Looking for Answers at Agile 2013

I went to Agile 2013 last week in Nashville to look for answers on how Agile development ideas and practices could help more with high integrity, high assurance development; scale to handle large projects and programs; and improve the working environment for mature, high performance teams.

The Sessions

There was a lot going on, with over 200 sessions, informal workshops, lightning talks, Open Jams and other presentations.

A bunch of talks and workshops on soft people skills: team building, leadership issues, managing conflict, coaching, brainstorming games, personal assessments and personal development. Several sessions on scaling issues and approaches for managing large projects and programs, UX design, design modeling, how to get testing done in Agile teams, product requirements definition and backlog management, and a handful on code quality (technical debt and refactoring and coding challenges), one on Kanban and one on application security.

There was also a full track on devops: most of this was introductory stuff on improving packaging and build and implementing continuous delivery, and basics on getting developers and ops working together and why. Devops is a natural next step for many organizations looking to be more agile – what’s the point of being faster and more responsive in product design and development, if you crash into a brick wall at operations? But devops has to move out of the friendly homogeneous chef/puppet/noSQL Webops niche and shed the hype about how deploying 10 or 100 times per day is the way to be cool, in order to be relevant to the rest of the world. If not, “devops” is going to end up meaning buying some expensive configuration management and deployment tools from IBM or HP, which won’t make the world a better place and will be a disappointment to everyone except the vendors.


Many of the sessions early in the week were introductory level overviews and experience reports. A couple of points of interest included an intelligent and entertaining session on managing requirements and backlogs by Jeff Patton and some real-life experience reports on getting quality and testing under control in large Agile shops.

Most of the highlights for me came on Thursday, when I attended some especially good workshops on dealing with organizational and political issues in program management (how to build broad-based trust across the organization, identifying and dealing with hidden dependencies); getting the team together to craft Abuser Stories, looking at features from an attacker’s perspective to help build application security into Agile development; and a technical session on practical refactoring.

There continues to be a lot of confusion about what refactoring is and what it isn’t, as demonstrated by two very different sessions at the conference on refactoring and code quality. The first described well-intentioned but misguided efforts by the Egyptian government to encourage large-scale “refactoring” of legacy code at some Egyptian technology companies, all but one of which failed – the one project succeeded because they severely limited the amount of code cleanup work to a small percentage of time and restricted developers to making only simple refactoring changes to start, until the developers and managers understood what they were doing.

This isn’t refactoring: using refactoring techniques and tools is not refactoring. The real advance in refactoring isn’t in cataloguing obvious techniques for cleaning up code. It is in defining a disciplined, iterative approach for cleaning up the structure of code immediately before and after a developer makes changes, as an integral part of development and maintenance. Restructuring is supposed to be part of development, not something that needs to be or should be done in a project on its own.

You should not need a budget to refactor. You should refactor every chance you get.

Llewellyn Falco and Woody Zuill showed how this can be done properly, in a ballsy, well run session where they did live refactoring of code, removing clutter, complexity and cleverness, and then eliminating duplication, all in small steps that took a few minutes at most so that the code could be left at any point in better shape than when they started. They showed what techniques and tools could be used safely, how simple refactoring could be done on code that you don’t understand well (or at all) in order to make it more understandable, and what the payback was for making different kinds of changes.

Themes and Memes

There were a few ideas that came up frequently in the sessions and talking to people at the conference.

Product Ownership is a serious problem, especially in big companies. The simplified Product Owner (“the one throat to choke”) approach doesn’t work, even if it is still the official dogma for Scrum. Most Product Owners don’t understand what they are supposed to do, or have the time to do it even if they do know what to do. And of course the single Product Owner idea doesn’t scale either – most larger organizations are trying hybrid approaches with product managers, business analysts and other experts filling in at different levels.

Like any good conference, you get as much or more out the other people that you meet there, as you do out of the speakers and vendors.

