SAFe (the Scaled Agile Framework, with a random “e” at the end) seems to be the talk of the agile world at the moment, and as you’d expect, opinions are both strong and divided. On the one side you’ve got the likes of Ken Schwaber and David Anderson (the guys who brought us Scrum and Kanban respectively), while on the other side you’ve got, well, pretty much anyone who stands to make any money out of SAFe.
I’m working at a company in London who might be about to go down the SAFe route, so obviously I’ve had to do a bit of research into this new framework, as it could soon be directly impacting me in my capacity as an agile coach and devops ninja.
My initial questions were:
- What the hell is this and how come I’ve never heard of it?
- Why is there no mention of devops?
- Is it really as prescriptive as it sounds?
- Isn’t it a bit “anti-agile”? (recall “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”, part of the agile manifesto)
So I started looking into SAFe. There’s quite a bit of information on the SAFe website, and the “Big Picture” on the homepage is crammed with information, jargon and stuff. At first glance it seemed fairly sensible on the higher levels, but overly prescriptive on the team level. Then you start clicking on icons, and that’s when it gets interesting…
Story Sizing, Velocity and Estimating: They tell us that all teams should have the same velocity and the same sizing (i.e. 1 point in team A should be exactly the same as 1 point in team B). They also say that 1 point should equal 1 day. I find this quite interesting, as this time-based evaluation is flawed for a number of reasons. Velocity (in normal scrum) should be obtained by measurement, not by simply saying “right, there’s 5 people in the team, 5×8=40, therefore our velocity will be 40!” This pains me, because I firmly believe that each team should be allowed to work out their own sustainable velocity, based on observation and results (and applying the Deming cycle of making a change and seeing if it improves output). If we are all given a goal of x points to achieve in a sprint, all we will do as a team is fiddle our estimations so that we hit that target. That’s exactly why we don’t use velocity as a target. What am I missing here?
ScrumXP: SAFe seems to suggest that you MUST do 2 week sprints. You have no option in this. Doesn’t seem to matter if you want to have a kanban system based around a weekly release schedule. SAFe seems largely ignorant of this. Is SAFe suggesting that Kanban doesn’t work? Has anyone told David Anderson?
SAFe prescribes Hardening Sprints: These are sprints set aside at the end of every release (one every 5th Sprint), to allow you to do such things as User Acceptance Testing and Performance Testing. In Continuous Delivery we work towards making these activities happen as early as possible in the release pipeline, in order to shorten the feedback loop. We really don’t want to be finding out that our product isn’t performant a day before we expect to release it! I certainly wouldn’t encourage the use of hardening sprints in the SAFe way, instead I would encourage people to build these activities into their pipelines as early as possible. I think of hardening Sprints as a bad smell, isn’t it just a way of confessing that you don’t expect to catch certain things until the end? So rather than try to fix that situation and reduce that feedback loop, you’re kind of just saying “hey, s**t happens, we’ll catch it in the hardening sprint”.
Innovation Sprints: These happen at the same time as the hardening sprint. SAFe is suggesting that during a normal sprint we don’t have time for innovation. And that is quite often the case – but wouldn’t it be better if we actually did have sufficient time for continuous innovation, rather than actually have a dedicated half-sprint for innovation? The book “Slack” by Tom DeMarco talks about the myth of total efficiency, and suggests that by slowing down and building in some slack time, we get greater returns. This is better achieved as part of everyday practice rather than working at some mythical “total efficiency” level and then having an “innovation sprint”. The SAFe approach seems to be an easy option. Rather than taking the time to determine a team’s sustainable velocity which includes sufficient time for innovation, it suggests just saving it up for a sprint at the end of every release. Don’t forget that at the same point, the team will apparently be doing “hardening” activities, gearing up for a release, and planning the next one. For some reason I feel uncomfortable with the idea that innovation is something that should be scheduled once every 10 weeks, rather than something that should be encouraged and nurtured as part of normal practice.
The Scrum Master: SAFe has this to say about the Scrum Master:
In SAFe, we assume that the Scrum Master is also a developer, tester, project manager or other skilled individual (though not the team’s manager) who fulfills his Scrum Master role on a part time basis.
Wow, that’s some assumption. They seem to suggest that you can just take any developer, tester etc and send them on a scrum course, and hey presto, you have a scrum master. And yes, you could do this, but what sort of scrum master are you getting? They also say:
responsibilities can generally be accomplished in about 25% of the time for that team member
which I again find surprising. A Scrum Master is just one quarter of a person’s time?? Seriously? Mentoring a team, coaching individuals, removing impediments, applying the principles of Scrum, helping the team work towards a goal, leading a team towards continuous improvement – all of these things are expected of the Scrum Master in SAFe, and yet they can all be achieved in “about 25%” of a person’s time, apparently. And where does an agile coach come into this? Well, they don’t exist in SAFe. In SAFe you have SAFe consultants instead.
The Product Manager and The product Owner: These are 2 very separate, very different roles in SAFe. A Product Owner works with the Scrum Team, but doesn’t have contact with the customer. The Product Manager has contact with the customer but deals with the scrum team through the Product Owner. Also the product owner doesn’t own the product vision – that responsibility belongs to the product manager – this seems strange to me, I would have naturally thought that the product “owner” would own the product vision. So essentially we’re adding yet another link in the chain between the customer and the team. I’m struggling to see this as a good thing, when in my experience a close relationship between the business and the team has always been of great benefit.
There is no Business Analyst role in SAFe, which I find quite interesting. This role seems to have been split out into the Product Owner and Product manager roles. For instance, the PO is meant to do the Just-In-Time analysis on the backlog stories.
in SAFe, the UX Designer is NOT part of the agile team. Rather, they work “at the Program Level” (whatever the hell that means, possibly on a different floor, maybe) yet they still do the following:
- Provide Agile Teams with the next increment of UI design, UX guidelines, and design elements in a just-in-time fashion
- Attend sprint planning, backlog grooming, iteration demos
- Work in an extremely incremental way
- Rely on fast and frequent feedback via rapid code implementation
- Are highly collaborative, and…
- The UI criteria are included in the “Definition of Done” and User Story acceptance criteria
But I must remind you that according to SAFe they are NOT part of the agile team Is it just me or does this come across as a bit, I don’t know, pedantic?
