Upcoming DevOps & Agile Events

London Puppet User Group Meetup
London, Thursday May 21st, 2015

DevOps Exchange London – DevOps & DevOps
London, Tuesday May 26th, 2015

London Agile Discussion Group – Should DevOps be a person or a team-wide skill?
London, Tuesday May 26th, 2015

AWS User Group UK – meetup #15
London, Wed May 27th, 2015

Chef Users London – Microsoft Azure / Chef Taster Day
London, Friday May 29, 2015
9:00am to 5:00pm

DevOps Cardiff – Herding ELKs with consul.io
Cardiff, Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Agile Testing – Visual Creativity: Using Sketchnotes & Mindmaps to aid testing @ #ltgworkshops
London, Thursday June 4th, 2015

ABC (Agile Book Club) London – Review Jeff Patton’s User Story Mapping
London, Thursday June 4th, 2015

Agile Testing – Hooking Docker Into Selenium @ #ltgworkshops
London, Thursday June 4th, 2015

UK Azure User Group – Cloud Gaming Hackathon
London, Saturday June 6th, 2015

London DevOps – London DevOps Meetup #10
London, Thursday June 11th, 2015

Kanban Coaching Exchange – Continuous learning through communities of practice – Emily Webber
London, Thursday June 11th, 2015

Lean Agile Manchester
Manchester, Wednesday June 17th, 2015

London Lean Coffee – Holborn
London, Thursday, June 18th, 2015

UK Azure User Group – Chris Risner
London, Thursday June 18th, 2015

Jenkins User Conference – Europe (London)
London, Tuesday June 23rd – 24th, 2015
2 days

BDD London June Meetup
London, Thursday June 25th, 2015

Automated Database Deployment (Workshop – £300)
Belfast, Northern Ireland, Friday June 26th, 2015
1 day course

Database Continuous Integration (Workshop – £300)
London, July 8th, 2015
1 day course

Database Source Control (Workshop – £100)
London, July 8th, 2015
1 day course

London Lean Coffee – Holborn
London, Thursday, July 16, 2015

Agile Taster – a free introductory Agile training course
Cardiff, Saturday 18 July 2015
10am – 3pm

AWS User Group UK – meetup #16
London, Wed July 22nd, 2015

Continuous Improvement – 10 Ways to Help Your Team Learn (plus 6 more)

Not long ago I went to one of the Agile Coaching Exchange’s meetups in the lovely asos offices in London. Speaker for the night was none other than Rachel Davies who I worked with about a decade ago when she was a freelance agile coach. My god that decade has gone quickly. Anyway, her talk was about the techniques that they use at unruly to encourage learning in the workplace, and as you’d expect, it was really interesting stuff. So, I decided to take some notes and even give some of her ideas a go. Here’s what happened:

Learning Techniques

At one point Rachel asked us, the unsuspecting audience, to come up with a list of different learning techniques we’ve used in the workplace. It was a trap. No matter how many I thought we’d covered off, we were nowhere near the list that Rachel came up with. Basically we’re just not as cool as those kids over at Unruly, that’s what I learned. Anyway, keen to learn more about learning (woah, Learning Inception!) I decided to list the learning techniques I liked the sound of, and I’ve added a bunch of others that hopefully you’ll like the sound of as well (because, you know, lists are way cool):

  1. Workshops
  2. Attending meetups
  3. Pairing
  4. Retrospectives
  5. Mobbing
  6. Hackdays
  7. Devdays
  8. 20% Time
  9. Tech Talks
  10. Book clubs
  11. Coding Dojos
  12. Team Swaps
  13. Rotation
  14. Tech Academy
  15. Blogs
  16. Conferences

Workshops – I use these a lot in my work. I mostly try to keep them hands-on, encouraging the attendees to physically get involved. If I was any good at marketing I would probably describe them as “Interactive”. If necessary, I’ll use hand-outs, but I’ll never just stand there talking through a bunch of slides – that’s seriously uncool and you’ll never get into the Secret Inner Sanctum of the Workshop Magic Circle if you do that. The objective is for the attendees to be actively involved in the workshop, rather than to simply be an observer. I run workshops on Agile Product Ownership, Kanban, Flow (Theory of Constraints), and Sprint Planning & Estimating. Remember, using the term “Workshop” isn’t just a way of making a 4 hour meeting sound more interesting 🙂

Attending Meetups is not only a great way of learning from whatever the speakers are talking about, but also from chatting with the other people at the meetup. I regularly attend the London Continuous Delivery Meetup group (where you get the chance to pick the brains of people such as Matthew Skelton, Steve Smith and Chris O’Dell), the London Devops Exchange, the London Devops Meetup (where you can casually run your devops problems by Marc Cluet and Matt Saunders and then listen while they give you a solution) and the Cardiff DevOps Meetup (hosted by the DevOpsGuys, so you can be guaranteed some top-notch speakers as well as the best beer in the business – I kid you not, at devopsguys we have our own beer!)

