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The Biggest Mistake with Agile

At least 75% of the dev shops that we see are using some form of Agile. Very few are following a pure form of any specific flavor i.e. Scrum, Extreme Programming, etc. but rather most are using some hybrid method. Some teams measure velocity while other don’t. Some teams have dedicated ScrumMasters while others have the engineering managers perform this role. While most team’s processes could be tweaked, none of these are the real problem.

Scrum team

The biggest mistake companies make implementing Agile and thus the cause of most of their problems is they don’t understand that Agile is a business process, not a software development methodology. Thus, the business owners or their delegates, product managers, must be involved at every step.

We’ve argued before that Agile teams must sit together because communication degrades at a rate of square the distance. Not having product managers with the Agile team involved in the entire process and (if you’ve moved from a Waterfall methodology) not having detailed specifications, is the worst possible scenario. Developers either need someone siting beside them to help with product decisions (Agile) or a detailed spec to work from (Waterfall).

Agile is a business process which requires the business to be involved in the product development process. It does not mean you get to stop writing specs and not be involved.


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Signs That You May Be Disconnected From Your Business

We as engineers love to problem solve. In fact, we love to explore new technologies and debate with our colleagues as to what may be the best to use. Should we use Python? Should we use PHP? Should we use Java? Should we try Google’s App Engine and code in GO? Should we use Amazon Web Services exclusively for our product? What database technology should we use? All of these decisions are important and factors such as skillsets, security, performance, and cost should be considered. We love to code and see the product in action as it provides us with a sense of accomplishment. Once we are done with a project and its deployed in production we typically celebrate all of the hard work that went into the solution and we move on to the next project. Many times after diving deep into the technical aspect of the solution, for weeks and maybe even months, we wake up and we discover we are not in touch with the business like we should be. All of us have seen this in practice and many of our clients face this challenge.

What are some of the signs that you may not be aligned closely enough with the business and its performance and what should you do about it?

1) Not understanding feature impact – New features are introduced into your product without an understanding of the business impact.

You should never introduce new features without understanding the impact it is supposed to have on your business. In other words, establish a business goal for new features. For example, a new feature that allows for one click purchase is expected to improve conversion rates by 15% within 2 months. Remember all goals should be SMART goals (per chapter 1 in The Art of Scalability – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time constrained).

2) Celebrating launch and not success – Upon deployment of your product and confirmation that everything is working as expected, fireworks go off, confetti falls from the ceiling, and the gourmet lunch is ordered.

While recognizing your team for their efforts to launch a feature can be important, you really should celebrate when you have reached the business goal that is associated with that feature (see item #1 above). This might be achieving a revenue target, increasing the number of active accounts, or reaching a conversion target. If you deploy a feature or a product, and your business targets are not met as expected, you have more work to do. This should not be a surprise. Agile development’s basic premise is that we do not know what the final state of the feature and thus we must iterate.

3) No business metric monitoring – Your DevOps team is alerted that something is wrong with one of your services but you rely on your customer support or service desk to tell you if customers are impacted.

This is something that many of our clients struggle with. We believe its critical to detect a problem before you customers have to tell you or you have to ask them. You should be able determine if your business is being impacted without asking your customers.

By monitoring real time business metrics and comparing the actual data to a historical curve you can more quickly detect if there is a problem and avoid sifting trough alerting and monitoring white noise that your systems will inevitability produce. For more details on our preferred strategy, visit one of our earlier blogs. You can also read more about the Design To Be Monitored principle in our book Scalability Rules.

As you company grows, make sure that your product, your engineering team, and your technical operations are closely aligned with your business. We firmly believe that we as technologists must stay aligned with our business for success. In fact, we really are the business. Our solutions enable the company to earn revenue.