Pretty much the same rule applies to devops (which was included in a later version of SAFe) – devops people aren’t in the team BUT, you can simply achieve “devops” in part by:
integrating personnel from the operations team with the Agile teams
Er, ok. So they’re not part of the team but they’re integrated with the team. Riiiiight. On a plus note – it does mention “designing for deployability”, which can never be overstated in my opinion.
These are just my initial observations and I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say on the subject as we embark on our SAFe journey. I’m hoping it’s not as prescriptive as it sounds, as I honestly don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to adopting Agile. I very much believe that every organisation needs to go on their own journey with agile, and find out what works best for them. It’s my opinion that the lessons you learn on this journey are more important than the end result. In my experience, most organisations will have invariably witnessed a fantastic cultural shift during their gradual transition to agile, and I find it very difficult to see how a prescribed framework such as SAFe can facilitate this cultural shift.
The Agile Silver Bullet
So is SAFe really an agile silver bullet? I doubt it, but time will tell. I certainly don’t disagree with the majority of the contents of the “Big Picture” but where I do disagree, I feel very concerned, as I seem to disagree on a very fundamental level.
I would be much happier if SAFe was a lot less prescriptive-sounding. I can see SAFe being popular with larger-scale organisations with a penchant for job-titles and an unhealthy affinity for bureaucracy, I mean, it’s a framework, and they lap that stuff up! I can also see it being quite effective in those situations, after all, pretty much anything’s better than Waterfall!
I can see SAFe appealing to people who aren’t prepared to go on the agile journey, because they fear it. They fear they will fail, and they fear a lack of clarity. This framework puts nice titles everywhere, tickboxes to be ticked and nice clear processes to blindly follow. I can imagine it would be hard not to look like you’re making progress! I don’t yet trust the framework, but that could still change, but for the time being I’ve got the impression that it’s command-and-control agile, more of a tick-box exercise than a vessel for personal and organisational development.
Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, the original guys who came up with the whole concept of scrum back in about 1995 have recently posted a video on the interwebs, explaining some changes to the scrum model based on their experiences over the last few years. The video can be found here.
If you don’t have the time to watch the video, here’s my summary of the bits I found most interesting:
1. We should do more prep before our sprint planning, so that all stories are sufficiently prepared before the sprint planning session. This has come about because many sprint planning sessions take many hours. They have suggested having a “ready” status for backlog items that are ready to be discussed in the planning session.
2. We should always have a sprint goal, and during our daily stand-ups we should talk about how we are helping the team progress towards our sprint goal
3. We should talk about “value” in our sprint reviews. With hindsight, did we deliver as much value as we could have? If not, what could we do next time to ensure we deliver greater value?
I started running scrum of scrums sessions a few months ago where I work, with the intention of getting the teams to collaborate and communicate effectively, particularly in relation to any areas of overlap between the teams. There are quite a few teams who work on the same project/solution, and so their effective communication is essential.
As it turns out, in most cases the comms between the teams was good, and these meetings ended up being more of a knowledge sharing session. We discussed any new ideas, tools, practices which we’ve been using, and whether they’ve worked or not. We also discuss what isn’t going so well for each team and we collectively make useful suggestions and try to help out.
So basically it’s not so much a “scrum of scrums”, but more like a “retrospective of retrospectives”
Bertrand Russell once gave a lecture on astronomy, and how the earth rotates around the sun, and how the solar system is part of a vast galaxy, etc and so forth… At one point he was interrupted by an old lady, or so the story goes, who said “What you’re saying is rubbish, the world is a flat plate resting on the back of a giant turtle”. When Bertrand Russell questioned her as to what’s below the turtle, she replied “Another turtle”. Bertrand persisted with “And what’s below that turtle then?” to which the lady replied “It’s no use – it’s turtles all the way down!”
I was reminded of this story recently when I was in discussion with a colleague about sprint planning. My colleague was explaining to me that they use story points for sizing and estimating stories, but they then break their sprint stories down into smaller tasks and use hours to estimate these tasks, rather than continue to use points.
I had never come across this particular practice before. Of course, I’ve seen teams who do everything in hours, I’ve just never worked with a team which used both points and hours. I’ve always worked in points for story sizing, and when the stories need breaking down, I would break them down into smaller points: It’s points all the way down! I’ve never had any problems with this approach, so I was curious as to the advantage of switching to hours.
My first port of call, as always, was Google. When that came up empty I turned to Twitter, and got a friendly response from none other than Mike Cohn.
— Mike Cohn (@mikewcohn) July 19, 2013
Now, I never thought I’d find myself disagreeing with Mike Cohn, indeed his book “Succeeding With Agile” has been something of a bible for me for the last few years, but on this issue I am still not convinced.
Mike has written a really interesting blog post on why he uses hours rather than story points for sprint planning (you can find it here). One of his reasons is because he feels hours are better short-term measure than points. In some circumstances I would agree with him (perhaps if your stories are MASSIVE, and you need to break them down into much smaller tasks), but in my experience it doesn’t generally appear to hold true. I use points for both stories and tasks – the only difference is that when we get around to task estimation & sizing, we expect to be a little more accurate than when we estimated the stories in the product backlog. Quite often we will take a story of say 5 points, and break that down into two 3 point tasks. So 3 + 3 doesn’t add up to 5. Who cares? the 5 was an estimate anyway, and I always push to make everyone understand that estimates are just guesses, and the further out we make the estimate, the more approximate it’s going to be. By the time we get around to doing our sprint planning i expect us to take a much deeper look into these stories, and benefit from additional analysis, so naturally I expect our estimate to change.
I usually do everything I can to steer away from hours, because it can often be too confusing for people outside of the team to understand why the total hours don’t add up to the total available resource hours. I’d rather just not have this conversation sometimes! Also, after explaining to everyone the key benefits and purpose of using points, I can imagine they’d be confused as to why we were suddenly ditching all the advantages of points, and switching back to hours for the sprint planning. By the way, I’ve covered the reason why we use points over hours in my previous blog post here.
Anyway, I just thought I’d write this post to show that both approaches are common, and I guess it’s just a matter of “whatever works best for you”. But I’m still not convinced with the whole hours thing!
