Iterationless Development – the latest New New Thing

Thanks to the Lean Startup movement, Iterationless Development and Continuous Deployment have become the New New Thing in software development methods. Apparently this has gone so far that “there are venture firms in Silicon Valley that won’t even fund a company unless they employ Lean startup methodologies”.

Although most of us don’t work in a Web 2.0 social media startup, or anything like one, it’s important to cut through the hype and see what we can learn from these ideas. One of the most comprehensive descriptions I’ve seen so far of Iterationless Development is a (good, but buzzword-heavy) presentation by Erik Huddleston that explains how development is done at Dachis Group, which builds online social communities. The development team’s backlog is updated on a just-in-time basis, and includes customer business requirements (defined as minimum features), feedback from Operations (data from analytics and results of Devops retrospectives), and minimally required technical architecture.

Work is managed using Kanban WIP limits and queues. Developers create tests for each change or fix up front. Every check-in kicks off automated tests and static analysis checks for complexity and code duplication as part of Continuous Integration. If it passes these steps, the change is promoted to a test environment, and the code must then be reviewed for architectural oversight (they use Atlassian’s Crucible online code review tool to do this).

Once all of the associated change sets have been reviewed, the code changes are deployed to staging for acceptance testing and review by product management, before being promoted to production. All production changes (code change sets, environment changes and database migration sets) are packaged into Chef recipes and progressively rolled out online. It’s a disciplined and well-structured approach that depends a lot on automation and a good tool set.

Death to Time Boxing

What makes Iterationless Development different is obviously the lack of time boxing – instead of being structured in sprints or spikes, work is done in a continuous flow. According to Huddleston, iterationless Kanban is “here to stay” and is “much more productive than artificial time boxing”.

In a separate blog post, he talks about the death of iterations. While he agrees that iterations have benefits – providing a fixed and consistent routine for the team to follow, a forcing function to drive work to conclusion (nothing focuses the mind like a deadline), and logical points for the team to synch up with the rest of the business – Huddleston asserts that working in time boxes is unnatural and unnecessary. That the artificial and arbitrary boundaries defined by time boxes force people to compromise on solutions, and force them to cut corners in order to meet deadlines.

I agree that time boxes are arbitrary – but no more arbitrary than a work day or work week, or a month or a financial quarter; all cycles that businesses follow. In business we are always working towards a deadline, whether it is hard and real or soft and arbitrary. This is how work gets done. And this doesn’t change if we are working in time boxes or without them.

In iterationless Kanban, the pressure to meet periodic time box deadlines is replaced with the constant pressure to deliver work as fast as possible, to meet individual task deadlines. Rapid cycling in short time boxes is hard enough on teams over a long period of time. Continuous, interrupt-driven development with a tight focus on optimizing cycle time is even harder. The dials are set to on and they stay that way. Kanban makes this easy, giving the team, and the customer and management, the tools to continuously visualize work in progress, identify bottlenecks and delays and squeeze out waste – to maximize efficiency. This is a manufacturing process model remember. The emphasis on tactical optimization and fast-feedback loops, and the “myopic focus on eliminating waste” is just that – short-sighted and difficult to sustain.

With time boxes there are at least built-in synch points, chances for the team to review and reset, so that people can reflect on what they have done, look for ways to improve, look ahead at what they need to do next, and then build up again to an optimal pace. This isn’t waste. Cycling up and down is important and necessary to keep people from getting burnt out and to give them a chance to think and to get better at what they do.

Risk is managed in the same tactical, short-sighted way. Teams working on one issue at a time end up managing risk one issue at a time, relying heavily on automated testing and in-stream controls like code reviews. This is good, but not good enough for many environments: security and reliability risks need to be managed in a more comprehensive, systemic way. Even integrating feedback from Ops isn’t enough to find and prevent deep problems. Working in Agile time boxes is already trading technical risks for speed and efficiency. Iterationless Development and Continuous Deployment, focused on eliminating waste and on accelerating cycle time, pushes these tradeoffs even further, into the danger zone.

Huddleston is also critical of “boxcaring” – batching different pieces of work together in a time box – because it interferes with simple prioritization and introduces unnecessary delays. But batching work together that makes sense to do together can be a useful way to reduce risk and cost. Take a simple example. The team is working on feature 1a . Once it’s done, they move on to feature 1b, then 1c. All of this work requires changing the same parts of code, the same or similar testing and reviews, and has a similar impact on operations. By batching this work together, you might deliver it slower, but you can reduce waste and minimize risk by delivering it once, rather than 3 times.

Iterationless Development Makes Sense…

Iterationless Development using Kanban as a control structure is an effective way to deal with excessive pressure and uncertainty – like in an early-stage startup, or a firefighting support team. It’s good for rapid innovation and experimental prototyping, building on continuous feedback from customers and from Operations – situations where speed and responsiveness to the business and customers is critical, more important than minimizing technical and operational risks. It formalizes the way that most successful web startups work – come up with a cool idea, build a prototype as quickly as possible, and then put it out and find out what customers actually want before you run out of cash. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to software development problems.

All software development methods are compromises – imperfect attempts at managing risks and uncertainty. Sequential or serial development methods attempt to specify and fix the solution space upfront, and then manage to this fixed scope. Iterative, time-boxed development helps teams deal with uncertainty by breaking business needs down into small, concrete problems and delivering a working solution in regular steps. And iterationless, continuous-flow allows teams to rapidly test ideas and alternatives, when the problem isn’t clear and nobody is sure yet what direction to go in.

There’s no one right answer. What approach you follow depends on what your priorities and circumstances are, and what kind of problems and risks you need to solve today.

Reference: Iterationless Development – the latest New New Thing from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the “Building Real Software” blog.

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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.
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