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1 year ago

Agile Conference Revolution

This is my personal humble feedback on Agile Conference. I do make broad conclusions though, so feel free to provide your vision in comments.

I haven’t visited Agile conferences for like 5 years, the last one was in Chicago. It was pretty good. The main innovations were Kanban and UX+Agile. Many sessions were still quite boring to any experienced agile practitioner. Now I’m in Orlando. Conference becomes huge. There are so many people around. But what about sessions? In 3 days I visited exactly one session that was really interesting and useful, it was about Netflix culture at DevOps track. All the others I visited were not useful, boring, kinda OK, way too abstract or completely trivial. Maybe I was just unlucky and missed all the good talks. Maybe, but I picked carefully, to be honest. I talked to some people and received mixed feedback, but in general it looks like conference content is not great. DevOps track looks very good, BTW, and I heard many good words about it.

How do I feel about all these things you ask me? I personally see a serious stagnation and the lack of innovations in agile community. Don’t get me wrong. There are bright people with brilliant ideas, but it seems they are in opposition to the main trends. How’s that happened?

Agile is about helping businesses to kick ass. To do that, there should be innovations in various directions. We, as an agile community, should invent new ways to help business understand what is valuable and what is not. Invent new development practices and try them in various contexts. Inspect organizations as a whole and invent new ways to detect problems and solve them on a system level. But what we have at the moment?

There are many topics about Scaled Agile frameworks. I visited several sessions and I have an opinion that speakers have no clue how to really scale agility. Proposed frameworks are kinda prescriptive and heavy. They reminded me RUP-days. You really can create a good framework based on RUP, but there were few successful cases.

SAFe looks complicated and it does not address root problems on my opinion. We need real structural transformations, while SAFe implies specific receipts and says that it will work in almost any context. How is that possible? Everything is context-dependent, and that is why many agile transformation initiatives failed and will fail. People just apply a recipe without deep thinking, ignoring context-specific things and expect it to work. It won’t work in many cases, and you can’t fix it without context-awareness.

SAFe has many good practices inside. It can help companies initially and you will see some tactical success, but I also think that in the long run SAFe is a strategic disaster. It may take 5+ years to feel that, but I don’t believe that company will inject a true agile mindset starting with SAFe. It can happen, but it will be exceptional cases mostly. The really bad thing is that companies will not notice the problem. With waterfall the problem is (now) obvious, while with SAFe they will have an illusion that they are truly agile, while they are not.

So at the end of the day I have a perception that majority of speakers present some abstract theoretical frameworks with extremely poor argumentation. Why this might work? In which context? No clue.

I also wonder why we have no talks about Kanban here? Is Kanban agile or not? Agile community have personal troubles with Kanban approaches? C’mon, folks, this separation is childish.

All that sounds like rants without solutions so far. So I have some actionable proposals for the next Agile Conference. Here is my feedback:

  1. Add a decent mix of various disciplines. We can learn from complexity science, biology, sociology, sport, physics and other disciplines. Try to intrigue people from these disciplines to really mix their practices with our practices and invent something new finally. At least invite them to speak about things they know to stimulate our imagination and analogy thinking. Invite Dave Snowden, finally, to see his controversial view on scaling. There should be more perspectives. We need greater diversity.
  2. Have more real-life experience reports with real practices that work in some contextes. It will help to learn from each other and spread good practices. I know many good discussions are firing up between people, but why don’t do that on sessions as well?
  3. There should be more science. People over the world do great research about group dynamic, development practices, cooperative games, etc. Invite them to share their researches.
  4. Invite bright business people to talk about marketing, agile workspace, new hiring practices, strategy, etc. It will finally help merge Agile and business together. Nothing is separate. We should see high-level pictures and learn from them.
  5. 75 minutes talks? Are you kidding me? Nobody can control attention for more than 45 minutes. Split these talks and make workshops longer, since 75 minutes are not enough for a decent workshop. I’d like to see more TED-like talks, short and precise. Experiment with that at least. Inspect and adapt.

In short, Agile Conference demands more inventions, real-life reports, more science and different format. Conference organization is just perfect, it really is. I can’t imagine better. Content, however, is below average, and that is embarrassing for agile-minded community. We can do better.

The final thing is the slogan I saw yesterday. It is just unbearable to me: “Allow agile and waterfall work together” WTF?


I thought we were working on replacing waterfall and change the ways organizations work. Do we, as a community, still think it is a good idea? Or are we starting to agree with a status quo? I believe we are fucking not. There is no limit to perfection.