FUN With Points!
Over the last few months I’ve been getting some teams up and running with Scrum, and one area I always seem to have “fun” with is introducing people to the points-based system of estimating. So much fun in fact, that I’ve decided to write this very blog post about it! See how much fun it is already? No? ok.
When we do our estimating (during the planning sessions) we look at each story (work item or task) and guess how big it is in terms of effort. But we don’t just think about how long it’ll take, we also consider the following:
- Amount of unknowns
So for our teams, the size of a story represents how much effort it’ll take, how complicated it is, and how unsure we are that we know everything we need to know about getting that task done.
But Why Not Just Use Hours?
I get this question quite a lot. There’s a couple of reasons why hours don’t rock my world in quite the way that points do. Firstly, they’re an absolute measurement, rather than a relative measurement (more on relative measurements in a bit), and also because they encourage us to focus on how long something will take, and discourage us from thinking about complexity and unknowns. When estimating in hours, we naturally think primarily about the actual amount of time it would take to do that task, and hey presto, we have an answer. This answer quite often doesn’t take complexity and “unknowns” into account – but why? Basically it’s because we’re human. If were asked to think in hours, we naturally just think about how long a task will take, not how difficult it is or how many unknowns we should consider.
So when we’re all finally agreed that hours just doesn’t cut it, I go straight into the whole “points” concept. Unfortunately, for some people this basic concept is far too similar to hours, and they get confused. I was talking about this with Matthew Skelton (of London Continuous Delivery group fame – aka @matthewpskelton), and he suggested that I start off by getting people to use completely abstract objects to do their sizing, such as dinosaurs for example. I think this is a great idea for an exercise to get people away from thinking in terms of hours, but I’m not sure how well it would work in an actual sprint – you might need a team of people who are dinosaur fanatics! Anyway, I’ve mentioned this dinosaur idea a few times, in order to demonstrate that our points are completely abstract and not directly related to hours, and it has worked nicely (cheers Matthew!).
Next we move on to the exciting topic of relative sizing. Once the team have got their heads around the idea that a story shouldn’t be estimated in hours alone, it’s time to teach them a new way of measuring how big a story is.
There was a paper published in the American Journal of Psychology in 1967 called “Size-Estimation of Familiar Objects under Informative and Reduced Conditions of Viewing” by H. Richard Schiffman (vol 80 pp229-235 for those that are interested) which revealed that humans are better at estimating the size of an object when they had another familiar object to compare it to. We use this method of “relative sizing” when we estimate the sizes of our stories or tasks. We start off by picking the easiest (and usually the smallest) story of all, and give it a number – if we think this really will be just about the smallest sized story we ever want to record, we can give it the size of 1. I call this our “starter”. Some teams have given their starter a score of 2, because they often get stories which are much simpler, but not that frequently. I have no problem with this idea.
After we’ve defined our starter, we size all our other stories in comparison with it. So if our starter is 1 point, and our next story is 3 times bigger than our starter, we give it a 3! Simples.
Some people use the Fibonacci Sequence as an additional rule in their estimating. The Fibonaccci sequence goes 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…. etc and so forth. There aren’t many things more boring in life than people who are obsessed with the Fibonacci sequence. The only interesting thing about it is that male bees ancestry follows the Fibonacci sequence (has 1 parent because he came from an unmated female, 2 grandparents, 3 great-grandparents, 5 great-great-grandparents, and so on). Bees aside, the Fibonacci Sequence is fairly dull. One reason why some people use it in agile estimating is because they argue that if a story is bigger than a 3, then the sheer size alone should account for an additional increase due to the potential “uncertainty” factor. Suffice to say, I don’t agree.
I read a book called The Agile Samurai by Jonathan Rasmusson (I really should do a book review of that at some point) and I came across a section explaining “The Wisdom of Crowds”. The Wisdom of Crowds, it explains, happens to be another book (by James Surowiecki) which, bear with me here, tells a story about a British scientist called Francis Galton. In 1906 Francis Galton did an experiment at a fair where people had to guess the weight of a butchered ox. Francis expected a professional butcher to provide the most accurate estimate, but to his surprise, the crowd of villagers actually came up with the best guess! In short, experts are often trumped by a crowd.
This concept has been adopted in agile estimation, where we use group consensus to help us agree what our estimate should be for a particular story.
That’s about it from me when it comes to points. So remember, hours are bad, dinosaurs are good, butchers are stupid and male bees have no fathers!!
If Devopsdays London was an office party, Patrick Dubois would be the Head of HR keeping an eye on proceedings, the guest speakers would be the live entertainment, and the Zero Turnaround guys would lacing the punch with more vodka and photocopying their body parts.
Zero Turnaround bought the fun, as evidenced by their stand which looked more like a booze section from an off licence, and this video here, which had me giggling in the back row like a naughty school kid:
Watch out Grammy Awards. Naturally, I felt I had to go and have a chat with these guys during one of the breaks and find out if I could blag any of their free booze…
“It’s all been taken, by competition winners” explained Simon from behind a massive heap of Guinness and Irish Whiskey. “We’re just, er, looking after this lot” said Neeme (Simon’s Zero Turnaround partner in crime) Yeah, sure.
No luck with the free booze, I thought maybe I could distract them with a question or two about devops, and then pinch some beer while they were deep in thought.
“So what does DevOps mean to you guys?” I asked, with half an eye on a bottle of Jamesons…
“A lot of it is about streamlining and bringing value to the customers sooner” Said Simon Maple, Tech Evangelist at ZT. And I suppose that’s actually what it’s ultimately about. Bridging the Dev and Ops gap is really about making us work as a team more smoothly, which leads to us being able to get stuff to our customers more quickly and more reliably. “But of course you need to right tools to do it – you have to automate across Dev and Ops” He added “This helps us remove bottlenecks”, which reminded me about my bottle of whiskey objective, so I asked another question by means of a diversion…
“Do you see a big crossover between DevOps and Agile” I asked. “Yes, DevOps is sort of like Agile breaking out of Dev and into Ops, but you can do devops stuff without being Agile” which again is true, but I imagine if you’re truly agile as a business, you’re almost certainly going to be doing “devops”.
