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Five tips from the Agile trenches

Agile and software development experts advise on how to begin Agile projects, Agile practices to avoid and more. This tip cherrypicks top Agile tips from Rick Simmons, Jochen (Joe) Krebs and other speakers at a Rally Software conference.

At a recent gathering in Boston, hosted by Rally Software, some agile practitioners shared their experiences with...

agile development, and offered these tips:

  • Focus on continuous improvement.

    Two things, engagement and measurement, are critical to continuous improvement, according to Rick Simmons, director of agile practices and Web services at Constant Contact Inc., in Waltham, Mass., which develops email marketing and online survey tools. To smooth the transition to agile as well as the delivery process, engage wide -- team to team -- and "as high as you can with leadership," he advised.

    And part of evolving is using a feedback loop, and metrics should be part of that feedback, he said. "Software development has 'soft metrics,' he said. For example, one metric might be stability: "To what degree do we work on the things we say we will work on in an iteration?" The key is using metrics as data for continuous improvement, Simmons said.



  • Every team will find a unique path.

    A year and a half ago, America Online (AOL) was a waterfall, document-driven development organization, said Jochen (Joe) Krebs, director of program management at AOL. But media is very dynamic marketplace, so the math was simple, he said: more releases = more traffic = more revenue.

    So AOL decided to do an enterprise rollout of Scrum. "We focused on team; training, coaching, and moving through a sprint," Krebs said. Every team, over time, "found a unique path in the Scrum framework."

    For AOL, moving to Scrum not only changed the dynamic among development, but also boosted velocity. "It's a totally different dynamic on the floor," Krebs said. "It's a team-based approach, and people have fun."

    And the teams are productive. The TV team, as an example, went from 164 user story points in September 2008 to 321 in February 2009, Krebs said. Also, in 2008 that team had approximately 20% accepted user stories, and one year later that went to about 90%.

    Rob Sherman is program manager at Sermo Inc., a physician network based in Cambridge, Mass., which also transitioned to Scrum. He supplemented Krebs' advice, saying: "Be patient with teams. Find your own road. It will be unique to what you build and how you build it."



  • Don't cherry pick.

    While you will modify certain agile practices to fit both your organization's and your teams' needs, understand how that affects the other practices, said Heather Kanser, vice president of global projects at New York-based Investment Technology Group Inc., an agency brokerage and financial technology firm.

    ITG has been following Extreme Programming (XP) since 2004. "When teams are going through the transition [to agile], they don't have a good understanding of how all the practices work together, so they start cherry picking, and they're not as successful," she said. "The practices all relate to and support each other."

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    With test-driven development, for example, "you write a unit test that fails, then you write enough code to make it pass. It gives you a safety net to re-factor code continuously; this produces simple design, which makes unit testing easier, and coverage high, so you can do more TDD."

    Another practice, small iterations, "require small stories, which allows continuous feedback, which requires QA and customer involvement." Done done stories, Kanser said, "allow estimatable stories, so you can have measurable time boxes."

  • Kanser's advice: "Commit to complete adoption."

  • Do not play the blame game.

    Adopting agile takes time and patience. "If you put the blame on testers or product owners, forget continuous integration," Israel Gat, senior consultant at Cutter Consortium. "If you have scapegoats people won't take the effort. Instead, look at systemic problems with strength and honesty." It takes leadership, flexibility, know-how and patience, he said. Gat led the agile transformation at BMC Software in 2005. By 2008 BMC had 1,000 practitioners, and had increased productivity significantly.

    Kanser echoed Gat: "If your retrospective is not going well, throw out the senior-most person in the room. It's not a blame session; come up with 'smart' action items. Then at the next retrospective look at the action items."



  • When Scrum isn't working, it's you.

    "You will go through an arc of challenge," said Sermo's Sherman. "It will be OK; everybody does."


This was last published in October 2009

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