April Agile Yorkshire

I managed to get a seat at Agile Yorkshire this month, I’ve missed a few of these recently partly due to other commitments but also the sheer popularity of these events.

Royd (from NewRedo) organises and coordinates these evenings, this week he’d arranged for Chris Cheadle and Sean Craig from NHS Digital and John Le Drew who runs The Agile Path to speak to us.

Chris and Sean went first, they spoke to us about an event they’d run a little before Christmas. They’d called it Firebreak, during a two week period almost the entire organisation downed tools and worked on “whatever they wanted”.

They’d started with almost a kickstarter approach, people posted ideas on postit notes and their colleagues pledged their time – once a project was fully resourced it was banked and it would go ahead.

I love the idea of this sort of thing, really opening the doors to let teams work on what they want – what they feel wild make a difference. Anything from process improvement to a proof of concept or a piece of server maintenance. It certainly seemed to be a positive experience for the NHS team, some of the projects saved thousands of pounds on licence fees!

The second talk of the night was about Safety and how important it is to effective teams.  John explained that he considered safety to be “free to make suggestions, give feedback, and make mistakes without fear of punishment or humiliation.”

For me this feeds into the fundamental requirement of trust which Patrick Lenconi described in his book Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He postulated that without trust (or in John’s words safety) teams would not challenge each other and discuss ideas.

John had a few examples of this, my favourite was a role play exercise where three characters were so determined to avoid taking the blame for pressing The Big Red button which would overload the nuclear reactor they refused to cooperate to press the three buttons which would save them. Contrived? Perhaps… but it makes the point that if you are scared to look foolish then you’ll naturally be less confident to make suggestions.

Something which did niggle me was the idea of accountability, as managers we need to hold our directs responsible for their performance but this is challenging without undermining that feeling of security. In Lenconi’s book he encourages the team to hold each other accountable, finding the balance between a blame culture and safe, self motivating team is a difficult balance to find!

I’d certainly recommend listening to John if he’s speaking in your area. At the very least I’d say every manager should hear his views about engagement and workplace stress! I for one will be listening to his podcast.

It was a great night, as I’ve said before I’d always suggest Agile Yorkshire if you’re a Leeds based  geek!

Why Technical Tests are both a Wonderful and Terrible Idea

When hiring for a new developer its extremely common to ask them to demonstrate their technical ability. Often this is a practical test to be done at home and then sent into the hiring manager.

It’s a nice idea, you get to see the candidate’s unhurried work, get a feel for their skills and potentially ask about them in a face to face interview later. It’s far harder for a bad developer to write good code than it is for them to learn a few answers about relational databases or solid principles.

However, I believe this approach is flawed!

To explain why I want to describe the recent experience of a friend of mine, an outstanding developer who recently applied for a development role. The technical test was presented to him and he completed it, he’d had a rather manic week and so determined not to miss his deadline so he worked late I tot he night. He confessed to me later that he probably spent somewhere between ten and twelve hours on that piece of work!

What happened?

The company rejected him with a series of bullet points over design choices without ever giving him the chance to explain why he’d made those decisions.

So let me ask you this, do you think friend is ever going to waste his time with one of their roles in the future? Do you think I, knowing his experience would apply for one of their jobs? What about the rest of our friendship group?

My point is this – any hiring manager will tell you how scarce good development resource is. By demanding eight, ten, maybe even twelve hours of our candidates’ time and then throwing it away, that’s (in my view) arrogance.

What’s more it doesn’t actually tell you very much! Sat at home what’s to stop someone googling the question, posting something on Stack Overflow, or asking a friend to complete the test for them? How do you know that the candidate’s work is their own?

So what do I recommend instead?

I’m hoping to start recruiting over the next week months and I intend to send code review tasks out to my candidates. Why?

  • Asking someone to review your code gives them a chance to suggest improvements and identify where you’ve not used best practices
  • Code reviews ask candidates to explain and articulate their views, something a straightforward programming challenge doesn’t
  • You still get the same feel of a candidate’s focus (do they focus on code clarity, performance or UI aspects?)
  • You are demanding far less of a candidate’s time and therefore aren’t putting off people applying for the role

Will my approach work? I don’t know, we’ll find out! What are your experiences with practical coding challenges? Do they work?

Microsoft HoloLens

I was lucky enough to get tickets to see Mike Taulty talk about Microsoft HoloLens at Leeds Sharp last week. I didn’t really know anything about augmentated reality or virtual reality but in the interests of Staying Technical I was definitely interested to find out a little more.


It turns out that the HoloLens is a Windows 10 PC designed to be worn rather than sat at. It runs apps from the windows store without modification (although Mike did stress that typing furiously in midair is somewhat less precise than using a keyboard). Instead of sitting on a screen the windows floats in front of you, hovers on a wall, or rests on a table.

3D apps can be build using Unity 3D (in fact Mike showed us how). I was really impressed how easy it was to work out what the user was looking out and listen to what they were saying (although I imagine Microsoft Cognitive Services could be used very effectively here).

Can I imagine us all walking around with these things strapped our head? Probably not… at nearly £3000 for the developer version these are likely to be out of the consumer budget (although Microsoft are working with partners at the moment to develop other models). But in a commercial environment? For architects, engineers, surgeons or even as a stepping stone onto the next generation devices which may weigh little more than regular sunglasses? I could see that!

Am I rushing out to buy a HoloLens? Probably not,  it would I seriously consider an Acer or Asus model for a couple of hundred pounds… that’s a much harder question to answer! I can imagine little spaceships flying around my living room or a huge troll sat on my sofa playing chess with me – the sky really could be the limit with these devices!