Next, I decided to chuck in a question that caused a whole heap of opinionated discussion at devopsdays, namely “Is DevOps a job title?” (correct answer of course is – “what does it matter what your job title is? You can call yourself the Prince of Darkness for all I care. What matters is getting stuff done”), but Simon went for “I don’t think so, is Agile a job title?” which also made a lot of sense.
“So” I asked, “what do you see as the main challenges to DevOps?” I thought this questions was sufficiently fluffy to warrant an equally fluffy response, during which I could maybe accidentally knock one of the cans of Guinness into my bag…
“Well DevOps has well and truly gone viral now, so our main challenge is to make sure we do it right, or it’ll get a bad name” said Simon, as if he’d heard that particular question a million times before. No luck with the Guinness there then.
After about 5 minutes of chatting I was no closer to bagging myself any free beer than I was when I turned up, but I was having a good chat, and eventually we got around to talking about their products, JRebel and (the one I was more interested in) Live Rebel. I’d already seen their demo and it looked pretty cool to me. I’ll trial JRebel soon and put a review up here too, as I think people will be pretty impressed (I know I was), but that’s for another time. If you want to know more about their products, go see their website, duuh! For those too lazy to go to google and type in “Zero Turnaround”, here’s their website: http://zeroturnaround.com
For those even lazier than that, here’s a REALLY brief summary:
Live Rebel is a deployment orchestrator. It rolls up code and db changes into a release package and automates the delivery to whatever environment you like. It supports Java, Ruby, Python, PHP and Perl (officially) and Neeme also says it’ll work with .Net as well (not so officially). It also plugs nicely into most decent CI systems, such as Jenkins/Hudson and Bamboo (for which there are plugins) and has a one-stop management console for managing your servers and environments etc and so forth.
Anyway, I still had one final question for Simon and Neeme… “What has been your highlight of devopsdays then guys?” I asked. “Meeting the real creme de la creme of the industry and just being part of a great conference” came the reply. So, not meeting me then. Thanks guys.
Simon Maple is @sjmaple on twitter and Neeme is @nemecec. Follow them at your own peril.
By James Betteley
No time for that, I’m seriously late. I was leaving the office just as someone said “James, before you go…” and that was the end of any hopes I had of getting here on time.
It’s 6:40pm, I’ve finally got my sh1t together, and we’re off! In act that’s a lie, they were off ages ago. I’m so late there aren’t even any seats, so I’m sat in the corner at the back, like a proper Billy No-mates
6:41pm: Chris is talking about big balls of mud and how they’ve gone from that, to a much smaller ball (no mention of mud this time).
6:42: Slides are going by quicker than I can type! Chris is talking about the importance of moving away from a “blame culture”. I personally hate blame culture, I think it was the French who invented it. Arf! (sorry).
6:45pm: Ok, there’s a slide on how to get to Continuous Delivery, I’m going to pay attention to this one…
It says you need:
- Cross functional product focused teams
- A focus on technical debt
- Sit the team close to their clients
- actively remove blame culture
- focus on self improvement
- radiate metrics
- collect metrics on work in progress
After a quick coffee break it’s time to interrogate the suspects – It’s Q&A time!
7:01pm: How do you share “commonality of functionality”? Asks someone who likes words ending in “ality”. Service oriented architecture was apparently a big help responds someone from the 7digital posse (they are a posse by the way Chris has been joined by some 7digital reinforcements).
7.02pm: The next question is about metrics and how they collect them. Apparently they’re working on a logging system, but I’m guessing they also use CI and some live reporting tools which I probably missed in the earlier slides! Oops.
7.05pm: “What didn’t work?” Asks someone (my favorite question so far. I’m giving it a 7.5 out of ten). Trying to patch things up didn’t work. The dependency chain caused a pain. Acceptance Tests were a pain (haha!) Using UI stuff and a shared DB caused Acceptance Test issues, they say. I nod in agreement.
7:07pm: Someone says something about keeping environments the same being a challenge. They’re meant to be the same??? Where’s the fun in that?
7.10pm: A question on blame culture is next up, namely “How do you get rid of it?” By not telling on people! Also, having a dev manager who protects from above is handy.
It’s how you respond [to blame] that’s important, as that’s what sets the tone.
7:11pm: How did you make the culture change? Asks someone who wants to know how they made the culture change. It’s another good question, and one I’d really like to learn from. It’s all very well having a great culture, and there’s no denying its importance, but how do you make a culture change if it’s not ideal to start with? Sadly the answer isn’t straightforward. The posse reply with things like “Adopt Agile principles”, “tech manifesto” (which sounds cool), “self-organising teams”, “small steps” and “leading by example”. Followed up with “hire well”, “you need champions!” “do workshops”. Also, “the CTO is pretty cool”. Hmmmm, so no “click here to change your culture” button then?
7:16pm: The next question is a corker. It went a bit like: “Usually have to change architecture of system to support Continuous Delivery, but also sometimes the architecture of organisation as well. Did this happen?” That’s the winner so far. “No” comes the answer. Damn. At 7 digital there’s a focus on lack of hierarchy, so quite a flat structure. Not much change was needed then, obviously. I think the word “culture” came up as well, and not for the first time.
7:18pm: How have they managed to integrate Ops, asks the next person, clearly fresh from devopsdays. “We’re still learning” is the honest sounding response. Not that the all haven’t been honest sounding. They’ve started assigning Ops people to “the team”, by which I assume they mean the project team.
7:20pm: Someone wants to know if they had a shared goal between tech/ops and dev? I think the answer is yes. Basically Rob (who is the head of both ops and dev) became head of both ops and dev, which helped. He also created a tech manifesto and is toying with the idea of putting up some posters. When I was a kid I had a poster of Airwolf in my bedroom. Not sure if that’s going to help anyone though.
7:21pm: “Is there a QA on the team?” is the next question. Yarp (I’m paraphrasing). But the QA person is more of a coach – everyone is expected to do it, but they’re there to lead. No separate dev manger or QA manager – everyone’s one great big team (aaahhhh).
