn’t that far off. Not having done any others I can’t say whether the client had a disproportionate number of people involved at their end but given the potential sums at stake I’m sure they saw it as a good investment. I certainly hope more companies do it in the future.

[1] Apologies if that sounded like a thinly-veiled sales pitch, it wasn’t mean to be. I was just trying to describe how they see themselves; I’m an associate, not an employee.

[2] Somewhat unfortunately the room we where in had frosted glass and the sheets of magic whiteboard didn’t really stick to it. Without any blu-tack or sellotape we had to use even more post-it notes to hold up the whiteboards!

[3] The Wi-Fi dropped out every now and then and had limited bandwidth which meant that any image-heavy web pages could take a while to load.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Stand-Up on the Beach

aotb-stand-up-lBack in April I performed a stand-up comedy routine as a lightning talk on an unsuspecting audience at the ACCU Conference (see my previous blog post The Daily Stand-Up). At this year's Agile on the Beach I got to have another go at it, but not as a lightning talk, this time it was going to form part of the pre-conference evening event (aka “pasty night”).

Whereas the ACCU conference is almost entirely about software craftsmanship, Agile on the Beach has mostly other streams covering all aspects of the software development process. As such I needed to come up with a different routine that catered for a much wider audience. Given its nature I swapped out many of the programming specific puns and replaced them with something (hopefully) more appropriate, i.e. more process related. Also there was a bonus track on continuous delivery this year so that meant I could throw in some relevant content there too.

Once again it seemed to go down pretty well, by which I mean the audience groaned appropriately :o). So for those of you unfortunate enough to have missed it, here is the set:

“Was the Tower of Pisa built using lean manufacturing?”

“Agile methods might be all the rage these days but I reckon the writing’s on the wall for Kanban.”

“Are cross-functional teams just a bunch of grumpy LISP programmers?”

“Some say Scrum’s sprint goals are necessary for motivation, but Kanban is also about cracking the WIP.”

“If you want to adopt Agile Release Trains do your developers need to use Ruby on Rails?”

“The last census had a box labelled ‘Religion’, so I put ‘TDD’.”

“When I’m working from home I like to get the kids involved in my coding; I call this ‘au pair programming’.”

“My team’s not really got the hang of this agile stuff – our successes are just stories and our fails are all epics.”

“If you have too many information radiators do you get scrumburnt?”

“The other day the product owner asked me why all our acceptance tests only covered happy paths. I said they’re rose tinted specs.”

“Agile’s a lot older than many people think – Dick Turpin was doing stand-up and deliver years ago.”

“If poor quality code results in technical debt, does that make bad programmers loan sharks?”

“Some say C# and Java programmers overuse reflection, but given the quality of their code I’d say they aren’t reflecting enough.”

“Is it me or are C# and Java so similar these days they’re harder to tell apart than The Munsters and The Adams Family?”

“Our system has five-nines reliability, it’s usually working about 45% of the time.”

“When working for New Scotland Yard do developers have to work on a special branch?”

“I really dig software archaeology.”

“As a baby I was brought up on Farley’s, and I’m bringing my children up on Farley’s too – at bedtime I read them a chapter from Continuous Delivery.”

“Are modern developers obese because they rely so heavily on syntactic sugar?”

“Is the removal of a dependency injection framework from a codebase known as ‘spring cleaning‘?”

“If you think keeping up with the Kardashians is hard, try JavaScript frameworks.”

“When it comes to drawing diagrams of micro-service architectures, I never know where to draw the line.”

“The other day I went to the dentist and he told me I had a scaling problem. I said that’s awkward as I’ve no room for any more teeth.”

“Our DR strategy is not so much active/passive as passive/aggressive – when it fails we sit around and tut loudly until someone fixes it.”

“Don’t upgrade your database as the SQL is never as good as the original.”

“I blame Facebook for the quality of modern SQL – young developers are so obsessed with LIKEs.”

“When Sherlock Holmes talks of a three-pipe problem does he mean it needs grep, sed, awk and sort?”

“I don’t understand why the police are profiling criminals – surely they shouldn’t be helping them to commit crimes more efficiently?”

“C++ has complexity guarantees – if you write C++, it’s guaranteed to be complex.”

“Some people are like ‘chars’ in C, they get promoted for no apparent reason.”

“Would our codebase be healthier if we only used natural numbers?”

“One of the hardest problems in computer science is dealing with nans – they always want you to fix their machines.”

“In my thirties I blew loads of cash on a monster gaming rig, I think I was suffering from a Half-Life crisis.”

“I forgot my password the other day so I tried a dictionary attack – I just kept hitting the administrator over the head with a copy of the OED until he let me in.”

“My wife and I have been together for many years so I thought I’d get a token ring, but it seems you can only get Gigabit Ethernet these days.”

“My son was being hassled at school to share his music on the internet with BitTorrent. I told him not to give in to peer-to-peer pressure.”

“When flying here I had to put my phone into airplane mode, at which point it assumed the crash position.”

“Are electronic cigarettes just vapourware?”

“I spent all day trying to upload a picture of Marcel Marceau but the server kept responding with ‘415 Unsupported Mime Type’.”