Launching SoundAgile Consulting

I’ve been involved with Agile with many different organizations now for over 12 years.

In these years I’ve primarily been involved with being a contributing individual over a being an Agile coach.

The business of Agile has grown to a significant size and has now become a product that is sold to businesses who want to move their organization to Agile.  The very people who started Agile off as a movement have splintered off into several factions, each having their own opinion or approach in how to help organizations adopt Agile as a capability within their organization.  We now have Scrum, SAFe, DAD and LeSS to name a few in our acronym vocabulary.

Agile can indeed bring about valuable changes to an organizations ability to deliver software product more quickly.  These areas of Agile are fairly thought out, User Stories, Continuous Integration, Automation and Scrum.  You can move your development teams to a faster pace with some focus on specific team and development techniques that require some time to learn with some level of ease.

What Agile is struggling with is at the organizational level.  The Agile manifesto is specifically focused on building software better with a goal of delivering high value and quality software to our organizations.  A noble cause for sure and one that was sorely needed, given the changes in our software capabilities over the past 20 years.

Sr. Leadership however hasn’t changed much, still managing in a large up front analysis budgeting process which creates a painful friction between fast moving product delivery teams and slow moving hierarchical management structures .

For those organizations who are being sold Agile as a product that will deliver ‘x’ benefits know this about what is occurring.  These organizations are finding people who have done ‘some’ to ‘no’ real Agile, meaning they haven’t actually worked on an Agile team. Getting people who have the ‘right’ certifications doesn’t provide those people with the ability to coach teams in the reality of Agile, only the theory of Agile and their current frameworks.

They are also focused only on the product development area of your business, letting you believe that you will receive huge benefits from moving to Agile without the corresponding changes necessary throughout your entire organization to support a fast paced product delivery teams.

Agile is not a small change management effort, rather it is a multi-year impact to your organization, that if done well will lead you to great success.  If done poorly will provide you with significant pain without any corresponding benefits.

I’ve spent many years thinking about what I might offer from an Agile consulting perspective and I’ve come to the conclusion that any Agile ‘consulting’ work that I would want to engage in must include both Sr. Leadership down and the team level.

Another thing I have concluded is that successful organizations that want to become Agile, must do so with a much smaller footprint of coaching.  You don’t need full-time coaches for a long period of time.  In relying on full time coaches you are asking them to be your organizational Agile cop over owning the change within your organization.  The most successful Agile organizations I’ve worked in never had an Agile coach. Let me repeat that, never had an Agile a coach.  Instead they owned the move to Agile from the top down.  They provided the opportunity for teams to be empowered and fail and were not afraid to change organizational processes when they became impediments to improving Agilty.

SoundAgile will provide two levels of support and coaching for your organization.

  1. Team Level – Coaching and training will be accomplished through a combination of online training videos, 1:1 coaching and targeted onsite sessions for specific techniques such as Discovery/User Story Mapping, User Story Writing and Behavior Driven Development.
  2. Management Level – This will cover every management level in your organization, especially focusing in on your most impacted people, your technology managers.  Coaching and training will again be accomplished utilizing videos, 1:1 coaching and probably most importantly, targeted 1-2 day sessions that will continue for a multi-year time period. These sessions will provide for a longer term inspect and adapt change management process.

I’m really excited to be launching SoundAgile and am looking forward to working with people and organizations as they engage and encounter this thing called Agile.

SoundAgile will be live within the next two weeks.  I look forward to working with people who are motivated to move to Agile and make it work for them and their organizations.

BDD Adoption – Taking time to get it right

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a broad range of Agile coaches and consultants who have consistently told me that they have not seen any organization successfully adopt BDD as part of their standard process of elaborating their User Stories.

Luckily I have had the opportunity to work with several organizations that were able to successful adopt BDD and believe strongly in how this process can transform how you build and bake quality into your products.

I think most people hear the word BDD and they immediately think that it is an automation centric effort, though that is a great value add for BDD, leveraging BDD without automation can also lead to improved testing and quality.

Adopting BDD is so much more than automation (which I wrote about here) it’s really about clearly defining the expected behavior of your system.