7:23pm: Somebody has asked how they handle support, and whether there’s a support team. I think the person who responds says there’s a “Systems team”, who get a text or call in the middle of the night. It seems a bit cruel that they wait until the middle of the night to text them but what do I know? Apparently the devs may also get involved, so that’s ok. There’s an on-call team, “but this is an area for improvement” they confess. Mainly it’s a case of “call someone!”, which I personally think is pretty good. But they do stress how there’s a focus on monitoring so that they can catch as many issues as possible before they become, er, issues, if you catch my drift. They said it much better than I can write it.
7:26pm: “How frequently did you deploy your big ball of mud compared to how frequently you do it now?” And that question goes to contestant number 2. It used to be one every 3 months, but they don’t measure how frequently they can deploy stuff any more because it’s that frequent.
(that’s just showing off). Improving the deploy mechanism was all-important. And changing the culture to shift to more frequent releases. That word “culture” again.
7:30pm: This question sounds like a plant: “How do you have time to test stuff if you deploy so often?” asks some cheeky 7digital employee hidden in the audience. I’m joking of course, it’s a nice question because it leads to a well executed answer: Chris basically explains that because they deploy so often, their releases are very small. Also, they’ve automated the hell out of everything.
7:31pm: Dave asks a really good question but I’m far too slow to keep up! It included the phrase “separation of concerns” so was probably too complicated for me to understand anyway.
7:40pm: There’s a question about schema changes. I reckon the answer will include the word “culture”. it does. Somehow.
If there was a word cloud for this Q&A session then “culture” would dwarf all the others. Something tells me that “culture shift” is important.
7:45pm: “How do you manage project accounting?” “We don’t” – No mention of culture!
7:46pm: Someone asks “If there’s a production issue, like an outage, who takes ownership?”. Nice one, who indeed does take ownership? “Everyone, we have a culture of shared ownership”. Gah! it’s all about culture!
7:47pm: “How do you decide what projects get green lighted?” asks some poor innocent from the back of the room (and no, it wasn’t me). Apparently this has nothing to do with Continuous Delivery (and all the other questions have?) and there’s nobody from the product team here so that question lands on stony ground.
7:52pm: Banos treads a fine line by asking a question dangerously close to the time when we’re meant to be heading to the pub, but just about gets away with it “what CI system do you use?” he asks, and the answer is (drum roll…..) Team City! Actually there was no drum roll, I made that up. Then interestingly they say that everyone is in charge of looking after Team city and that they just trust each other! Crazyness!
8.02pm: “I was told we finish at 8″ says Chris, and she’s bloody well right, there’s a pub nearby and some of us are thirsty.
So, in conclusion, 7digital know their Continuous Delivery from their TDD, and “culture” is the word of the evening. I’m off for beer with Banos, and the rest of the London Continuous Delivery gang!
Keep an eye out for #londoncd on twitter for news of the next London Continuous Delivery meetup, or go to the London CD website. Also follow the likes of @matthewpskelton, @AgileSteveSmith, @banoss and @davenolan for more Continuous Delivery goodness.
All good plans come in 3 phases:
Although I won’t be collecting any underpants, I’ll be following this basic template (with a couple of tweaks here and there) during an Agile adoption initiative I’m currently working on.
In the South Park episode (from which I have taken the picture above) the boys discover a bunch of underpant-stealing gnomes, who are collecting underpants as part of a grand plan to make profit. The gnomes claim to be business experts but none of them appears to know what phase 2 of the plan is. All they know is that their business model is based on collecting underpants, and so that’s what they’ll do.
Unfortunately, I have been witness to a couple of attempts at adopting agile which weren’t very dissimilar to the underpants gnomes’ business plan. Namely, a business starts “Adopting Agile”, usually driven by the development team, where they start doing stand-ups and using a sprint board (this is phase 1) and somehow they are surprised when this doesn’t suddenly start producing profit. Clearly, “becoming Agile” isn’t as simple as that.
Phase 1 – Collect business reasons (not underpants)
So you’re going Agile. Presumably you’ve determined that this is what you want, and what your customers need. If you haven’t done this yet then stop right there and ask yourself “Do I Need Go Agile?”. The answer might be “no”, but does needing to go Agile have to be the only reason? Maybe you just want to go agile to see what the fuss is all about, or to make your business more attractive to potential new employees.
So lets assume we’re going agile, and you have valid business reasons to do so. My first suggestion would be to make those business reasons highly visible. You have to outline the existing issues and how Agile can help to fix them. Mitchell and Webb once did a sketch about a toothbrush company who had to try to think of some gimmick to add to their toothbrushes in order to keep increasing their sales. They came up with the idea of “dirty tongue”. This is where microscopic “tonguanoids” build up, and basically result in social exclusion and a lack of sex. Their solution: to put bristles on the other side of the toothbrush so that people can brush their tongues while they brush their teeth. People will buy these toothbrushes despite the fact that “brushing your tongue makes you retch, everybody knows that”. The point I’m making, very badly, is that it’s a lot easier to sell things if people think that what they’re buying into will fix some very real, tangible issue.
The same goes with Agile. To get the buy-in you need to make your agile adoption a success, you’ll need to identify how “going Agile” is going to make life better for everyone concerned.
If the problem you’ve got is that you never ship software on time, or you constantly fail to deliver what the customer wants, then it’s fairly easy to “sell” agile as the solution. The concept of sprints are a doddle for everyone to understand, and they’ll love the idea that the customer will have regular interactions with the development team, and get to see regular progress in the demos. “Of course!” they’ll say “It’s so obvious, why didn’t I think of that before”. The business should easily be able to see how short, sharp sprints with an emphasis on “working software” will make it easier to deliver what the customer wants, and manage their expectations of when it’ll be ready.
But what if those aren’t the problems you need to solve?
What if your problem is quality? How do you convince the business that Agile will result in a higher quality product? It’s not quite so easy. Agile itself won’t deliver better quality, but the good practices you’ll have to implement in order to successfully be agile will help to improve your quality. I was thinking about this the other day because it’s exactly the problem I was faced with.
Agile isn’t going to make it easier to reliably test our software. But to be agile, we need to be able to build and deploy our project rapidly so that we can test it right there and then, not tomorrow, not next week, but right now, so that the testers and devs can work in tandem, building features and signing them off and moving on to the next one. We have to facilitate this in order to be agile, so as a byproduct of going agile we might have to invest in creating a new build and deployment system. And it has to be quick so it’ll have to be automated.