“Pirates are bold not safe” — These guys are doing something good

1 year ago

Why Agile Estimates Don’t Work – Part 2

In Why Agile Estimates Don’t Work – Part 1 I’ve explained why estimates don’t work if someone sees them primarily as a commitment to timing. And, just as I expected, some aficionados rushed to educate me on the subject of estimates in agile, that they are not a commitment but, in short, a discussion of chances and odds of how the development will go, considering the challenges of this particular production environment. Probably, some of those aficionados have accused me of the gravest sin ever, and namely, not reading Mike Cohn’s “Agile Estimating and Planning”. Relax, guys. I studied Cohn’s book long ago, and time after time I would flip its pages to refresh things in my memories, not to mention other books, articles and from-the-trenches stories. My most reliable source for making conclusions, however, is my work. If someone stays out-of-the trenches and theoretizes about estimates, this is just theory. My view on estimates lies in the practical, pragmatic context: if they don’t work as commitment to timing, but as a discussion of chances and odds, why most companies continue to play this game? What makes them go on with it? Why spending lots of time on discussing chances is valued more than action itself?

What Is an Estimate? (take 2)

I’ve cited two options to answer this question in Part 1. Some people, who are, likely, not educated in agile theory, look at agile as a next best silver bullet to complete projects on time and they might wrongly view estimates as a promise of that. They genuinely believe that agile estimates will give them so much sought after reliable reference point about the time of completion. The second group of believers consciously accepts that estimating is a discussion of chances, a probability forecast. The burndown chart provides such forecast based on velocity. Let’s refresh the classical definition of velocity in our memory, quoting from here: “The main idea behind velocity is to help teams estimate how much work they can complete in a given time period based on how quickly similar work was previously completed“. Does it ring any bells now? If we never build the same feature twice, just as you can’t step twice into the same river, then why velocity-based forecast should be relied on? In general, this stands true for all the forecast techniques based on past performance, including forecast models. Yes, there are cases when a team’s work is monotonous, iteration in, iteration out, but from what I’ve been able to observe, it happens very rarely. Mostly, in any company and team, the tasks to be done and challenges to be resolved are unique, for each iteration, and for each release. You never know when something pops up and kicks this neat forecast in the butt.

The Devil Is In…

.. not only in the details. The second most common habitat of the said devil, which goes after the details, is human nature itself.  Nothing else explains this better than the good old Parkinson’s Law:


Yes, indeed. Having all the time in the world is loose. It’s either you have time, or you don’t have it. It’s either you have the guts and sixth sense to define what should be included to the minimal viable product, for instance, or not. Let’s not forget that no one cares about software development for its own sake, except the software developers who view their work as craft. We do things for the market. For the customers, and they don’t care about the development kitchen constraints, challenges and brilliant solutions. Same stands true for UX.

Now, how this reasoning fits into the subject of estimates, someone might ask? Here’s the astounding truth. Teams and companies start playing around and messing with estimate rituals when they have some extra fat to burn. There’s no room for activities that are waste in a bootstrapped, mission-oriented, do-or-die start-up squad of several people. If you are in such a team, and tempted to start a planning poker session, don’t do this. Rather than waste your time on playing with probabilities, get some real work done. Write code, do a UI sketch,  instill clarity to the work of your team. Some mathematical forecast model surely has it that a brick will fell on your head one day. But you’d hardly be wasting your time to estimate how many more bottles of champagne are likely to slip out of a torn plastic bag, when one of those bottles has already hit the concrete, and there are 3 more in the bag. You’d rush to catch the rest of the bottles, not to let them slip, right? Or will you freeze and estimate the probability of all of the bottles being shattered? This reminds me of the fact, that some business people who are skeptical about shamanism, astrology and other such things, devotedly indulge into what is, in essence, shaman rituals with estimates. Come on, the estimate of completion based on burndown or a planning poker session, is as valid as an astrological forecast. There’s no big difference. It’s either you’re “fat” enough as an organization to afford wasteful rituals or not. In fact, even in large companies that seem to be so safe and secure there’s always the bottomline point of “do or die”. That’s what a recent story with massive job cut by Microsoft proves. Ritual is a waste. If there’s time for rituals left, this is a sign of unhealthy fat. Burn it. If a workgroup discusses development, there’s no need to wrap it in the ritual of estimating, because when a discussion turns into a draining debate of “how probable” this timeframe is, the work suffers. Someone said, there’s a limited number of brains to do the job, and they should be used efficiently. One can suffice with a draft estimated timeframe, there’s no use trying to gauge on the likelihood of this happening, when there’s real work to be done.

Worship the Idol: How Do I Tell My Higher-Ups ..?