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Engineering Metrics

A topic that often results in great debate is “how to measure engineers?” I’m a pretty data driven guy so I’m a fan of metrics as long as they are 1) measured correctly 2) used properly and 3) not taken in isolation. I’ll touch on these issues with metrics later in the post, let’s first discuss a few possible metrics that you might consider using. Three of my favorite are: velocity, efficiency, and cost.

  • Velocity – This is a measurement that comes from the Agile development methodology. Velocity is the aggregate of story points (or any other unit of estimate that you use e.g. ideal days) that engineers on a team complete in a sprint. As we will discuss later, there is no standard good or bad for this metric and it is not intended to be used to compare one engineer to another. This metric should be used to help the engineer get better at estimating, that’s it. No pushing for more story points or comparing one team to another, just use it as feedback to the engineers and team so they can get more predictable in their work.
  • Efficiency – The amount of time a software developer spends doing development related activities (e.g. coding, designing, discussing with the product manager, etc) divided by their total time available (assume 8 – 10 hours per day) provides the Engineering Efficiency. This is a metric designed to see how much time software developers are actually spending on developing software. This metric often surprises people. Achieving 60% or more is exceptional. We often see dev groups below 40% efficiency. This metric is useful for identifying where else engineers are spending their time. Are there too many company meetings not directly related to getting products out the door? Are you doing too many HR training sessions, etc? This metric is really for the management team to then identify what is eating up the non-development time and get rid of it.
  • Cost – Tech cost as a percentage of revenue is a good cost based metric to see how much you are spending on technology. This is very useful as it can be compared to other tech (SaaS or other web-based companies) and you can watch this metric change over time. Most startups begin with their total tech cost (engineers, hosting, etc) at well over 50% of revenue but this should quickly reduce as revenue grows and the business scales. Yes, scaling a business involves growing it cost effectively. Established companies with revenues in the tens of millions range usually have this percentage below 10%. Very large companies in the hundreds of millions in revenue often drive this down to 5-7%.

Now that we know about some of the most common metrics, how should they be used? The most common way managers and executives want to use metrics is to compare engineers to each other or compare a team over time. This works for the Efficiency and the Cost metrics, which by the way are primarily measurements of management effectiveness. Managers make most of the cost decisions including staffing, vendor contracts, etc. so they should be on the hook to improve these metrics. In terms of product out the door as measured by story points completed each sprint a.k.a. Velocity, as mentioned above, is to be used to improve estimates, not try to speed up developers. Using this metric incorrectly will just result in bloated estimates, not faster development.

An interesting comparison of developers comes from a 1967 article by Grant and Sackman in which they stated a ratio of 28:1 for the time required by the slowest versus the fastest programmer to complete a task. This has been a widely cited ratio but a paper from 2000 revised this number to 4:1 at the most and more likely 2:1. While a 2x difference in speed is still impressive it doesn’t optimize for the overall quality of the product. An engineer who is very fast and with high quality but doesn’t interact with the product managers isn’t necessarily the overall most effective. My point is that there are many other factors to be considered than just story points per release when comparing engineers.


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Agile Communication

In Agile software development methodology the communication between team members is critical. Two of the twelve principles deal with directly with this issue:

  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

Despite the importance of this, time and time again we see teams that are spread out across floors and even buildings trying to work in an Agile fashion. Every foot two people are separated decreases the likelihood that they communicate directly or overhear something that they can provide input on. In physics, there is such a thing as an inverse-square law where a quantity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source. Newton’s law of universal gravitation is example of an inverse-square law. I don’t believe anyone has associated this law with verbal communication but I’m convinced this is the case.

communication : 1 / (distance x distance)

This isn’t to say that remote teams can’t work. In fact, I’m actually a proponent of remote workers but I think because they are not in the building or across the street special arrangements are made like an open Skype call with the remote office. People might worry about being seen as lazy if they Skype someone across the room but across the country, that’s fine.

The take away of this is to put people working with each other as close together as possible. If you need to move peoples’ desks, do it. The temporary disruption is worth the gained communication over the length of the project.


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