Archive for the ‘Agile’ Category

Lean-Agile Mindset – The Secret Sauce

Lesson Learned: Fund Agile Value Streams instead of Projects, for High Performance

For 12 years I’ve led organizations structured with Scrum/Kanban product delivery teams, shared services teams, and cross-functional roles embedded in these teams. Guiding and encouraging these teams to be effective in their iterations and their evolution into continuous delivery pipelines results in vast improvements over waterfall or some variant of “scrumerfall” SDLC patterns. However effective these teams become in the SCRUM/KANBAN mechanics, the company can only be high performance when work is funded through the value stream and not by projects.

Over the last year I’ve been working as a SAFe(R) (Scaled Agile Framework) solutions architect for cPrime.  Participating in the SAFe Agilist certification training I experienced a transformation in my thinking that emphasizes managing lean budgets to fund work. I’ve had the opportunity to work in several fortune 500 companies both domestically and abroad, and reflected on my last several years in contributing to scaling our agile organization at Constant Contact as a Director of Quality Engineering. The most striking realization that was revealed to me is that no matter how hard you try to get to a high performing Agile company (DevOps CI/CD pipelines), if the corporate financial structure does not change to Lean-Agile approaches then the company will never get there.

Lean-Agile leaders all support the notion of Lean-Agile Mindset that includes funding work through value streams (or equivalent constructs) where the work is brought to the teams, rather than the traditional project management approach of funding projects and bringing the teams to the project.

  • Funding Value Streams requires the company to recognize the teams build a coordinated pipeline of capability (flow) to deliver value to the customer in a predictable way (teams of teams). Removing traditional delays and overhead enables lean prioritization of work to be delivered to the customer in small batches with regular short feedback loops to validate the value and shape future work.
  • Funding Traditional Projects requires phases and gates (start and stop) pattern of delays to prepare and approve milestones along the way, building up delay in value and longer feedback loops. This also results in rework that adds further delay in the project. This is an anti-pattern to Lean-Agile and stifles momentum on multiple levels, introducing costs as delays.

A realization that emerged from training and I’ve been able to reflect on, is that these approaches address very different parts of the iron triangle.

  • Funding Value Streams fixes the TIME corner of the iron triangle, where if QUALITY remains fixed then the COST corner has to give.
  • Funding Traditional Projects fixes the COST corner of the iron triangle, where if QUALITY remains fixed then the TIME corner has to give.

Agile hypothesis-driven business development feeds a funnel of small changes and fast feedback loops to the business. This approach enables the company to develop solutions to customer needs incrementally and adjust along the way.

  • Funding Value Streams enables forming an hypothesis for adding value, sizing the effort to prove the hypothesis, and sampling the hypothesis with customers along the way.
  • Funding Traditional Projects assume a model of completing all the work to prove the hypothesis before delivering the solution to the customer for feedback.

Further, the company needs to shift how it views governance in this new world. The management constraints shift from project-progress based to value-delivered based, and therefore the KPI’s (key performance indicators) for measuring success of the business shift as well. The traditional PMO team transforms to an “Agile PMO team” that drives this new governance model.

  • Funding Value Streams KPI metric examples
    • Program Increment Objectives – Business  Value (plan vs. actual)
    • Predictability of velocity and volatility as points completed in each sprint
    • Throughput (time to deliver value from concept to customer use)
    • Hypothesis tested vs. hypothesis failed over time
  • Funding Traditional Projects KPI metric examples
    • Cost Performance Index and Cost Variance (on-time and within budget)
    • Missed milestones and % tasks complete
    • Resource utilization
    • % cancelled projects

These concepts are very important to consider before starting on the Enterprise journey of scaling agile. It means all the executive leaders of the company need to go through this training to realize this shift has to take place. These executive leaders then form new strategic themes and initiatives that are the basis for funding these value streams of agile teams. When this happens, then the company can truly transform to a Lean-Agile organization. Only then can the company strive to high performance.


Trust Your Instruments

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Lesson Learned: Calibrate, monitor, and trust your instruments to keep on track.

I love to hear and tell stories in illustrating lessons learned. They really convey the emotional impact of the lesson at the time is was learned. This is a tale of two opposing true stories related to small craft navigation that actually happened to me. They take place a few years apart but have a number if similarities that make the point of the lesson learned.