As life has it, however, most of us have to cope with the fallacy around estimates being employees in fat organizations, and, hard as you might, a mere human being can not move a mountain. There’s no way to persuade a higher-up non-developer manager, or a client, or a stakeholder in the vanity of estimates. That’s why people go on playing games, as they attend to those who expect a feature or a project to be done on time, as derived from estimate-related shamanic rituals. And, that’s where another interesting booster for evolution is hiding. Luckily — and, yes, I mean it, luckily — there are more non-developers in the position of authority than developers. There’s always a point of litmus test, when someone with a developer background (a project manager, team leader, or someone in middle management) meets the non-developer stakeholder. Why I call it a booster for evolution? If every stakeholder were a developer, they would have probably ended up whining on each other’s shoulder about how difficult life is, and how impossible it is to commit to any timeframe. Having to deal with a non-developer stakeholder about a deadline is stimulating. If you’ve been thinking that something has changed from the hunter-gatherer times, I have bad news for you. The seeming “comfort” guises the basic instinct to act. You either act, or you rot. There’s no other option. No one cares for reactive rants. It’s your actions that define you. It’s your choice to agree to play the estimate game by the rules and accept this as a given, or to quit and find a job where they will not f…k your brain with estimates. If you choose to deal with ruthless stakeholders that are oh-so-not-understanding of how hard a life of a true software craftsman is,  move the conversation from the level of rant to the level of action. Use every opportunity to spread the awareness of the challenges that software development portends, and why this domain is un-deadline-ifiable by nature. Amazingly, there are so many people in this world who sincerely believe that an estimate is a credible measure for completion date. Write articles, speak on conferences, join the “no estimates” movement. Fix the gap between what you know, and what they know. If everyone has their say, this world will become a better place, with less projects and software screwed. And, even if you’d still have to deal with the waste of estimates, you’d feel better inside, because you’d be doing your all to change things, instead of ranting.

Enough of thought boosters (or busters?). In Part 3 of the series I will give an outline of some techniques, commonly regarded as techniques for estimates, that might work as a tool for workgroup discussions in some teams. Keep in mind the waste-value balance, though.

Related articles:

Why Agile Estimates Don’t Work – Part 1

1 year ago

Why Agile Estimates Don’t Work – Part 1

As you read this headline, many things came to your mind, probably. You might have recalled those many hours of meetings as you tried to come up with a time estimate for a project or for a product release. Or, you might have remembered the planning poker sessions, which were intended as a spot-on pragmatic business activity, but in the long run proved to be nothing else than a child’s game, because the estimates attained as a result of planning poker sessions differed 2 or 3 times from what the actual work really took. The sharp question that I want to ask is: how many times did you feel deep inside that when they make you do an estimate (them being managers, or clients, or anyone else in charge), you end up with nothing else but a waste of time, because later in the project you still face the need to explain why your initial estimate proved to be that different from how things actually turned out, and feeling guilty in the process, though probably nothing of it was actually your fault?

Don’t get me wrong. My initial intent was pure and well-behaved. I humbly wanted to write an article to sum up techniques for estimation used in agile, describe their pros and cons, and provide people with a single-point reference for all those techniques. However, as I went deeper into the research,  I was astounded. It turned out that there are many more articles and write-ups out there in orthodox agile circles on “How to estimate?” as opposed to “Why estimate at all?” In those few cases, where I saw some attempts at explaining “why?”, they stroke me as incongruent and built on some very loose logic. This very fact of the looseness of “why?” puts a big question mark on the validity of the “hows”, because the “how” is a product of “why?” or “what?’ I’ve cited this in one of my previous articles, and I’ll repeat it one more time, because this axiom is universal, and works for all things life and project management alike: The hows will appear if the what becomes clear.

Let’s take the scalpel of pragmatism and dissect the faulty logic behind all things agile estimates.

What is an estimate?

Is it a measure of commitment? Or is it a lazy talk? I tried to find some stats on the actual usefulness of the estimates in story points, and how they’ve proven themselves valid in the bottomline world of business. I found none. From my own experience, I know that estimates never work. I’ve seen this in project-by-project software development and in product development. A slightly modified quote from here:

It’s impossible to estimate something that is being built for the first time.

We never build the same feature twice.

The only viable example of valid use of estimates that comes to my mind goes as far back as to the early 2000’s, when people wanted simple e-commerce web-sites, or dating sites, or something of that kind. Having built a handful of such web-sites, software vendors were more likely to give their clients a realistic estimate of completion, because these web-sites didn’t have a heavy baggage of residual debris, such as technical debt, bulky databases, or an octopus-like architecture, which just spreads, rendering futile any attempts to commit to the bottomline “get the sh..t done on time” stuff.

