Friday, June 06, 2008

Preparing for the Transition to Agile

Once, when I was just starting to snowboard, I was at Sugarloaf for the weekend and they had very little cover and very few trails open. But then Saturday night, they got 33” of powder. A friend and I came to a trail that was closed. It looked like a great trail; endless powder with no tracks. The problem was that it had been rocks and grass the day before and there was no base underneath, so it was just the same as riding on rocks and grass. It was not a pleasant experience. Adopting Agile without understanding it and without creating a proper ecosystem for it is destined for a similar fate.

Adopting Agile development requires breaking down mental barriers and building up new skill sets. There is nothing particularly hard about actually doing any of the Agile practices, but many of them are counterintuitive and do take a bit of practice to get used to. That said, don’t underestimate the amount of effort required. The effort required is at least on the order of taking a team which is very used to writing in C++ and moving to Java. There’s nothing particularly difficult about such a transition, but there are many subtleties which must be learned and it takes a while to build up the same base of experience.

Self Education
Before getting too far along, make sure that you have done your homework. Read other books on Agile, find other folks in your organization that have done Agile development before. Go to conferences, join the local Agile user group, become a certified Scrum Master, do whatever you do to find people that you can lean on when you need it.

Determine the best scope of the adoption. As with most things, it is best to think big, but start small. Is there a small project with no more than 12 people that is amenable to piloting something new? There are two advantages in starting small: minimizing disruption and leveraging what the pilot group learns about doing Agile in your environment when transitioning other groups.

Agile development has certain perceptions related to it. One of the most prevalent perceptions is that it is “for small groups.” That was certainly my perception when I first started hearing about it. Another perception is that small iterations aren’t a good thing because customers don’t want frequent releases, there’s more overhead involved, the quality will be lower that way, and it makes marketing’s life more difficult.

If you just advocate Agile without knowing the landscape, you run the risk of alienating the people whose support you need in order to go Agile. Find out how receptive your organization is to going Agile. Think about who is in a position to help or hinder its adoption. Those are the key stakeholders. You will need to find out where they stand, what they like about the idea of going Agile, and what their objections are. This information will come in handy later in the adoption process.

Prepare Your Organization
Once you have a basic lay of the land, see what you can do to raise people’s awareness and understanding of the advantages and potential pitfalls of Agile. Do a presentation for folks that are interested, invite in somebody from the Agile community to do a presentation or workshop. Recommend books and websites that you found helpful.

Transition Development and QA Together
The most important component of reducing the rework period that comes from long iterations is improving your testing process. For many if not most organizations, this is the hardest goal to achieve in practice.

If you don’t have any automation at all, it is a good bet that there is an ingrained belief that automated testing is either a bad idea, doesn’t work as well as manual testing, is too expensive, or that the tools are too expensive. As a result, it may be that there are no QA automation experts in the building and possibly nobody with scripting skills in the QA group. The best course of action in this case is to concentrate on introducing the idea of QA automation.

If it is clear that there is a bias against automated testing that is too strong to overcome any time soon, another tactic is to have the development organization champion automation with an eye towards handing it over to QA once the idea catches on. A good place to start is with unit tests. It should be clear from the start that your goal is to have QA own test automation. Developers will write good tests, but they are too optimistic by nature. Developers start from the assumption that “it will work.” QA people start from the assumption that “it doesn’t work and I’ll prove it to you.” Pessimism is a good trait for a person creating tests.

Keep Your Healthy Skepticism
Think carefully about the value of each practice that you plan to adopt and make absolutely sure that it is appropriate for your exact circumstances before you adopt it. You shouldn’t be adopting practices simply for the sake of saying that you are adopting Agile practices. Every practice you adopt should be because now that you know about it you simply can’t imagine getting by without it.

Don’t Throw Out the Baby With the Bath Water

I’ve seen many first-time Agile projects fail because they threw out everything they already knew about developing software. Most of the individual steps of developing software with an Agile methodology are the same as traditional software development. You still have to talk to customers, decide what you are going to do, write code, write tests, do testing, etc. Agile development is simply a different framework for those steps. You have a business to run, and you don’t really need to introduce large and sudden risk factors. Before you decide to chuck everything that you know and start from scratch, spend some time developing your knowledge and understanding of Agile. Look closely at your existing practices and see which ones will fit well within Agile, and which ones may cause problems. Create a game plan and start out gradually.

Next: Agile Adoption Stage 2: Establishing a Natural Rhythm


abby said...

Ooh, Sugarloaf and agile in one paragraph, a man after my own heart. ;-)

Great post, you make some excellent points here - particularly about being aware of possible misconceptions about agile and not throwing the baby away with the bathwater. Although, I must say my favorite is transitioning dev & QA together. Oh my God, it's crazy how many places don't do this, which seems to rather miss the whole point that agile is about the power of self-organizing teams all working in tandem to deliver success.

Looking forward to reading more of your posts and hearing more about how you're using agile in your organization
The Hacker Chick Blog

Damon Poole said...

Hi Abby,

Glad you liked it! I've collected a bunch of the Agile posts into a mini version of a book I'm working on (constantly refactoring all the while) called "Zero to Hyper Agile in 90 Days or Less" which you may find interesting.

Your post on How Managers Get So Stupid was very useful. I find myself doing some of that in both directions!



abby said...

Thanks, I definitely will check out your book and am enjoying reading your posts.

I couldn't find an email for you so just posting here, fyi - I've added you to my blog roll. Thanks for sharing all the goodness with us!
The Hacker Chick Blog