Yep, it's called DevHops

Yep, it’s called DevHops

Pairing – Like other programmers of my particular skill level (pisspoor), I get very self-conscious whenever I’m pairing. Not only when I’m the one driving, but also when I’m observing, because I ask stooooopid questions. Below is a picture of me pair programming with my son, who, despite being unable to speak yet, is clearly getting annoyed at my stupid questions (I think I just asked him what nested ternary operators are). However, there’s no denying it’s a fantastic way of learning. The technique we’re trying below involves me writing some ruby function, and then my son will refactor it and embarrass me.



Retrospectives are a way of reflecting on your latest sprint or release, and talking about what you did well, as well as what you didn’t do so well. The trouble is though, that you have to actually take these lessons on-board, and start implementing changes if necessary. It’s all very well reflecting on your performance, but it won’t improve unless you actually do something about it. This could be a whole blog post of its own, bust basically I’m seeing a lot of people in this situation where they rigorously do retrospectives, but nobody every implements the lessons learnt. Quite often it’s because there’s no agile coach involved with the team (and without the agile coach, nobody else has the time to implement the relevant changes themselves, let alone feels responsible for doing so).

Mobbing – Another picture coming up. This time another member of my family is joining in a mobbing session, which is basically a bunch of people all working on the same problem simultaneously (usually around the same screen). Like pairing, it’s a great learning technique. In fact I think it’s superior to pairing, because there are more people and therefore more minds on the job. But of course it can be costly to tie up multiple people on the same task.

Mobbing with my son and Tygwydd

Mobbing with my son and Tygwydd

Hackdays are like a geek-off for devs. I once spent the first 4.5 hours of a hackday trying to install LAMP before basically throwing my PC out of a window. Hackdays are where you get a bunch of devs together and give them all a problem to solve, or some objective to reach (you can be a specific or as vague as you like – often the more vague you are, the more creative your devs will be). 24hrs and a lot of pizza later, you’ll have a bunch of interesting creations – some more complete than others, but all of them creative, geeky, and in their own way very cool. I guarantee you’ll never see a passionate software developer work harder than during a hackday. What do you learn from a hackday? As a dev, you learn how to concentrate after 8 cans of Red Bull, and if you’re in a team then you learn how to work as a team under a high-pressure environment.

Devdays are something I really like to encourage within my teams. The idea is that for at least one day a sprint, 1 or 2 of your delivery team can work on something outside of the sprint commitments. I would aim to make sure everyone gets to take a devday at least once every 3 sprints. Of course, it needs to be relevant work, and it needs to be scheduled ahead of time (get into the habit of asking if anyone’s planning on taking a devday during sprint planning). If your team aren’t doing devdays, it’s a sure sign that you’re either too busy (and will end up experiencing burn-out) or your devs are disinterested. Devdays are a great opportunity to learn a new tool or to start spiking a new idea, perhaps using a new language.

20% Time is fairly similar to the devdays concept, in that people are encouraged to spend up to 1 day a week working on something that’s not on the backlog. I think the idea came from Google, but I’m not sure if they still practice it. Basically devdays, gold-card days or 20% time, call it what you will, are all designed to encourage learning and innovation and keep people feeling fresh and engaged. During her talk, Rachel spoke a little about Gold Cards, which I’d love to tell you more about, but I had to go and take a call just as she was talking about them, so you’ll just have to go and read more about them here.

Tech Talks are like little mini meetups, usually within an organisation, but companies like Facebook also do public tech-talks as well. Great for learning and eating free pizza and doughnuts. As a general rule, if there are no free nibbles, don’t go. Facebook had exceptionally good nibbles at their tech-talk. Just like at meetups, they’re a great place for tapping into the brain power of your fellow attendees as well as the speaker/presenter.

Book Clubs are one of the most underrated and under-used tools for learning, in my opinion. I ran a book club last year in an organisation that was trying to transition to Agile. The book I chose was called The Agile Samurai by Jonathan Rasmusson, which was a big hit with everyone who joined in. The format I use is for the group to read a couple of chapters of a book over the course of a week, and then have a review session where we all discuss what we’ve learnt. It’s a great way to share what we’ve learnt (which helps to make sure we’re all on the same page) and it also ensures that everyone is progressing at a reasonable pace.


Coding Dojos – These are coding-centric programming clubs, basically. They involve a bunch of eager coders getting together and working (usually on their own laptops or in pairs) on a particular challenge, with the purpose of learning more about a particular language (Ruby, Go, Erlang etc) or technique (BDD, TDD etc). Suffice to say you usually need to have a reasonable amount of programming experience to be able to get the most value out of these, but don’t let that put you off. There are plenty of coding dojo metups available to cater for most levels, or you could of course run one yourself within your own organisation.

Team Swaps are where one team swaps with another for an entire day, or possibly longer. The idea behind this is that if you’re going to hand your codebase over to an entirely different team (and not be around to help), then it teaches you to write clean, self-documenting, simple code. On top of that, it also helps you learn more about other team’s coding styles and techniques.

