Jim Bird

About Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.

You can’t be Agile in Maintenance? (Part 1)

I’ve been going over a couple of posts by Steve Kilner that question whether Agile methods can be used effectively in software maintenance. It’s a surprising question really. There are a lot of maintenance teams who have had success following Agile methods like Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP) (PDF) for some time now. We’ve been doing it for almost 5 years, enhancing and maintaining and supporting enterprise systems, and I know that it works.

Agile development naturally leads into maintenance – the goal of incremental Agile development is to get working software out to customers as soon as possible, and get customers using it. At some point, when customers are relying on the software to get real business done and need support and help to keep the system running, teams cross from development over to maintenance. But there’s no reason for Agile development teams to fundamentally change the way that they work when this happens.

It is harder to introduce Agile practices into a legacy maintenance team – there are a lot of technical requirements and some cultural changes that need to be made. But most maintenance teams have little to lose and lots to gain from borrowing from what Agile development teams are doing. Agile methods are designed to help small teams deal with a lot of change and uncertainty, and to deliver software quickly – all things that are at least as important in maintenance as they are in development. Technical practices in Extreme Programming especially help ensure that the code is always working – which is even more important in maintenance than it is in development, because the code has to work the first time in production.

Agile methods have to be adapted to maintenance, but most teams have found it necessary to adapt these methods to fit their situations anyways. Let’s look at what works and what has to be changed to make Agile methods like Scrum and XP work in maintenance.

What works well and what doesn’t

Planning Game

Managing maintenance isn’t the same as managing a development project – even an Agile development project. Although Agile development teams expect to deal with ambiguity and constant change, maintenance teams need to be even more flexible and responsive, to manage conflicts and unpredictable resourcing problems. Work has to be continuously reviewed and prioritized as it comes in – the customer can’t wait for 2 weeks for you to look at a production bug. The team needs a fast path for urgent changes and especially for hot fixes.

You have to be prepared for support demands and interruptions. Structure the team so that some people can take care of second-level support, firefighting and emergency bug fixing and the rest of the team can keep moving forward and get something done. Build slack into schedules to allow for last-minute changes and support escalation.

You will also have to be more careful in planning out maintenance work, to take into account technical and operational dependencies and constraints and risks. You’re working in the real world now, not the virtual reality of a project.

Standups

Standups play an important role in Agile projects to help teams come up to speed and bond. But most maintenance teams work fine without standups – since a lot of maintenance work can be done by one person working on their own, team members don’t need to listen to each other each morning talking about what they did yesterday and what they’re going to do – unless the team is working together on major changes. If someone has a question or runs into a problem, they can ask for help without waiting until the next day.

Small releases

Most changes and fixes that maintenance teams need to make are small, and there is almost always pressure from the business to get the code out as soon as it is ready, so an Agile approach with small and frequent releases makes a lot of sense. If the time boxes are short enough, the customer is less likely to interrupt and re-prioritize work in progress – most businesses can wait a few days or a couple of weeks to get something changed.

Time boxing gives teams a way to control and structure their work, an opportunity to batch up related work to reduce development and testing costs, and natural opportunities to add in security controls and reviews and other gates. It also makes maintenance work more like a project, giving the team a chance to set goals and to see something get done. But time boxing comes with overhead – the planning and setup at the start, then deployment and reviews at the end – all of which adds up over time. Maintenance teams need to be ruthless with ceremonies and meetings, pare them down, keep only what’s necessary and what works.

It’s even more important in maintenance than in development to remember that the goal is to deliver working code at the end of each time box. If some code is not working, or you’re not sure if it is working, then extend the deadline, back some of the changes out, or pull the plug on this release and start over. Don’t risk a production failure in order to hit an arbitrary deadline. If the team is having problems fitting work into time boxes, then stop and figure out what you’re doing wrong – the team is trying to do too much too fast, or the code is too unstable, or people don’t understand the code enough – and fix it and move on.

Reviews and Retrospectives

Retrospectives are important in maintenance to keep the team moving forward, to find better ways of working, and to solve problems. But like many practices, regular reviews reach a point of diminishing returns over time – people end up going through the motions. Once the team is setup, reviews don’t need to be done in each iteration unless the team runs into problems.

Schedule reviews when you or the team need them. Collect data on how the team is working, on cycle time and bug report/fix ratios, correlate problems in production with changes, and get the team together to review if the numbers move off track. If the team runs into a serious problem like a major production failure, then get to the bottom of it through Root Cause Analysis.

Sustainable pace / 40-hour week

It’s not always possible to work a 40-hour week in maintenance. There are times when the team will be pushed to make urgent changes, spend late nights firefighting, releasing after hours and testing on weekends. But if this happens too often or goes on too long the team will burn out. It’s critical to establish a sustainable pace over the long term, to treat people fairly and give them a chance to do a good job.

Pairing

Pairing is hard to do in small teams where people are working on many different things. Pairing does make sense in some cases – people naturally pair-up when trying to debug a nasty problem or walking through a complicated change – but it’s not necessary to force it on people, and there are good reasons not to.

Some teams (like mine) rely more on code reviews instead of pairing, or try to get developers to pair when first looking at a problem or change, and at the end again to review the code and tests. The important thing is to ensure that changes get looked at by at least one other person if possible, however this gets done.

Collective Code Ownership

Because maintenance teams are usually small and have to deal with a lot of different kinds of work, sooner or later different people will end up working on different parts of the code. It’s necessary, and it’s a good thing because people get a chance to learn more about the system and work with different technologies and on different problems.

But there’s still a place for specialists in maintenance. You want the people who know the code the best to make emergency fixes or high-risk changes – or at least have them review the changes – because it has to work the first time. And sometimes you have no choice – sometimes there is only one person who understands a framework or language or technical problem well enough to get something done.

The article continues at You can’t be Agile in Maintenance? (Part 2).

Reference: You can’t be Agile in Maintenance? from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the “Building Real Software” blog.

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