Foggy Fail

In the summer of 1996 I was invited to on an night-time striper fishing trip inside the mouth of the Merrimack River. The skipper was the bother of a colleague, and he had a few friends and relatives on the trip. This was a beautiful 36′ twin-screw motor yacht that was only a year old. It was a very calm serene evening trip destined to anchor in the area inside the Ben Butler’s Toothpick rocks opposite Joppa Flats in Newburyport, MA. We dropped anchor in a two-point moor to keep our position fixed. I don’t recall what we were using as bait that night, but I know it was not artificial lures. We fished well into the night with little success, and no keepers, but it was a fun night. Shortly after midnight the fog rolled in quickly from the sea, engulfing the boat. It was a weeknight, getting late, and a bit cooler. So, we pulled up anchor and attempted to head back up river to the slip.

marine-radar-scopeThis boat was equipped with radar and could see the outline of the mainland mass and other larger objects, but couldn’t see the sandbars or markers on the radar, and we couldn’t see the shore. The tide was low and going lower, but could see and sense the flow of the river. The skipper pulled up anchor and started heading upriver. We could now see the first marker and it looked like we were heading in the right direction. A little further and we saw some other boats anchored that we had to move around. And then the boat touched a sandbar. The skipper motored over that one and back into the channel. We thought things were going well, but the appearance of the channel didn’t match the radar. The skipper started to correct to get back on track with the radar, but had to motor over another sandbar. This didn’t make sense. We should be on track and in the main channel, but as we moved forward we keep getting off course. The skipper debated backtracking downriver to get the channel and radar back in sync before going upriver further, but decided his instinct was better than the instruments. Big mistake. As it turns out we were getting further up a tidal channel in Joppa Flats with the tide going out and ran hard aground on the sand flats. We hit hard and you just know there was damage to the underside. The skipper radioed for the tow boat to come help. It was an off-hour call so it would take time for them to get there. Before we know it the boat listed to the side and we were high and dry on the sand. The tow boat could not help except to taxi the guests back to the dock. The skipper had to wait until dawn for the fog to lift and the tide to come back in and float him of. It cost the skipper several thousands of dollars that night in repairs and the tow back to the dock.

Foggy Success

In the summer of 2002 I took my Dad out for a ride in my new 21′ cuddy cabin I/O boat to the Isles of Shoals island of Portsmouth NH. It was a calm Saturday morning early in the season when the water was still a bit cold. I set the Isle of Shoals weigh-point in my dash-mounted GPS and we headed down river. It was nice and sunny, and we were up on a nice plane at 22 knots. We left the mouth of the Merrimack and veered off towards the Isle of Shoals. About 10 minutes into the ride we noticed what looked like fog on the horizon. It was moving towards us at a faster rate than I thought and I could feel a westerly breeze picking up. As the fog approached I noticed my Dad looking around my dashboard curiously. My Dad is an old-school electrical engineer, who was a master at the slide rule, map calipers and parallels, and calibrating an oil-filled compass. So I had to ask him what he was looking for. He ask where my compass is. I pointed down to my foot locker and said it was in there. He looked up at me shocked as the fog began to engulf us and asked how the hell are we going to navigate now? I dropped off the plane to about 8 knots and continued on track.

p_6875_garmin-gps128I pointed to the GPS on the dashboard and said I’m navigating from GPS. It tells me direction, constantly correcting for the westerly breeze nudging us to port. I told him I know how fast we are going, where the nun buoy at the entrance to the harbor is that we are targeting, and how long it is going to take us as this rate. He said oh, and what if that fails? I pulled out my backup waterproof handheld GPS in my pocket with fresh batteries and said “then we use this.” He looked at me with guarded approval and said “ok, if you say so.” Clearly my Dad had not used GPS for navigation before. At this point we had about 50′ of visibility. As we approached the targeted buoy, I slowed right down to a idle and said look off the bow, we should see the buoy in a few seconds. The red nun then popped out of the fog. And my Dad said “son of a gun, it worked!” My Dad and I used very different tools to navigate in nautical waters, but we each trusted our instruments and were able to keep on track with where we are going and when we will get there, even when we can’t visually see the target along the way.


Both these stories are memorable. The both share the lesson that you need to have good instruments, that give you the visibility you need to keep on track, and that you trust the instruments to guide you when you can’t see the target.

