Allan Kelly

About Allan Kelly

Allan Kelly has held just about every job in IT, these days he provides training and consulting in development management, processes & products, especially around Agile. He specializes in working with software product companies, aligning company strategy with products and processes. More about Allan at http://www.softwarestrategy.co.uk/allankelly

Nightmare on Agile Street

I’m awake. I’m lying in my bed. I’m sweating but I’m cold.

Its the small hours of the morning and the dream is as vivid as it is horrid….

I’m standing in a clients offices, I’ve been here before, I know whats happening.

They are building an website. Quite a complex one, this will be the primary purchasing venue for many customers. This will project the company image – and with the right bits it can up-sell to customers – it can even help reduce costs by servicing the customers after the sale. All good stuff.

But it is atrociously “behind” schedule, someone said it would be finished in a year, that was three years ago before any code was written. Now its two years to completion but in my dream people say 2+3=2.

How can that be?

I can’t say it but the only way out I can see is cancellation. If I was suddenly in charge of the client I’d cancel the thing. I’d salvage what I could and I’d launch a new, smaller, initiative to replace the website.

But its too big to fail, even the board knows how much money they are spending. Who’s going to walk in there and say: “Scrap it.”

Saying “Scrap it” would be to admit one failure and invite a messenger shooting.

And if I was the head of the supplier I’d say the same thing. I’d say to my customer: “I know I’m earning oodles of cash out of this, I know its a high profile feather in our cap but really its out of control you really shouldn’t continue.”

But of course they won’t.

Forget the money they’d lose, they weren’t hired to answer back – like my tailor friend.

And of course I’m neither of those. I’m just the guy having the nightmare and in the nightmare I’m the consultant who is trying to fix, it. In the nightmare I’m not fixing it I’m providing cover, while I’m there its Agile, while its Agile its good, Agile is a good drug and I’m the pusher.

“You can’t cancel it because all the competitors have one and so we must have one” tells me a ghostly apparition.

“We must be best in class” says another apparition.

“We must be head-and-shoulders above the opposition” says third – aren’t the opposition seven times the size? And don’t the competition buy large parts of their solution off the shelf?

But every time I look the work seems to grow. Every discussion ends in more stories. Not just stories, epics, super-stories, sub-epics, mezzanine-stories.

But its OK, this is Agile.

The business keeps throwing new requests at it which are just accepted – because they are Agile!

Some of these are quite big. But that’s OK because the team are Agile. And Agile means the team do what the business want right?

I watch the Analysts work over the stories in the backlog, as they do each grows and replicates like an alien parasite. The Analysts find more edge cases, extra detail which need to be included, more scenarios which need to be catered for. Each becomes a story itself.

But that’s OK because the team are Agile.

And those damn competitors don’t stop adding and improving their site which mean the client must add that too.

But that’s OK because the team are Agile.

And the points…. points are the new hours, in the dream I have a book “The Mythical Man Point”. The backlog is measured in thousands of points. The burn-down charts go down – but only if you look at the sprint burn-down, hunt around Jira and you can find a project wide burn-down, O my god, no….. its full of stories!

This is not a burn-down chart carrying us to a safe landing, its a fast climbing interceptor…

The backlog is a demon… its… its… undead.

The faces of those who’ve seen the chart are prematurely aged. Open Jira and show someone the chart and…. their hair turns grey, the wrinkles appear, in moments they are….

One man is immune. As the points grow his power grows, he is… he is… The Product Owner.

He introduces himself: “Snape is the name, Severus Snape” – I knew I’d seen him somewhere before.

In the planning meeting, he sees the poker cards pulled out, he focuses on the developer with the highest score, there is a ray of cutting sarcasm… he withers. The developers submit, the numbers are lowered. The Product Owner chuckles to himself – no over estimating on his watch!

One of the developers suggest “Maybe we should wait until we finish the current work”

Snape sneers: “I thought you were Agile boy?”

“If you can’t handle it I have some friends in Transylvanian who are really Agile…. do you want to lose the contract boy? … Off-shore is so so cheap…”

There is a reality distortion field around the Product Owner. Show him a burn-down chart and it looks good, his presentations to the steering committee always show perfect burn-down.

I’m in my pyjamas standing outside the building at night: a sinister looking figure is breaking and entering, he sneaks into the building, he opens Jira and … inserts stories! His mask falls, it is….The Product Owner! Of course, without stories in the backlog he would cease to exist, his power comes from the size of the backlog, more stories more power.

Ever since his boss came down with a rare form of chronic flu a link in the reporting chain has been missing. Made worse when the next man up was dismissed for inappropriate behaviour in the canteen. Since when the Product Owner reports to the COO, a COO who doesn’t really have time for him and only has a shaky understanding of any IT related topic.

I do the maths. The backlog isn’t so much a backlog as a mortgage, and the team are under water! The payments they make against the mortgage aren’t even covering the growth in stories. The backlog growth is an interest rate they can’t pay.

