Communicate Through Stories Rather Than Tasks

cooperationLast time I talked about interfaces between pieces of code.

Today I want to discuss the interface between groups of people involved in developing software.

There are two basic groups: those who develop the software, and those who coordinate that development.

In Agile terms, those groups are the Development Team on the one hand, and the Product Owner and other Stakeholders on the other.

Speaking the Same Language

The two groups need to communicate, so they do best when everybody speaks the same language.

This begins with speaking the same “natural” language, e.g. English. For most teams that will be a given, but teams that are distributed over multiple locations in different countries need to be a bit careful.

tower-of-babelOnce the language is determined, the team should look at the jargon they will be using.

Since the Development Team needs to understand what they must build, they need to know the business terms.

The Product Owner and Stakeholders don’t necessarily need to understand the technical terms, however.

Therefore, it makes sense that the Ubiquitous Language is the language of the business.

Speaking About Work: Stories and Tasks

But the two groups need to talk about more than the business problem to be solved. For any non-trivial amount of work, they also need to talk about how to organize that work.

In most Agile methods, work is organized into Sprints or Iterations. These time-boxed periods of development are an explicit interface between Product Owner and Development Team.

user-storyThe Product Owner is the one steering the Development Team: she decides which User Stories will be built in a given Iteration.

The Development Team implements the requested Stories during the Iteration. They do this by breaking the Stories down into Tasks, having people sign up for the Tasks, and implementing them.

Tasks describe how development time is organized, whereas Stories describe functionality. So Tasks may refer to technical terms like relational databases, while Stories should only talk about functionality, like data persistence.

Stories Are the Interface

Since we value working software, we talk about Stories most of the time. Tasks only exist to make implementing Stories easier. They are internal to the Development Team, not part of the interface the Development Team shares with the Product Owner.

task-boardMany Development Teams do, in fact, expose Tasks to their Product Owners and other Stakeholders.

Sometimes they do this to explain why an Estimate for a Story is higher than the Product Owner expected.

Or they let the Product Owner attend Standup Meetings where Tasks are discussed.

This is fine, as long as both sides understand that Tasks are owned by the Development Team, just as Stories are owned by the Product Owner.

The Development Team may propose Stories, but the Product Owner decides what gets added to the Backlog and what gets scheduled in the Iteration.

Similarly, the Product Owner may propose, question, or inquire about Tasks, but the Development Team decides which Tasks make up a Story and in which order and by who they are implemented.

Always Honor the Interface

This well-defined interface between Product Owner and Development Team allows both sides to do their job well.

burn-up-chartIt’s important to understand that this has implications for how the software development process is organized.

For instance, the metrics we report up should be defined in terms of Stories, not Tasks.

Outside the Development Team, people shouldn’t care about how development time was divided, only about what the result was.

If we stick to the interface, both sides become decoupled and therefore free to innovate and optimize their own processes without jeopardizing the whole.

This is the primary benefit of any well-defined interface and the basis for a successful divide-and-conquer strategy.

What Do You Think?

feedbackWhat problems have you seen in the communication between the two groups?

Are you consciously restricting the communication to stories, or are you letting tasks slip in?

Please leave a comment.

How To Remove Friction From Your Version Control Experience

ErrorLast week, I spend several days fixing a bug that only surfaced in a distributed environment.

I felt pressure to fix it quickly, because our continuous integration build was red, and we treat that as a “stop the line” event.

Then I came across a post from Tomasz Nurkiewicz who claims that breaking the build is not a crime.

Tomasz argues that a better way to organize software development is to make sure that breaking changes don’t affect your team mates. I agree.

Broken Builds Create Friction

Breaking changes from your co-workers are a form of friction, since they take away time and focus from your job. Tomasz’ setup has less friction than ours.

But I feel we can do better still. In a perfect Frictionless Development Environment (FDE), all friction is removed. So what would that look like with regard to version control?

With current version control systems, there is lots of friction. I complained about Perforce before because of that.

Git is much better, but even then there are steps that have to be performed that take away focus from the real goal you’re trying to achieve: solving the customer’s problem using software.

For instance, you still have to create a new topic branch to work on. And you have to merge it with the main development line. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to do that.

Frictionless Version Control

version-controlSo how would a Frictionless Development Environment do version control for us?

Knowing when to create a branch is easy.

All work happens on a topic branch, so every time you start to work on something, the FDE could create a new branch.

The problem is knowing when to merge. But even this is not as hard as it seems.

You’re done with your current work item (user story or whatever you want to call it) when it’s coded, all the tests pass, and the code is clean.

So how would the FDE know when you’re done thinking of new tests for the story?

Well, if you practice Behavior-Driven Development (BDD), you start out with defining the behavior of the story in automated tests. So the story is functionally complete when there is a BDD test for it, and all scenarios in that test pass.

Now we’re left with figuring out when the code is clean. Most teams have a process for deciding this too. For instance, code is clean when static code analysis tools like PMD, CheckStyle, and FindBugs give no warnings.

Some people will argue that we need a minimum amount of code coverage from our tests as well. Or that the code needs to be reviewed by a co-worker. Or that Fortify must not find security vulnerabilities. That’s fine.

pipelineThe basic point is that we can formally define a pipeline of processes that we want to run automatically.

At each stage of the pipeline can we reject the work. Only when all stages complete successfully, are we done.

And then the FDE can simply merge the branch with the main line, and delete it. Zero friction from version control.

What do you think?

Would you like to lubricate your version control experience? Do you think an automated branching strategy as outlined above would work?

Software Development and Lifelong Learning

The main constraint in software development is learning. This means that learning is a core skill for developers and we should not think we’re done learning after graduation. This post explores some different ways in which to learn.

Go To Conferences

Conferences are a great place to learn new things, but also to meet new people. New people can provide new ways of looking at things, which helps with learning as well.

You can either go to big and broad conferences, like Java One or the RSA conference, or you can attend a smaller, more focused event. Some of these smaller events may not be as well-known, but there are some real gems nonetheless.

Take XML Amsterdam, for example, a small conference here in the Netherlands with excellent international speakers and attendees (even some famous ones).

Attend Workshops

Learning is as much about doing as it is about hearing and watching. Some conferences may have hands-on sessions or labs, but they’re in the minority. So just going to conferences isn’t good enough.

A more practical variant are workshops. They are mostly organized by specific communities, like Java User Groups.

One particularly useful form for developers is the code retreat. Workshops are much more focused than conferences and still provide some of the same networking opportunities.

Get Formal Training

Lots of courses are being offered, many of them conveniently online. One great (and free) example is Cryptography from Coursera.

Some of these course lead to certifications. The world is sharply divided into those who think certifications are a must and those that feel they are evil. I’ll keep my opinion on this subject to myself for once 😉 but whatever you do, focus on the learning, not on the piece of paper.

Learn On The Job

There is a lot to be learned during regular work activities as well.

You can organize that a bit better by doing something like job rotation. Good forms of job rotation for developers are collective code ownership and swarming.

Pair programming is an excellent way to learn all kinds of things, from IDE shortcuts to design patterns.

Practice in Private

Work has many distractions, though, like Getting a Story Done.

Open source is an alternative, in the sense that it takes things like deadlines away, which can help with learning.

However, that still doesn’t provide the systematic exploration that is required for the best learning. So practicing on “toy problems” is much more effective.

There are many katas that do just that, like the Roman Numerals Kata. They usually target a specific skill, like Test-Driven Development (TDD).