The same can be applied to the SaaS industry. We have many ways to measure and calibrate our instruments for applications, their containers and infrastructure and their tests. We must choose our measurement tools wisely, and calibrate, monitor, and trust your instruments to keep on track.


Quality Engineering in a Scaled Agile Organization

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Test Pyramid – test at the earliest and lowest level feasible

Organizational structure is an important part of creating the culture and capability for Quality Engineers to be successful. In this post I share my insights in the journey of evolving the Quality Engineering role of a scaled Agile organization in a SaaS company. The Quality Engineering function is to advocate defect prevention, assure continuous delivery confidence, and advocate for customer satisfaction. Defect prevention is efficiently testing the right thing at the earliest and lowest level feasible (test pyramid). Continuous delivery confidence begins with the Story acceptance criteria, and ends with doneness criteria and automated pipeline success. Customer satisfaction is both meeting all the expectations as core value, and adding more value with delighters that differentiate you from your competition, usually reflected in the business metric NPS (Net Promoter Score).


Follow Conway’s Law


model team and app/test architecture to mimic each other to reduce friction

Model your team organization and your application/test architecture in similar ways to maximize capability and productivity in each…commonly known as Conway’s Law. Shaping engineering culture and software design are two sides of the same coin. They are synergistic patterns that must flow together or friction will emerge in each. As a change agent, realizing this natural tendency is eye opening and makes driving change much more scientific, shaping change as an engineer. Whether you adopt a formal process like SAFe to scale your agile teams or simply looking for ways to continuously improve specific issues, these insights apply.


Organizing Teams, Architecture, and Interfaces

In a modern SaaS (Software as a Service) Scrum Agile organization with more than a couple teams, the teams and the architecture should be based on small cohesive units that operate with common interface standards, and are loosely coupled to the organization they interface with. In monolithic applications, the teams, architecture, and interfaces tend to be more tightly coupled with their consumers, and standards managed within each team. In micro-services applications, the teams, architecture, and interfaces tend to be more loosely coupled with their consumers, and centralized standards managed across teams such that the interfaces are consistent. Most organizations operate somewhere in-between these two polar extremes.

In the past I have inadvertently created friction in one of these areas while attempting to solve problems in another area. I have since realized that both have to change to achieve the aspirational results I was seeking. Making sense of this tendency makes strategic planning much clearer and achievable, and easier to communicate.

Over the last 30 years I’ve worked in many software engineering organizational shapes and sizes, from basement start-up to giants including Eastman Kodak and Agfa Typographic Systems (in their heyday). This notion applies in all cases, but the approach will differ in the size of the organization. As organizations grow, so does the approach needed to move the organization along in the direction you want to take it. In the past 7 years I’ve experienced maturity in moving from the monolith pole towards the distributed pole.

Quality Assurance to Quality Engineering

In 2010 I re-branded Quality Assurance to Quality Engineering at the advice of our VP of Engineering at the time, with the interest of moving the bar on our technical expectations up the Engineering scale significantly, towards defect prevention. This proved to be a very effective idea as we continued to drive test automation out the each of the Scrum teams and improve the technical capability within each of these teams. Looking back over the last 7 years of improvement, we went from ~800 tests per week to over 10,000 tests in about 3 to 4 hours. Through growth and attrition we transformed the make-up of the organization be mostly software engineers with a quality engineering specialty. The regression test automation push swung the pendulum significantly in the direction of automating everything we wanted to assure confidence that working software stays working. So much so, that we then had to reinforce balancing spending time manually working through exploring the customer experience against building/maintaining an adequate regression suite.

During this time we evolved our application architecture to be much more distributed (pulling business logic back to services with RESTful interfaces), expanding application stacks (Java, RoR, JS), and provide shared components. Our test approaches also continue to evolve to align with our application code designs, requiring common continuous integration test infrastructure and reporting services with RESTful interfaces, and test repositories co-existing in application code repositories. We continues to invest in test infrastructure, evolving the functional test automation team (dubbed the “Autobots”) to a “Center of Excellence” (CoE) team, and further spinning off a Performance CoE team.