Next, if any attempts at estimating are futile, then why do most companies continue to play this game, which resembles courting, but unlike courting promises no pleasure ahead, only the ever increasing snowball of mess, feeling guilty, unproductive and unaligned with the only goal that matters: get the job done well and on time?


Stay tuned for the answers and even sharper disclosures in the upcoming part 2 of this article.

Related articles:

5 Reasons Why You Should Stop Estimating User Stories

Joy Spring and Estimated Deadlines

2 Meta-Principles for User Interface Writing

UX: Why User Vision Design Matters

Why Agile Estimates Don’t Work – Part 2

1 year ago

The Silver Bullet for Productivity Discovered

I’m subscribed to a newsletter from Buffer, a startup softdev company that develops an app to manage multiple social accounts. It’s quite an unusual thing for a social media-related company to share sensible advice in their newsletter, and that’s the reason I wanted to learn more about that company. So, I googled all things Buffer. The more I researched, the more I admired them. They are a startup, and they do well, generating over $3 mln in annual revenue, with only 23 people.  What is the reason for such an amazing performance? How have they been able to grow from zero to a revenue-generating company, in 3 years, with a lean squad of people, and still bootstrapped? How do they keep up their productivity?

The answer came with a little bit more of research. Buffer don’t wrap their rules of operation in the toga of productivity, or agile, or development process lingo, which is very unusual, and which might explain why this company performs way better compared to the others that do. What’s more, Buffer keeps their people happy and emotionally fulfilled.  They don’t think of their company as a racing car that has to be ramped up on speed. They, actually, are not concerned with productivity, or speed, for that matter, at all. The point is: Buffer spotted this one bottomline thing that powers productivity. They refer to their rules of operation not as to policy, but as to culture. And, the way I see it, the ultimate key to their performance is one simple thing called clarity. Check this snip from Buffer’s culture statement.

clarity at Buffer

It might be hard to believe at first, but with a little bit of thinking, we will see that clarity is the key to productivity for any team’s work. Thinking logically, a team’s performance is a sum of smooth individual flows and actions. Developers write code, QA engineers do testing, someone is in charge of automated tests, designers do all things UX. Now, when productivity suffers? As with cars and highways, stops occur when there’s a roadblock or a speed bump of something not being clear. What happens if bumps accumulate for weeks, even years? Production team lose track of priorities and incentives, if a day’s work is filled with  un-clarity every step along the way. What should I do in this case? Who do I contact? Who has a clue to this problem that I have? If people in the team fill most of their days with these questions, it’s time to put up a huge red flag and “beware bumps” sign. In this sad case, the team is deprived of the very chance to perform, even if they want, because, individually, they lack clarity. They need to have a clear knowing of those “who, what, why, when, how”-s related to their work, or, at least, they need a fast and smooth way to get the answers. If finding an answer for a repeated daily task becomes an ad hoc improvised quest, R.I.P.  productivity. The things covered under the umbrella term of  “efficient development process”, are rooted in crystal clarity.

Clarity is also crucial when it goes about motives for the actions of others. Second guessing, or a misunderstanding about someone doing things the way they do them, is another severe case of un-clarity. Generally, we are supposed to assume that everyone is doing their job as best as they can, but, with lack of clarity, the thing  that I call “assuming dumbness” rears its ugly head. When it happens, instead of having it clear why someone  in a team has done a code, or a test, or a copy, or a design in exactly that way, others make a default assumption that this person is “dumb”, not competent and not knowledgeable. This isn’t a productivity killer, per se, but it is a dangerous team spirit killer, and I hope you haven’t spotted this in your team.

As we can see, there’s no need to go any further and re-invent the wheel. If you’re concerned about bad productivity, or if you see that people look exhausted, unhappy or loose, seemingly giving up on their work, they crave for someone to champion clarity. That’s what Buffer calls “Default to transparency“, which is a sibling of clarity.

default to transparency

So, ask yourself, do you always have this clarity? In your team? Is your day made up of roadblocks, or is it filled with gratifying work which goes in a seamless flow? If no, take action. Go for clarity. Demand it from your managers. Clarity is this so much wanted silver bullet for productivity in a software development team. If you find ways to instill the culture of clarity in your team, every step along the way, the Holy Grail is yours.

Related articles:

Non-Violent Communication for Agile Teams

Are You Dumb?

How Communication Factors In To Production

Non-Judgmental Communication for Agile Teams

Why Fast Is Slow

Uselink: Organizational Culture and Development Process

Project Manager or Tech Leader?

The Dangers of Small Talk

Why Self-Organization Is a Luxury

Why Is It Right to Write?

What’s Wrong With Your Questions?

When Intensity Pays Off

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