So we have an automated build and deployment system, but to be able to reliably test our features we’ll have to make sure the environments are reliable. We can throw people at this problem and dedicate a team to making sure our environments are clean and regularly audited, or we can automate all that as well! Fortunately there are numerous tools and good practices we can follow to do this, just take a look at Chef, Puppet, Vagrant, and VMWare as examples of tools for automating deployments of virtual machines, and the concepts of “infrastructure as code” for good practices. (of course, if your hardware isn’t already virtualised the first thing to do is see whether it can be, and if it really, honestly can’t, then look at tools like Norton Ghost and Powershell for ways of automating as much as you can).
“Agile” and “Improved Quality” might not be the most obvious bed partners, but the journey to becoming agile almost forces you to take steps which will naturally go towards improving your quality.
Hopefully you’ll have enough “sales material” to put forward a great case for agile – you can deliver exactly what the customer wants, to a higher quality, and you can manage their expectations in a way you could never do before. And that’s just scratching the surface of what Agile can do for a business, but for the purposes of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I’ll leave it at those 3 things!
Phase 2 – Pick the most appropriate project, and start doing Scrum
The sales pitch is over and now it’s time to start doing stuff. Make your life a lot easier by picking a project that has as many of the following features as possible:
- Smart developers and testers
- Isn’t suffering from a tonne of technical debt
- Has users who are happy to get involved in early & regular feedback
- Is small, new or yet to begin
If you’re taking on an existing project, a good idea at this point is to benchmark your existing processes. Consider trying to measure the following:
- How long does it take to get a single change from request through to production deployment?
- How much time and money does it cost to fix an issue on production?
- How many bugs do you typically find on your production code every month?
- How often do you deliver features that don’t satisfy the customer?
- How often do you deliver features after the deadline?
Measuring some of the things above is clearly non-trivial, but if you can find these stats somewhere, they’ll be very useful benchmarks for you in the future. When you can demonstrate that all of these metrics are improved in your new Agile process, god-like status will soon follow.
I recommend doing Scrum because it’s simple and has the most support in terms of people with experience, material (books, courses etc), and tools. It’s a good “framework” to get you started, and once you’ve had success, you can evolve into other methods, or incorporate them into Scrum (such as BDD, TDD etc).
At about this point you’ll need to do some
brainwashing training. The concept of doing analysis, design, development and testing all at the same time is going to sound absolutely bonkers to some people. Try your best to explain it to them, but don’t waste too much time on this – just crack on and make a start!
Most people will enjoy the experience of working in this “new” way, and the first few sprints will probably benefit from the fact that everyone is performing better simply because they feel more invigorated. Use this opportunity to promote scrum across the organisation.
In this phase, always maintain a focus on “the business” and not just on the technical team. It’s important that the business feels part of this new process or they’ll just see it as some crazy dev thing which doesn’t really affect them, and they won’t try to understand it. Business people might refer to this as “Promoting Synergy”, which I’ve just shoe-horned into this post so that I can add a picture from Lonely Island’s “Like A Boss” video. However, I do like to make a point of always highlighting the extra business value we’re delivering, and make sure the Product Managers (soon to be “Product Owners”) are involved all the way. They represent the traditional link between the customers and what we’re delivering, and so it’s essential that they understand the benefits of agile.
I was recently asked about the impact of “going agile” on a project’s release schedule, and when we would be able to deliver the features we’ve promised to the customers. It’s difficult to explain that we no longer know when we’ll deliver stuff, but at some point, people will have to realise that this is the wrong question. I prefer the idea of a rolling roadmap, which is continually reviewed and updated (as often as you can afford to do it, really). Rolling Roadmaps give the business, as well as the customers a good idea of our intentions, but it is very different to fixed dates on a release schedule, or a traditional yearly roadmap. Of course, everyone needs to understand that the main driver for our deliverables will be the customers, and what the customer wants will usually change over a shorter period than you expect. So for your new “Agile” project, try to work towards implementing a rolling roadmap culture, and move away from long-term fixed delivery dates (if you can).
One final note on Phase 2: Make it fun, and make it different.
Phase 3 – Improve
Agile promotes “fast feedback loops” all over the place: in development we get fast feedback on our code through Continuous Integration, with BDD we get fast feedback to the Product Owners/BAs and of course with our more frequent releases we get faster feedback from the customers. And so it is with our Agile processes as a whole. With short sprints and the clever use of retrospectives we can continually tinker with our fine tuning to see if we can improve our quality and velocity. Look at areas you can try to improve, change something and then see if your change has had a positive impact at the end of the sprint. This is basically the concept behind Deming’s Shewhart Cycle:
Deming actually preferred “Plan, Do, Study, Act”, whereas I myself prefer “Plan, Do, Measure, Act”. The reason I prefer this is because it implies the use of quantifiable metrics to base our actions on, rather than some other non-quantifiable observations. Anyways, the point is that after agile is applied, you should keep looking at ways to continuously improve. This is key to keeping everyone feeling fresh and invigorated, helps us to learn from our mistakes, and encourages innovation.
So there you go, Agile delivered in 3 well easy steps. It shouldn’t take you much longer than an afternoon. Ok, it might take a bit longer but if you’re looking for a 30,000 foot overview of a simple 3-phase approach, then you could do a lot worse than apply the principles of “Sell the Agile Idea, Pick the Best Project, and Keep Improving”.
The IT Ops team’s 4th sprint came to its conclusion recently… and we delivered all of our commitments! Huzzah! This post is basically a summary of how we analysed the sprint and what we got up to in the retrospective.
The main objectives of this sprint were:
- Rolling out a new password policy
- Rolling out a new file server
- Rebuilding the dev db
In addition to these tasks there were a bunch of other smaller tasks, far too dull for me to list here.
This was the first time we’d completed all of our committed points, and it gave us enough information to work out how many points we can realistically attempt to deliver in each sprint.
Once again the team completed over 100 points in the sprint, and once again we committed to doing 50 project points (the other 50-or-so being unplanned interruptions).