Rotation – If I had to pick one concept and make it a mandatory part of software development, I would pick rotation. Here’s how it works: you take Danny the developer and put him in QA for a couple of sprints. Meanwhile, you take Tammy the Tester and put her in Dev for a couple of sprints. At a later date, Danny the dev will have to do a stint in the helpdesk, while Tammy does a couple of sprints working with the BA or Product Owner. Until eventually, everyone in your sprint team will have done stints in each of the following teams: Dev, Test, Helpdesk, Infrastructure/ops, Architecture, Product (Product Management, BA or whatever you have in your org), and possibly even Sales. It can take up to a year to complete the full set, but the amount you learn is invaluable. It’s not just skills that you pick up, but most of all it’s the different perspectives you get to see. Eventually, this experience will make you a better software delivery professional.

Tech Academies are becoming quite popular, and we’re seeing an increasing demand for help in setting these up within organisations. The idea is to create a number of internal training courses, tailor-made for the challenges that are unique to your organisation. These could be anything from Agile Coaching courses to Database Administration courses (and everything in between). It’s even quite common to see organisation-specific “certification” as well. People can enrol in one of these academies by choice, or you can make them mandatory, it’s up to you – but the key thing is to make them specific to your organisation’s needs. I think these are exceedingly valuable, and they have the added advantage over external training courses of always being 100% relevant, plus you can also ensure that everyone is getting the same standard of training!

Blogs are a great source of information, and a great way to keep up to date with fellow professionals in your technical area. But don’t just read them, write one for yourself! Keeping a team journal or a company blog is a great way of promoting the cool stuff you’re doing, and is also a great way to encourage and develop people’s technical writing skills (not to mention their written communication skills).

Conferences are a great source of free T-shirts, pens, hats, stress-balls, stickers, key-rings, laser-pointers and other things that you quickly get bored of and leave on your desk at the office. But did you know that you can actually learn stuff at conferences as well? It’s true! Some conferences have really, really clever people speaking at them, (other conferences have me), and you’ll usually find the speakers are more than happy to have a chat with you over a drink after their talk. In all seriousness, the Pipeline conference this year was brilliant – a great crowd of very smart professionals from all walks of life, an inspiring keynote from Linda Rising, and a chilled atmosphere. So, get along to a conference (even if you have to take a devday to get away with it), write down what you learn, make a blog out of it, do a tech-talk to your team about it, expand that into a workshop, maybe include some pairing and/or mobbing, and then head on out to a meetup to chat to more like-minded professionals. 🙂 Learning Level: Einstein!

Are “Ready For” Columns on Kanban Boards The Enemy of God?

This is going to be a quick rant post, hopefully. Today I saw another Kanban board which had a “Read for test” column on it, here’s the screenshot:

Not 1 but 2 "Ready for" columns!

Not 1 but 2 “Ready for” columns!


I Think “Ready For” Columns Are Baaaaad

With most Kanban boards you mark a card as done when it’s ready to be pulled into another column. If that means it has to be deployed before a card is ready for test then so be it. The last thing we want is cards just sitting around waiting – this is baaaaaad. “Ready for Test” usually means it’s either deployed (and yet to be tested) or waiting to be deployed. Either way, not much is happening to the work sitting in this column. Basically it’s waste (or “muda” as the Lean Kanban aficionados might call it), and remember, waste is baaaaad.


Seriously, I Think They’re Baaaaad

A result of using these “Ready For x” columns is that they tend to slightly move us away from the “stop the line” practice that good Lean/Kanban systems employ. Basically whenever there’s a problem, or a bottleneck is appearing, we want to stop the production line and address the issue. So, if we keep all these “Ready for QA” cards in our In Dev or Code Review Column (basically whatever column comes before your Ready for QA column) then we’ll very quickly reach our WIP (Work In Progress) limit and the line will be stopped. That’s a good thing! We want to catch that bottleneck as soon as we can, we don’t want to hide it by pushing our cards into another “buffer” column.


Did I Mention That I Think “Ready For” Columns in Kanban Are Baaaaaad?

Yet another problem with “Ready for x” columns is that they quite often tend to be push rather than pull columns. You can’t really pull into a Ready for QA column as it isn’t an actual “workflow” state, it’s a “wasteflow” state (see what I did there?). I mean, who’s going to pull stuff into that column anyway? I’ve yet to meet a “ready for test” team who just sit around pulling cards into their column before marking them as “ready” (presumably once they’ve verified that they are indeed ready for test). Ok, you might have a deployment team who are responsible for deploying stuff to your test environments and so forth. In this case, your workflow state still isn’t “Ready for test” it’s “In Deployment”.



“Ready for x” columns make baby Jesus cry.

SAFe – Command and Control Agile?

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:

  1. What the hell is this and how come I’ve never heard of it?
  2. Why is there no mention of devops?
  3. Is it really as prescriptive as it sounds?
  4. 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

agile_silver_bulletSo 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.

Retrospective of Retrospectives

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” 🙂

It’s Points All the Way Down!

TurtlesAllTheWayDownBertrand 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.


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!

What’s the Point in Points? Agile Estimating with Dinosaurs and Bees

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:

  • Complexity
  • 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?

clockI 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.

dinosaurSo 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!).

Relative Sizing

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.

Fibonacci Sequence

bumble_beeSome 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.

Group Consensus

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!!