Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How to Get Real in Corporate Development, Part IV

This is the fourth part of a series of essays on how to leverage the concepts of Agile software product development from Getting Real from 37signals in a corporate development organization. Part I introduces the concepts of Getting Real, part II looks at the idea of building less and part III was on focusing on one idea.

Next, we talk about structuring the project to quickly produce working code. So here it is:

Get something functional and usable deployed quickly. Plan on your next release right away. Make a choice and go with it.

Constraints are what drive a project. If you had unlimited time and money, you would probably never produce anything, as ironic as that may sound. You need limits to focus you on getting something done. My triathlon training buddy and I like to say that we "train to race and race to train" because without the race date, it's too easy to sleep in instead of hitting the pool at 5:00 AM. Constraints drive us.

So, pick one of your projects and give it to a small group of good engineers. Tell them they have four weeks to produce the first version that the business can use, but then they'll have four more weeks to produce the next release. And close the door.

They will focus on building less and implementing one idea. It's all that they'll have time for. Meanwhile, let the business know that the first iteration will be ready for use in four weeks and that the engineers will need their feedback to produce the second iteration.

Your job is to get out of the way and make sure the engineers have the tools, access and permissions they need to do their work. Herein lies additional opportunity.

Perhaps there are procedure and process documents in your organization. Perhaps there is a PMO and a review committee. Perhaps you have strict regression testing requirements for deployments. Perhaps, under normal circumstances it would take your small, Agile group of engineers four weeks just to get permission to connect to the database they need to fulfill this project.

Your opportunity is to fix this. Yes, security and access control is critically important. But, we're in the 21st Century, aren't we? Network directories with access control list are mature technologies and are probably in your organization. Are your Oracle databases set up to take advantage of your LDAP infrastructure? They should be. And no one better exists than you to make it happen.

Your organization should have four environments:
  • Development -- open and flexible for the developers to do anything. Developers should work in both Debug and Non-Debug environments. Don't accept "Well, it worked on my machine."
  • Test -- mirrors production, but allows developers to see everything in the system.
  • Staging -- mirrors production as closely as possible
  • Production -- full security and access controls.

Using virtualization, farms, and similar techniques can keep this from being a horrible amount of overhead. The key is that you need to unlock your most productive engineers. Now is a good time to note that not all of your engineers are your most productive ones. Make sure your less productive engineers are fully supporting your most productive ones. There are opportunities for training and mentoring, which build employee satisfaction and loyalty, but let's get back to getting functional software out.

How many times have you already read that a skilled and senior engineer is many times -- 10 times, 15 times, 20 times -- more productive than a junior engineer? So, we don't need to say it again. Nope. Not going to say it. Na-uh.

So then, just how will this work? Well, let's start off by looking at the typical process. The business has an urgent need. Something like, "they spend a huge amount of time running end of month reports and small errors in the data cause regular heroics."

In the typical process they fill out an Application Enhancement Request or New Application Request or some such like that. This gets reviewed at the next Application Review Committee meeting and goes back to the requester for more details. Two weeks go by for the out and back trip and the ARC approves the request. The next week a project manager and business analyst are assigned to it. They take two weeks to gather requirements, another week to create a Statement of Work and one more to have that approved by the stakeholders. The following week, a project team is assembled while the analyst writes the Functional Specification. The stakeholders don't even bother reading that.

We're up to, um, nine weeks. The team takes two months to write the application, three weeks to test it, one week to slot it into deployment and, lo and behold! More than five (5!!) months later, the application is first released. The users try it and file a new Application Enhancement Request to get it to do all the things that they need and eliminate the stupid things that crept into the application. Time to happy users: 9 months.

Here's how we want it to run:

First, you've addressed the infrastructure, you have the governance in place to enable rapid development and you've now paired your best engineers with the business users we just talked about. They meet for one day and use up another afternoon or two. In four weeks the first release is out and in use. In four more weeks the next version comes out and fixes the big problems with the first release and adds a few more features. One more four week period and the business has something that really works for them. Time to happy users: 3 months.

Even if you give this team another three iterations -- that would be a total of six (6!) releases, it would still be 66% of the duration of the Same Old Way, which would have produced 2 releases. Which application do you think would be better? The one that had six tight, focused releases, or the other one? There is no doubt in my mind.

You need to have really great developers to do this. But then again, nothing outstanding was built by mediocre engineers. You need an infrastructure that enables these really great engineers. You still need to have proper governance, SOPs, checks and balances to put software into production, but you can get the work done much, much faster by Getting Real. And this will generate real value for your company.

Thanks again for reading! In the next essay, we'll look at starting with the UI.

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