Monday, 23 May 2016

Debbie Does Development

[This was my initial submission to the 50 Shades of Scrum book project, hence it’s slightly dubious sounding title. It was originally written way back in late 2013.]

Running a software development project should be simple. Everyone has a well-defined job to do: Architects architect, Analysts analyse, Developers develop, Testers test, Users use, Administrators administer, and Managers manage. If everyone just got on and did their job properly the team would behave like a well-oiled machine and the desired product would pop out at the end — on time and on budget.

What this idyllic picture describes is a simple pipeline where members of one discipline take the deliverables from their predecessor, perform their own duty, throw their contribution over the wall to the next discipline, and then get on with their next task. Sadly the result of working like this is rarely the desired outcome.

Anyone who believes they got into software development so they could hide all day in a cubicle and avoid interacting with other people is sorely mistaken. In contrast, the needs of a modern software development team demands continual interaction between its members. There is simply no escaping the day-to-day, high-bandwidth conversations required to raise doubts, pass knowledge, and reach consensus so that progress can be made efficiently and, ultimately, for value to be delivered.

Specializing in a single skill is useful for achieving the core responsibilities your role entails, but for a team to work most effectively requires members that can cross disciplines and therefore organize themselves into a unit that is able to play to its strengths and cover its weaknesses. My own personal preference is to establish a position somewhat akin to a centre half in football — I'm often happy taking a less glamorous role watching the backs of my fellow team mates whilst the "strikers" take the glory. Enabling my colleagues to establish and sustain that all important state of "flow" whilst I context-switch helps overall productivity.

To enable each team member to perform at their best they must be given the opportunity to ply their trade effectively and that requires working with the highest quality materials to start with. Rather than throwing poor-quality software over a wall to get it off their own plate, the team should take pride in ensuring they have done all that they can to pass on quality work. The net effect is that with less need to keep revisiting the past they have more time to focus on the future. This underlies the notion of "done done" — when a feature is declared complete it comes with no caveats.

The mechanics of this approach can clearly be seen with the technical practices such as test-driven development, code reviews, and continuous integration. These enable the development staff to maintain a higher degree of workmanship that reduces the traditional burden on QA staff caused by trivial bugs and flawed deployments.

Testers will themselves write code to automate certain kinds of tests as they provide a more holistic view of the system which covers different ground to the developers. In turn this grants them more time to be spent on the valuable pursuits that their specialised skills demand, like exploratory testing.

This skills overlap also shows through with architects who should contribute to the development effort too. Being able to code garners a level of trust that can often be missing between the developer and architect due to an inability to see how an architecture will be realized. This rift between the "classes" is not helped either when you hear architects suggesting that their role is what developers want to be when they "grow up".

Similar ill feelings can exist between other disciplines as a consequence of a buck-passing mentality or mistakenly perceived job envy. Despite what some programmers might believe, not every tester or system administrator aspires to be a developer one day either.

Irrespective of what their chosen technical role is, the one thing everyone needs to be able to do is communicate. One of the biggest hurdles for a software project is trying to build what the customer really wants and this requires close collaboration between them and the development team. A strict chain of command will severely reduce the bandwidth between the people who know what they want and the people who will design, build, test, deploy and support it. Not only do they need to be on the same page as the customer, but also the same page as their fellow team mates. Rather than strict lines of communication there should be ever changing clusters of conversation as those most involved with each story arrive at a shared understanding. It can be left to a daily stand-up to allow the most salient points of each story to permeate out to the rest of the team.

Pair Programming has taken off as a technique for improving the quality of output from developers, but there is no reason why pairing should be restricted to two team members of the same skill-set. A successful shared understanding comes from the diversity of perspectives that each contributor brings, and that comes about more easily when there is a fluidity to team interactions. For example, pairing a developer with a tester will help the tester improve their coding skills, whilst the developer improves their ability to test. Both will improve their knowledge of the problem. If there are business analysts within the team too this can add even further clarity as "the three amigos" cover more angles.

One only has to look to the recent emergence of the DevOps role to see how the traditional friction between the development and operations teams has started to erode. Rather than have two warring factions we've acknowledged that it’s important to incorporate the operational side of the story much earlier into the backlog to avoid those sorts of late surprises. With all bases covered from the start there is far more chance of reaching the nirvana of continuous delivery.

Debbie doesn't just do development any more than Terry just does testing or Alex only does Architecture. The old-fashioned attitude that we are expected to be autonomous to prove our worth must give way to a new ideal where collaboration is king and the output of the team as a whole takes precedence over individual contributions.

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