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Initializing Scrum

Update: Just fixed some outgoing links.

After I began working at my new workplace, I've been gently pushing Agile here and there. We've been brainstorming how we can get agile working for our people, and so far we've adopted a few patterns and practices, but putting those plans into action has taken some time. Originally I hoped that things would go very quickly, but agile is about people, and people are hard to change.

Getting better, always.

We have a product that works really well, and pretty much all of the developers are happy. (Generally speaking, this state can be dangerous for a business. There is a danger of falling asleep, one day waking up to see that your competitors have gotten a good hold of your customers, with a better product and better marketing.) Having an environment that strives for improvement is a critical part of persisting success. And striving for improvement, well, that's what agile is.

Luckily, our team of developers do a lot of activities in the hunt for technological improvement. There is a team of architects (and by that I mean hands-on hard-core, coding Java gurus) that work across the other developers, singling out targets for refactoring and other improvements. Another practice I really dig is the weekly Java-team meeting, where one of the developer present a subject either on good programming practice, new tool/feature, or explaining a certain part of our domain model.

As well as pushing for technical excellence, we also want to push for process excellence. We want to give accurate estimates, we want to deliver fast, and we want to deliver the stuff that is most important first. This is where I (and the people who hired me) figured that Scrum would be a good try, but before I explain how the first week of scrumming has gone, I need to explain a little more about our team.

Who does what?

We've got nearly twenty developers working on our product (there are other teams in the company, but we're an independent gang for the most part). In this product there are many families of functionality, and there is no clear designation of which developer does which functionality. There is a lot of tacit knowledge on who does what: "Bob did a lot of work on the fizzerburpilator", or "Bill wrote the shackalock-editor, and occasionally does some maintenance on it" (features are given fantasy names for non-disclosure reasons).

Understandably, it is a bit fustrating for our customer-contacts to ask for new features, because often (a) they don't know which developer can do it, (b) the chief architect is too busy to spend time managing the tasks of every single developer, and (c) the developer who knows how to make the new feature is busy doing other critical stuff.

The solution to this frustration seems pretty clear: Organize into sub-teams, preferably by feature. However, we can't just jump right in and do a full-blown re-organization, we have to be careful about it, and we have been waiting for a fitting opportunity to try this out.

Taking Scrum for a spin

So, recently we had a big customer come to us with a feature request, let's call it "fizzburp hickup". It is a bit too big for one developer to do by himself, and there are some architectural challenges which would probably require a weighed consensus of developer opinions rather than the brilliant idea of a single programmer. The scope and definition of "fizzburp hickup" are pretty well described, and we have an ample time-frame, so we figured that this would be the perfect opportunity to try out Scrum with a small team of developers, called Team Espresso. If the experiment goes well, Team Espresso can continue existing after their feature has been developed, keep on maintaining it and adopting some other features as well.

The first sprint got scheduled to start this Monday. I knew that boiling up the backlog for the team would eat up alot of time, so I started the week before by chipping the requirement spec into user stories, using the customer-contact for verifying that I had gotten a good understanding of the domain, and also tried out User Story Mapping for the first time. I ran through the story cards with our chief architect and got a first-impression of estimates. Getting him to put estimates on user-features instead of architectural components was really hard, but in the end we came through with a rough estimate of the backlog-effort. We used 'tricky points' as our unit of estimation.

We then had half-a-day "kick-off" with the customer-contact and architects. First we went through the requirement spec and had the customer-contact (who unfortunately went on vacation and was represented by the, erm, chief architect) communicate the motivation for the new features. Naturally, the focus went technical early on, but I've been assured that there has already been so much communication with the customer on the "fizzburp hickup" already, that we shouldn't need any more input from them for the time being. Hmmm!

Sprint planning

After the kick-off, we gathered the team around the story map to do estimation and commitment to the first sprint (one week!). Naturally, the team zoomed down into technical discussion on every other story card (which is a good thing!). We discovered a good few open technical and functional questions that we would have to take back to the architects and customer-contacts. I thought this process was very fruitful, because we were finding challenges early that we would have to face sooner or later.

However, in the rest of the team there was a feeling of "let's just go and get started it", while I was forcing them to put tricky points on the user stories, and again it proved difficult to get them estimating features instead of technical components. Their point (as I understood it) was that in the end, we would have to deliver the same functionality anyway, and thinking in user-stories instead of components would only disturb our estimation thinking and architecture plans. That actually was a good point. My reply was "do all the architectural consideration you want to, but leave the story cards", in other words: bear with me on this. Finally, we committed to our first sprint, choosing three stories summing up to 30 tricky points.

And off we go!

On the first day of the sprint, I tried to get the team breaking the three stories down into tasks with hourly estimates. This proved even more difficult. I was inflicting even more Scrum overhead on a team which wanted to get to work. The point of breaking backlog items into tasks is to get a picture of remaining hours for sprint burndown, as well as assigning tasks to point person. Does this need to be explicitly done in such a small team for such a small project? I think so, because for a practiced team this overhead is virtually nothing. For my team in this sprint, however, we let it go.

Halfway through the sprint, the team got a bit nervous about delivering/presenting the result to the customer. Showing off that little progress would only anger and confuse the customer, making them come up with a burdening set of detailed requirements to "speed us up". So we extended our sprint to last two weeks instead of one.

We also changed around the planned story items. The architects found the time to do some smart fixes that allowed us to grab and do some of the more important user stories off the backlog.

At the end of the sprint now on friday, we had completed only one of the three committed stories, plus one extra because of the architecture fix. We had made alot of progress on the other items, but not completed them.


So, in order to help us reflect on how we should continue in the next sprint, let us sum up what practices we have tried and given up:

* Daily standup - stopped this, because we are already doing daily standup with the rest of the developers (I might write a post about how it was to get people adopting daily standup later).
* Story planning, we will continue this, although we are aware that it doesn't give us that much value without an on-site customer.
* Task tracking - stop this, too much overhead for such a small scope.
* One week sprints - go over to two week sprints instead.

I hope that we will be able to resume some of these, the 1-week-sprint in particular. There is a big organizational challenge which is making it difficult for us, and that is a quite common one in organizations adopting Scrum: We are part of two teams: On the one hand, we are Team Espresso, an agile group dedicated to deliver the "fizzburp hickup" functionality. On the other hand, we are part of the larger developer team, supporting and maintaining all the bits and pieces of our software, getting ready for our coming release ("fizzburp" is scheduled to be released in the next one after this one). Juggling these two on an hourly basis is proving quite difficult for the team.

I'll try to post back with an update after the next sprint. It could be that my expectations for how smoothly this would go were a bit too high, but hopefully I will be able to post back with a bit more uplifting results by then.

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