Why is this so important? Because as humans we all interact differently with the systems that we encounter.  As people who develop these systems we deliver based upon our experiences and understanding of the system we are building.

Language (Business Requirements) has been the manner and method that we have used to convey what we want a system to do to.  However with an international work force we don’t all have a shared language.  In addition to this constraint we also interpret what we read differently based upon our primary language, life experiences and culture.  Given this, it’s not surprising that when we build a system, it has many different interpretations attached to it, which negatively impacts both the functionality AND quality of our system.

BDD is a way to talk about how your system should behave not what it should do.  Yes we want our systems to have specific functions and features, but talking about how each of these will behave brings about a much richer conversation of what can happen in many functional situations the system and the people will encounter, not just the happy path.

There are two primary components of BDD:

  1. The Given/When/Then test setup
  2. The Example Table

Getting the first part of your BDD is the most important component because it defines the size and scope of what the User Story.  We do that by decomposing an individual user story into Test Scenarios.  One quick way to determine if your user story is perhaps to large or complicated is to evaluate the number of Test Scenarios you can define.  Keep your Test Scenarios to under 4 per each individual User Story so that you can more easily understand the expected behavior for that part of your feature or functionality.

Keeping the number of test scenarios small is also important once you translate your BDD into test automation which will keep your tests small so when something breaks it is much easier to find out where you need to address a fix.  Remember development teams should be consistently refactoring their code to improve code quality.  With high levels of automation we can quickly catch when refactoring unexpectedly changes the underlying behavior of our system.  This is where Quality is kept front and center in our organization.

The second part of building effective BDD is the Example table.  My training focuses on getting the first part clear and clean because the example table is an easier effort of filling in the expected results in each of your parameter columns.  As with the first section you can use the number of parameter columns as a means of determining if your test scenario is too large.  Try to keep the number of parameters to between 4-8, anymore will result in more brittle tests and more time debugging your automation code.

Adopting BDD as your primary means of decomposing stories may on the surface seem like a lot of work, but remember that you are only doing this level of detail for each 2 week sprint so the number of stories that you build out context driven BDD is relatively small.  Doing it every sprint means you get better at it every time and you will refine your ability to generate BDD much more quickly.

We should also remember that this is a TEAM oriented approach, don’t relegate this to your QA team, you will miss getting all of the context needed to delivery high quality code and functionality.

Baking In Quality with Agile

One of the things that I love about Agile and especially the related techniques of BDD and Test Automation is that if done correctly your teams are essentially baking Quality into your products AS they develop, not after.

Traditional SDLC (read waterfall) took a very linear approach to project delivery which in turn translated into a similar approach to how we developed and delivered our software products.

In our traditional delivery methods, quality was not ‘baked’ in but tested out and we never ever got to the point where we are able to test out all of the ‘defects’ that are found, instead we create a bug database where ‘bugs’ go to die.  Every organization typically has some form of a bug database with bugs that were ‘found’ sometimes years ago and were never fixed (of course begging the question were they ever bugs in the first place?)  In Agile we really don’t want to see a bug database because we should be instilling a zero defect policy for each sprint, meaning that we should never be introducing new tech debt into our product.

As I progressed on my Agile journey I came to realize that there are actually two types of ‘bugs’ that we encounter when we develop software:

  1. Bugs as Missed or Undefined Requirements
  2. Bugs as True Bugs

— Bugs as Missed or Undefined Requirements – I will argue (and in a book that I am starting to write about this topic) that a majority of the bugs that we find and document aren’t really bugs at all, but rather functionality that has been misinterpreted based upon the requirements definition that comes out of segregated development processes, ie Write Requirements, Develop Software, Test Software and Deploy Software.

Language is such an imprecise way of communicating that it almost virtually guarantees that if you have more than 1 person developing the software for your product you will get different interpretations of how to implement the requirement functionally.

Remember the old ‘The System Shall’ statement? that is commonly used in writing Business Requirements documents?  I always thought that this missed the scope of the requirement, what about what the System Shall Not Do?.  We focus so much on happy path for our functional development that we miss large segments of functionality based upon what an application shouldn’t be allowed to do.