It takes months for stories to progress through the backlog and reach developers. When work finally gets to developers they too uncover more edge cases, more details, more scenarios, more of just about everything. Why didn’t the Analysts find these? Did they find them and then lose them?

Then there is a stream of bugs coming in – oozing through the walls. The technical practices aren’t solid, they are… custard! Bugs get caught but more get through!

Bugs can’t be fixed because: “bugs are OpEx and we are funded from CapEx.”

Someone has slain the Bug Fixing Fairy, her body is found slumped in the corner, a nice your girl straight out of college. They are hiring another fresh young graduate to send to the slaughter, fortunately Bug Fixing Fairies are Plug Compatible with one another.

Release dates can’t be honoured.

Woody Allen and Anne Hall walk in – since when did Woody Allen do horror films?

‘two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”’

I have X-Ray vision: I can see WIP where it lies, there are piles of it on the floor. Its stacked up like beer barrels in a brewery. But the beer isn’t drinkable. Its a fiendish plan. If anyone drinks that beer, if the WIP is shipped, they will discover…. its full of holes! Quality control is… offshore.

Why is there so much WIP lying around? Why is the WIP rising?

Because they are Agile comes the reply… the business can change their mind at anytime, and they do.

I’m drowning in WIP.

WHIP to the left of me, WHIP to the right of me.

The developers are half way through a piece of work and the team are told to put it to one side and do something else. Nothing gets delivered, everything is half baked. WHIP – work hopefully in process that is.

When, and IF, the team return to a piece of WHIP things have changed, the team members might have changed, so picking it up isn’t easy.

WHIP goes off, the stench of slowly rotting software.

But that’s OK because the team are Agile.

Arhhh, the developers are clones, they are plug compatible, you can switch them into and out as you like… but they have no memory….

It gets worse, the client has cunningly outsourced their network ops to another supplier, and their support desk to another one, and the data-centre to the another… no one contractor has more than one contract. Its a perverse form of WIP limit, no supplier is allowed more than one contract.

O my god, I’m flying through the data centre, the data centre supplier has lost control, the are creepers everywhere, each server is patched in a different way, there is a stack of change configuration requests in a dark office, I approach the clerk, its its…. Terry Gilliam, the data centre is in Brazil….

Even when the business doesn’t change its mind the development team get stuck. They have dependencies on other teams and on other some other sub-contractor. So work gets put to one side again, more WIP.

All roads lead to Dounreay in Scotland, a really good place if you want to build something really dangerous, but why does this project require a fast breeder nuclear reactor?

But that’s OK because the team are Agile.

The supplier is desperate to keep their people busy, if The Product Owner sees a programmer who’s fingers are not moving on the keyboard he turns them to stone. The team manager is desperate to save his people, he rummages in the backlog and finds… a piece of work they can do.

(With a backlog that large you can always find something even if the business value is negative – and there are plenty of them.)

You can’t blame the development team, they need to look busy, they need to justify themselves so they work on what they can.

But that’s OK because the team are Agile.

Get me out of here!!!!!

I’m in my kitchen.

My hands are wrapped around a hot-chocolate, I need a fresh pair of dry pyjamas but that can wait while I calm down. I’ve wrapped a blanket around me and have the shivers under control.

Are they Agile? Undoubtedly it was sold as Agile. It certainty ain’t pretty but it is called Agile.

They have iterations. They have planing meeting. They have burn-downs. They have a Scrum Master and they have Jira. They have User Stories. They have some, slow, automated acceptance tests, some developers are even writing automated unit tests. How could it have gone so wrong?

Sure the development team could be better. You could boost the supply curve.

But that would be like administering morphine. The pain would be relieved for a while but the fever would return and it would be worse. The real problem is elsewhere. The real problem is rampant demand. The real problem is poor client management. The real problem is a client who isn’t looking at the feedback.

The real problems are multiple, thats what is so scary about the dream. They are all interconnected.

In the wee-small hours I see no way of winning, its a quagmire: To save this project we need to destroy this project. But we all know what happened in Vietnam.

What is to be done? – I can’t go back to sleep until I have an answer.

Would the team be better off doing Waterfall?

The business would still change its mind, project management would put a change request process in place and the propagation delay would be worse. There would probably be more bugs – testing would be postponed. Releases would be held back. This would look better for a few months until they came to actually test and release.

If they did waterfall, if they did a big requirements exercise, a big specification, a big design, a big estimation and a big plan they might not choose to do it. But frankly Agile is telling them clearly this will never be done. In fact its telling them with a lot more certainty because they are several years in and have several years of data to look at.

Agile is the cover. Because they are Agile they are getting more rope to hang themselves with.

But all this is a dream, a horrid dream, none of this ever happened.

Reference: Nightmare on Agile Street from our JCG partner Allan Kelly at the Agile, Lean, Patterns blog.

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