Who Should you Share your Backlog With?

I mentioned last week that I’d been to an interesting meeting discussing (and challenging) a few of the Scrum ideas. One of the questions we asked was about Backlog Visibility.

We all agreed that by making the backlog visible to our customers would invite feedback and reduce the likelihood that we’d spend time developing features which gave little value to our clients (see last week’s post on exactly what “value” is). But we couldn’t shake a distinct unease at making our plans visible, it took quite some discussion to articulate why this was.

Many customers and businesses work to project plans (ours included), they have long term visions of where they want to be and what they want to achieve. We realised with some trepidation that by sharing a fluid and ever changing backlog list of ideas with these customers it would create an expectation, which upon the next meeting would lead to disappointment as we had to admit the features we discussed were never in fact developed.

In an Agile environment we want to encourage this change, we want to update our backlog to remove unnecessary items and reorder the list to put the maximum value items at the top. However when presenting this to a client it could undermine us, particularly if the customer liked several of the items we ultimately decided to prune.

We decided that this is where clear communication is key. We talked about making it extremely clear that these were items we were considering working on and not a definitive product plan. A Development Forecast we suggested, after all – no one blames the weatherman if the reality turns out to be slightly different to our expectations!

What are your thoughts, do you share your Product Backlog with your clients? How do you handle their expectations that some work they are hoping for may still be cut?

Defining Value

I was recently at a talk where one of the key topics was “Defining Value”. I actually felt rather prepared for it – after recently reading The Goal I was fairly confident that the goal of any business was to make money. So “Value” would be anything which either earns us revenue or aids in our ability to make money.

It sounds boring, but it’s true.

My point actually kicked off a lot of discussion, in a room of experienced developers the proposal that unless we’re earning money we’re not adding value was rather controversial “what about paying technical debt!?” was one of the initial reactions (and one we came back to very quickly).

Delivering maximum value is of course what Scrum is all about, the idea that the team is constantly working on the most valuable piece of work is key to the sprint framework. So to be challenged to define value was an interesting idea, especially when Pete (our facilitator) threw out the following quote things became interesting:

“As a general rule of thumb, when benefits are not quantified at all, assume there aren’t any” – Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister

With paid for work the value is often clear, the work is worth whatever the customer is willing to pay for it. Again, work to generate sales the Product Owner can list the contracts which will be opened up by a particular feature if it was to be implemented.

Support work becomes much harder. We all know that it’s easier to retain an existing customer than to earn a new one and anyone in sales will tell you the value of upsell and good customer service. So how do we justify spending hard pressed development resource fixing bugs, answering questions and supporting our existing customers when it does not earn us any revenue?

We all agreed that the only way to quantify the value of technical debt was to look at how much time and effort was being spent in supporting it. If an area of your software is full of bugs and you spend four days of each month assisting customers using it then over the course of a year it’s worth at least forty eight days to improve it!

Support work is valuable because by not doing it you’re putting your customer’s loyalty to you at risk. Reducing technical debt is valuable because it makes support work easier.

The next time you’re working in an unloved area of code, don’t moan about it – measure it. Present the business case to your Product Owner and help them quantify the value of refactoring and improving the code. It will make it a lot easier to justify doing the work!

Redefining User Acceptance Testing

User Acceptance Testing or “UAT” is a critical part of any project. It’s where the customer takes your software into their environment, tests it and reports any issues which must be resolved before they take it into live. Development teams then resolve these issues, send the application for retest and (hopefully) get a signed off version.

I have a deep seated dislike of this concept.

I should clarify that I have no problem with customers doing their own testing – in fact I encourage it, we’re software professionals and don’t work in our application’s domain. High quality customer collaboration is essential if we are to produce a good product. No, what I have an issue with is the concept of a development, testing, and bug fix phase.

If Agile and Scrum techniques have taught us one thing it’s that we need to move away from “development phases” and towards continuous delivery with ever increasing value.

Leaving bug detection and resolution until the end of project is bad!

What then is the role of UAT in modern development methodologies? How do we achieve a signed off version without digging ourselves into these waterfall defined project stages we were supposed to have abandoned years ago?

By making UAT a continuous process alongside the development.

In my view as soon as a project begins, while the stories are still being written and the mock ups created the latest and greatest version of your application should be installed into the customer’s UAT environment. Then, while you’re working away creating the new features the stakeholders in your client’s business are testing the suitably of what you’ve already developed against their needs.

As you continue, Sprint on Sprint, Story on Story you can incorporate your client’s feedback (both bugs and suggestions) to deliver the best possible product at the end of the project. It’s only by presenting your build to the customer early that you can get this feedback. Forcing your clients to wait until your project is feature complete and signed off internally will create these heavy bug fixing phases we’re all working so hard to avoid.

A Different Sort of 1:1

I met up with my line manager the other day, a nice change to our more common video chats. Spare meeting rooms at head office are seen less frequently than unicorns so instead of sitting in the open plan work area he suggested going for a walk.

The idea resonated with me and it’s something I’m determined to try with my team. Here are a few reasons why

  • Meeting rooms are very formal, 1:1s don’t have to be
  • Fresh air and a little light excercise is good for all us office bound geeks
  • Getting away from the office environment can lighten moods and change perspectives

Now, I don’t suggest you try a walking 1:1 on a wet, cold, or otherwise horrible day but the next time the sun is shiny why not take a walk?

Have you tried outdoor 1:1s? What was your experience?