Let’s take an example of an English word to convey what I’m meaning:

What do you think of when you see the word – BASS

Do you think of this:

Bass_Guitar

OR this?

Bass_Fish

These have the same spelling in the English language yet they have two entirely different meanings. Our life experiences become a prism for how we interpret what we read and how we react to it. (PS, I’m a musician so I think of the instrument before the fish)

Teams that rely on written requirements documents that are reviewed and worked on independently, meaning developers develop the code/functionality and then pass it on to testers will inherently have issues/bugs related to how something was interpreted and then developed.  In the above example the developers may have thought they were delivering a bass guitar, but the testers were expecting a bass fish (yeah extreme I know) but I believe this is the root of many of our issues when trying to deliver what the business expected in the first place.

— Bugs as True Bugs – I believe that true bugs are more technical than functional (or should be).  Bugs related to how integration happens are very common because although we can describe the behavior of our feature we can’t always anticipate issues related to how independent systems will work together.  Many ‘true’ bugs in Agile are caught in the moment and fixed before they ever make their way to production.  For the Finance people out there this is a tremendous cost saving that has been proven time and again.  ROI is greatly enhanced when you deal with tech debt up front rather over time.  And please don’t ever think really that it is more important to get ‘something’ to production over making sure that the product is operationally sound.

So what to do?

To address the  inherent limitations with our  communication, we need to abstract our thinking into more concrete descriptions of behavior over broad-based statements such as the System Shall.

User Stories and the corresponding BDD acceptance criteria are a great way to do this as a BDD example table clearly defines the behavior of our product functionality via outcome based upon inputs.  The ‘language’ of BDD is unique so that everyone can begin to have a shared understanding of what the story and behavior of the product(aka system) will do.  BDD abstracts our communication and removes individual interpretation.

In Agile we start by ensuring that the teams understand that they OWN the quality of their delivery. One of the things that I absolutely love about high performing Agile team is that there is no finger-pointing, if a Sprint fails to deliver what the team committed to then everyone shares the blame, not just an individual or functional group.

How we bake quality into our products is by understanding how to write User Stories that provide context without the ability to misinterpret the meaning of the requirements.

To do this we must first ensure that we have a well written user story, what does that look like?

A good user story needs to identify the What and then the Value statement.  Many teams that I have worked with start to write stories that only identify the actor and What but leave out the value statement, which is really the proof that what we are working on is of sufficient value to devote our resources to.  A good user story should never have any Creative or Technical design conveyed, I know that many people like to show their technical knowledge by writing stories that convey what they think the design or system will need to utilize, but all that does is start the team down a path before exploring all options.

Behavior over language interpretation is what you are striving for when writing contextually rich user stories.

BDD with its accompanied Example statements takes an otherwise basic user story and brings it to life.  Much like we do when we take basic ingredients for cookies and then bring them together in the right amounts to deliver awesomeness every time.

Software quality is much like baking, you need:

  • The right ingredients – Good individual team members, honest communication, commitment to quality
  • The right process – Write good user stories, add quality BDD acceptance criteria, code and test in parallel and then deliver, involve the entire team in writing BDD, involve the entire team in the estimation process.

By taking the time to build contextually rich user stories and define the story with BDD acceptance you move towards a shared understanding of the ‘behavior of your product’ over one that is driven by functional requirements.  Requirements tend to convey to little of behavior and focus more on the big win that is being conveyed to Sr. Management regarding what is being delivered.

Agile is a very disciplined delivery process and in order to bake the quality into your product you need to develop efficient processes that keep the User Story/BDD train running smoothly.  If you are entering a sprint and then writing your BDD then you are already behind, you need to develop a process by which teams are working on current sprint development AND building context for the next one.  It can be done and when it is you get what I call progressive regression with the automation that comes out of your BDD work.

Agile is very disciplined and to think that going Agile will make your current life easier, well guess again.  What Agile will do is highlight EVERY current weakness you have in your current product delivery process and then focus your attention on finding ways of improving on them.

For those of you looking for workshops regarding User Story/BDD techniques, please reach out to me at soundagile@gmail.com.