Sprint 4 in Numbers:
We completed 50 committed points
We completed 64 unplanned points
Total: 114 points
That’s very much in-line with the total we’ve come to expect.
We averaged 3.8 points per person per day for the duration of the sprint.
This means that we’re able to do roughly 2 points per person per day on committed project work.
In an ideal scenario, with no interruptions, no meetings and nothing to distract us from our tasks, we estimate that we could do about 6 points per person per day.
Therefore, statistically speaking, were actually 33% productive on our project work.
Of the remaining 67% we spent another 33% on interruptions.
So what happens to the other 33%??
The remaining effort and time is taken up with meetings, discussions, unrecorded interruptions, emails, phone calls and unproductive time. This figure (33%) is in the region of what I expected before we embarked upon this process some 8 weeks ago.
How to use this information
Well we know that we can complete approximately 50 project points per sprint. So we can now break down upcoming projects into tasks, and give realistic predictions on when they can be delivered.
The only caveat is that we do not make guarantees on project priority. We will always commit to working on delivering the highest business value projects first, and as a result will take guidance from the business on priorities. If a project’s priority is lowered then it will likely drop down the pecking order of our tasks, and its delivery date will slip.
In short, providing project priorities don’t chance for the duration of the project, we can now give far more realistic predictions on delivery dates.
To get the creative juices flowing, we started the retrospective with everyone drawing a picture of Sprint 4. There were no rules to this task, we could draw anything we wanted that represented sprint 4 for us as individuals.
Here’s the resulting “artwork”, if you can call it that:
Farid, who for some reason I expected to be something of an artist, drew a picture of the Jules Rimet trophy. This was partly to represent the fact that we completed the Password and File server projects, and partly to reflect that we hit our target.
Nick’s “effort” was of a question mark going into a grinder with a gold bar coming out of the other end. This reflects the fact that we’re not 100% sure of what’s happening up front at the beginning of our sprint, and we base our estimations on “best-guesses”, but by the end of the sprint we were producing the goods. It also raises a very relevant point about how we know we are addressing the right projects/tasks in the right order. More on that later.
Jon (in his unique avant-garde style) drew a person wearing a Boss hat. The person represents the team, and the boss hat is representative of the fact that we all completed our tasks on time and delivered what we committed to. Or at least that was his explanation, although I suspect it has more to do with the Lonely Island “Like a Boss” video, which is something of a theme tune in the IT Ops team. Seriously.
Leo drew the burndown, the original of which you can find at the bottom of this post.
Next up, we all chose 1 thing from the sprint that we wanted to discuss in more detail. Here’s what we ended up speaking about:
1. Using small post-it notes to record interruptions on the board didn’t work. They’re too small and not sticky enough. This was a major issue for Leo and Jon, who clearly have something against post-it notes.
2. We need to plan more carefully. Our planning sessions are rushed, and as a result we don’t think our tasks through as well as we should. The main failure here is that we don’t think about the impact other people can have on our tasks.
Following this, we discussed what we think went well, and what we think went badly in the sprint:
- Better prioritisation of interruptions allowed us to concentrate on the
- committed tasks
- Implementing the password policy
- Realistic goal setting
- IT request backlog grew bigger
What did we learn from Sprint 4:
- 50 Project points is our magic number
- Don’t over-commit
- Do more forward planning
- Our prioritizing is getting better
Finally we discussed the stats and figures mentioned earlier, and then we looked back at the burndown to see if there was any useful information we could take from it.
Leo suggested that the burndown be pre-populated with the mean line, so that we can see our daily deviation from that line. I have filed this suggestion in a folder named “Leo’s Good Ideas”, and we’ll adopt it in future sprints once I’ve worked out how to use Excel properly (or found a pen and a ruler).
As mentioned earlier, we’ve worked out what our average velocity is – and we can now confidently say that 50 project points per sprint is a realistic target for the team. Now that we’ve established this, we need to turn our attention to ensuring that we’re delivering the highest business value we possibly can. At present we feel we are slightly deficient in engaging with the business to define our priorities, so in the future we’ll be looking at having a much closer engagement with the rest of the business to help us with our prioritising and acceptance criteria. We want to be delivering the most important projects first, and we want to have a clear picture of what a successful delivery of those projects looks like.
Over the next couple of sprints we’ll be shifting our focus in this direction, and hopefully people will start to see the results over the next few weeks.
P.S. Jon is available for hire as a short order artist, ideal for weddings and birthday parties. Disappointment guaranteed.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a half-empty office in London. It’s half empty, you see, because it’s snowing outside, and when it snows in London, chaos ensues. Public transport grinds to a complete halt, buses just stop, and the drivers head for the nearest pub/cafe. The underground system, which you would think would be largely unaffected by snow, what with it being under ground, simply stops running. The overground train service has enough trouble running when it‘s sunny, let alone when it’s snowing. And of course most people know this, so whenever there’s a risk of snow, many people simply stay at home, hence the half-empty office I find myself in.
But why does London grind to such a standstill? Many northern European cities, as well as American ones, experience far worse conditions and yet life still runs fairly normally. Well, one reason for London’s regular winter shutdown is the infrastructure (you can see where I’m going with this, right?). The infrastructure in London is old and creaking, and in desperate need of some improvement. The problem is, it’s very hard to improve the existing infrastructure without causing a large amount of disruption, thus causing a great deal of inconvenience for the people who need to use it. The same can often be said about improving IT infrastructure.
Last night I went along to one of the excellent London Continuous Delivery Meetups (organised by Matthew Skelton at thetrainline.com – follow him on twitter here) which this month was all about Infrastructure Automation using Chef. Andy from Opscode gave us a demo of how to use Chef as part of a continuous delivery pipeline, which automatically provisioned an AWS vm to deploy to for testing. It all sounded fantastic, it’s exactly what many people are doing these days, it uses all the best tools, techniques and ideas from the world of continuous delivery, and of course, it didn’t work. There was a problem with the AWS web interface so we couldn’t actually see what was going on. In fact it looked like it wasn’t working at all. Anyway, aside from that slight misfortune, it was all very good indeed. The only problem is that it’s all a bit utopian. It would be great if we could all work on greenfield projects, or start rewriting everything from scratch, but in the real world, we often have legacy systems (and politics) which represent big blockers on the path to getting to utopia. I compare this to the situation with London’s Infrastructure – it’s about as “legacy” as you can possibly get, and the politics involved with upgrading it is obvious every time you pick up a newspaper.