Many of the people I talked to were working at big (sometimes really big) companies, trying to introduce Agile into big (often really big) projects and programs, and trying to make or remake their careers in an Agile world. What became clear is that Agile doesn’t solve all of the problems that come up in large organizations. There are no good answers for executive demands for predictability (because software development is only a part of what needs to be delivered and coordinated in most organizations), or how to communicate and collaborate in massive programs with hundreds or thousands of people that run for years across departments and countries, or how to deal with power politics and organizational inertia, or how to satisfy governance and compliance requirements.

Some people are trying to adapt and integrate Agile practices using SAFe or Disciplined Agile Delivery, but most are putting together something on their own, with Scrum at the team level and PMO practices at higher levels. A lot of organizations are still trying it out before rolling it out, but there are few success stories so far.

Most people seem to accept that spending some time upfront to get the team together and understand what they really need to build is a necessity – you can’t just start off incrementally and iteratively building something. But most people wish it wasn’t called “Sprint 0”, because it’s not a sprint, it’s a separate but important upfront step focused on discovery and simplifying things as much as possible from the beginning.

Getting the requirements right was another important focus area for everyone. The Lean concept of shaving requirements down to come up with a Minimum Viable Product is recognized as the only way to assure success, especially for people running big projects and programs – if you can’t give the business or customer everything that they want, make sure you at least give them the minimum that they need.

Most speakers (but not all) agreed that requirements should be defined in whatever format that makes sense, whatever is needed to get the point across: big stories or small stories, sketches or pictures, detailed specs if you have them, tests if you can get them defined upfront. Jeff Patton emphasized that the simplified story template

as a [type of user] I want [to do something] so that [reason]

is useful as a starting point, a learning tool, but it isn’t necessary or even practical to try to fit every requirement into a standardized format.

There was also a strong emphasis on the need for coaching and training (maybe because so many of the speakers were coaches or trainers?), that you shouldn’t (or at least don’t have to) try to do all of this without help.

Exhibitors and other things seen and heard

The exhibition floor was surprisingly small. Training firms and firms offering coaching, Agile project management / ALM tools which all looked pretty much the same to me, and a couple of automated testing tools suppliers desperate to convince you that what they are selling is so much better than those tools like QTP that you wasted so much time and money on in the past.

How you can tell IBM doesn’t really “get” Agile or Lean:

  • URL for Scrum.Org:
  • URL for IBM’s Agile/Lean practice:…

One Kanban training and certification vendor insisted that “Kanban is not an Agile practice” (although they were at an Agile conference). Another vendor cleared this up by explaining that there were “10 reasons that Kanban is like bacon”.

Other things seen.

There was a cool lighting talk by a scary dude wearing Google Glass on D-Wave’s quantum computer. It had nothing to do with Agile development but it was indeed cool.

Some speakers were riding on their reputation, and put little or no effort into their presentations: any session that had a guru sitting on a red couch on the stage was pretty much a waste of time. I don’t care if somebody worked on a project with Kent Beck 13 years ago, or if they were invited to Snowbird in 2001 but couldn’t make it, or they showed up at that meeting long enough to agree on the manifesto before hitting the slopes. What matters is whether what they know and what they have to say today is relevant, do they understand and can they help solve the problems that people are facing now.

Other things heard:

“TDD is like teenage sex: everybody is talking about it, but not that many people are doing it.”

“Don’t estimate or worry about story points. Just make all your stories the same size and count them.”

Umm…How do you get them all the same size without estimating them???

“Team building by itself is useless. You have to follow it up and get people working together on something important for a team to form.”

“If you look at any product that you love using, I can guarantee that the reason that you love it is not because it was shipped on time.”

Keep Looking

I didn’t get all of the answers that I was looking for, and I don’t think that anyone I met at the conference did either. But it was a good opportunity to understand the challenges that everyone is facing, and it was good to see so many smart and serious people working hard on solving them. It gives you hope that things are going to get better.


Reference: Looking for Answers at Agile 2013 from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog.

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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