In my line of work I’ve often come across the situation where new infrastructure was required – new build environments, new test server, new production environments and disaster recovery. In some cases this has been greenfield, but in most cases it came with the additional baggage of an existing legacy system. I generally propose one or more of the following:
- Build a new system alongside the old one, test it, and then swap it over.
- Take the old system out of commission for a period of time, upgrade it, and put it back online.
- Live with the old system, and just implement a new system for all projects going forward.
Then comes the politics. Sometimes there are reasons (budget, for instance) that prevents us from building out our own new system alongside the old one, so we’re forced into option 2 (by far the least favorable option because it causes the most amount of disruption).
The biggest challenge is almost always the Infrastructure Automation. Not from a technical perspective, but from a political point of view. It’s widely regarded as perfectly sensible to automate builds and deployments of applications, but for some reason, manually building, deploying and managing infrastructure is still widely tolerated! The first step away from this is to convince “management” that Infrastructure Automation is a necessity:
- Explain that if you don’t allow devs to log on to the live server to change the app code, then why is it acceptable to allow ops to go onto servers and change settings?
- Highlight the risk of human error when manually configuring servers
- Do some timings – how long does it take to manually build your infrastructure – from provisioning to handover (including any wait times for approval etc)? Compare this to how quick an automated system would be.
Once you’ve managed to convince your business that Infrastructure Automation is not just sensible, but a must-have, then it’s time for the easy part – actually doing it. As Andy was able to demonstrate (eventually), it’s all pretty straightforward.
Recently I’ve been using the cloud offerings from Amazon as a sort of stop-gap – moving the legacy systems to AWS, upgrading the original infrastructure by implementing continuous delivery and automating the infrastructure, and then moving the system back onto the upgraded (now fully automated and virtualised) system. This solution seems to fit a lot more comfortably with management who feel they’ve already spent enough of their budget on hardware and environments, and are loath to see the existing system go to waste (no matter how useless it is). By temporarily moving to AWS, upgrading the old kit and processes, and then swapping back, we’re ticking most people’s boxes and keeping everyone happy.
Cloud hosting solutions such as those offered by Amazon, Rackspace and Azure have certainly grown in popularity over the last few years, and in 2012 I saw more companies using AWS than I had ever seen before. What’s interesting for me is the way that people are using cloud hosting solutions: I am quite surprised to see so many companies totally outsourcing their test and production environments to the cloud, here’s why:
I’ve looked into the cost of creating “permanent” test labs in the cloud (with AWS and Rackspace) and the figures simply don’t add up for me. Building my own vm farm seems to make far more sense both practically and economically. Here are some figures:
3 Windows vms (2 webservers, 1 SQL server) minimum spec of dual core 4Gb RAM:
- 2x Windows “Large” instance
- 1x Windows “large” instance with SQL server
- Total: £432 ($693.20)
- 3x 4Gb dual core = £455
- 1x SQL Server = £o
- Total: £455
These figures assume a full 730 hours of service a month. With some very smart time and vm management you could get the rackspace cost down to about £300 pcm. However, their current process means you would have to actually delete your vms, rather than just power them off, in order to “stop the clock” so to speak.
So basically we’re looking at £450 a month for this simple setup. Of course it’s a lot cheaper if you go for the very low spec vms, but these were the specs I needed at the time, even for a test environment.
The truth is, for such a small environment, I probably could have cobbled together a virtualised environment of my own using spare kit in the server room, which would have cost next to nothing.
So lets look at a (very) slightly larger scale environment. The cost for an environment consisting of 8 Windows vms (with 1 SQL server) is around £1250 per month. After a year you would have spent £15k on cloud hosting!
But I can build my own vm farm with capacity for at least 50 vms for under £10k, so why would I choose to go with Rackspace or Amazon? Well, there are actually a few scenarios where AWS and Rackspace have come in useful:
1. When I just wanted a test environment up and running in no time at all – no need to deal with any ITOps team bottlenecks, just spin up a few vms and we’re away. In an ideal world, the infrastructure team should get a decent heads up when a new project is on it’s way, because the dev & QA team are going to need test environments setting up, and these things can sometimes take a while (more on that in a bit). But sadly, this isn’t an ideal world, and quite often the infrastructure team remain blissfully unaware of any hardware requirements until it’s blocking the whole project from moving forward. In this scenario, it has been convenient to spin up some vms on a hosted cloud and get the project unblocked, while we get on and build up the environments we should have been told about weeks ago (I’m not bitter, honestly :-))
2. Proof of concepting – Again no need to go through any red-tape, I can just get up and running on the cloud with minimal fuss.
3. When your test lab is down for maintenance/being rebuilt etc. If I could simply switch to a hosted cloud offering with minimal fuss, then I would have saved a LOT of downtime and emergencies in 2012. For example, at one company we hosted all our CI build servers on our own vm farm, and one day we lost the controller. We could have spun up another vm but for the fact that with one controller down, we were over capacity on the others. If I could have just spun up a copy of my Jenkins vm on AWS/Rackspace then I would have been back up and running in short order. Sadly, I didn’t have this option, and much panic ensued.
The Real Cost of Build-it-Yourself
So I’ve clearly been of the mind that hosting my own private cloud with a VMware VSphere setup is the most economically sensible solution. But is it really? What are the hidden costs?
Well last night, I was chatting with a couple of guys in the London Continuous Delivery community and they highlighted the following hidden costs of Build-it-Yourself (BIY):
Maintenance costs – With AWS they do the maintenance. Any hardware maintenance is done by them. In a BIY solution you have to spend the time and the money keeping the hardware ticking over.
Setup costs – Setting up a BIY solution can be costly. The upfront cost can be over £20,000 for a decent vm farm.
Management costs – The subsequent management costs can be very high for BIY systems. Who’s going to manage all those vms and all that hardware? You might (probably will) need to hire additional resources, that’s £40k gone!
So really, which solution is cheapest?