As we grew in size so did we grow the Quality Engineering leadership into a matrix-ed organization. By the Summer of 2015, my Quality Engineering organization at Constant Contact grew to the size of 50 (in a 200-person engineering and operations organization). This includes 5 Quality Engineering Managers, 2 QE Architects (Functional and Performance engineering), with test automators embedded in 18 product delivery scrum teams, distributed across 5 geographical locations. During this time, we were growing the role of the Scrum Master, limiting the backlog control of Development Managers to enabling the team. There were a lot of efficiencies in Quality Engineering, including a closely nit community of quality engineers. However, there was a growing animosity amongst the Development Managers about silos between Dev and Test roles under different line managers, and for concern of losing control of the work towards self-organizing teams. We knew we needed to change again to improve our efficiencies in product delivery teams.

Continuous Delivery

The notion of DevOps was introduced to us in 2013. Spawned by the novel “The Phoenix Project” authored by Gene Kim, and the book “Continuous Delivery” authored by Jen Humble and David Farley, we charted a direction to improve our efficiencies in how we deliver changes and value to the customer. We were locked into monolithic release cycles for most applications and needed to get to independent release capability. This spawned the creation of a CD team to stitch together a continuous delivery pipeline, including both commercial and internally developed services. Using a pipeline like this requires re-plumbing our applications toward micro-services and static UI application design, changing the way we manage our backlogs and delivery commitments, and how we operate as teams. All changes should be independently testable and deliverable. The vision is to release value to the customer an Agile Story at a time, mid-Sprint with confidence.



automate the product delivery pipeline with validation and test feedback loops as gates


As we looked to reduce to cultural leadership friction in these teams as well, we re-organized the Quality Engineering Organization again. This time re-aligning Quality Engineers embedded in the scrum product delivery teams to report to the Engineering Managers (formerly Development Managers), re-assigning QE Managers to other roles. There was also a conscious movement to reduce number of quality engineers on some teams, in favor of more test development during application development. There was an expectation for software engineers to take more ownership for testing, sharing the test burden across the team. The whole teams is responsible to quality craftsmanship and the quality engineer brings the quality consciousness, test leadership, and customer advocacy.

Preserve the Quality Engineering Community – Guild and CoE

These changes led to the destruction of the QE Community as we knew it, and the Quality Engineers remaining had a sense of abandonment by the Quality Engineering leadership. The Engineering Managers felt the rising animosity about this need for resurrecting the QE Community. To address this, I introduced formation of the QE Guild community of practice, inspired by the Guild approach pioneered by Spotify and encouraged by Janet Gregory and Lisa Crispin in their book “More Agile Testing” under Organizational Culture.  This introduces a loosely grouped community of test-minded engineers focused on career and capability development in the craft of quality engineering, led by a guild coordinator (me as Dir QE for now). We also preserved the CoE (Center of Excellence) “capability radiator” team approach as centralized teams that provide evolving capability to the product delivery teams for the craft of quality engineering.


Quality Engineering Guild is an organic and wide-reaching “community of interest” group of people across the organization that want to share knowledge, tools, code, and practices –  (search Spotify Guilds for more about Guilds)


Continuous Improvement

Reflecting on where we are now and where we go from here, I can tie this back to the notion of Conway’s Law. Our software architecture is driven more tightly around RESTFul Standards, micro-services, single-page GUI’s (CDN edge-cached), and a managed public authentication layer.The Product Manager (owner) organization also now tightly manage an organizational ranked backlog or Epics that direct the priorities and alignment of the agile teams. Scrum teams organize around delivering features with these architectural constructs in mind. Continuous test is now part of delivering each Story and we have a zero-defect policy (issues found during the Story that gate delivery). These teams operate with a cohesive “developer”-“tester”-“product owner” partners, where the whole team owns quality. It’s not all that way yet, but we continue to strive for this culture.

Constant Contact was purchased by Endurance International Group in Feb 2016 with the same mission to improve online marketing success of small businesses. The mission is the same, but the brand organizations are very different. At the time of this writing we are in the midst of aligning the many brands, including the Constant Contact premium email marketing brand. Merging different organizations like this, although at a grander scale, require similar patterns of re-organizing we experienced within the Constant Contact brand and Conway’s Law continues to apply. The product offerings and feature teams may change, but the idea of architecture and team organization beget each other is a truth that leads to greater efficiency in Scaling Agile as the organization grows...tightly integrated teams, loosely coupled architectural layers with strict interface and performance standards, and continuous delivery pipelines with fast feedback loops.

In the end, the customer wins with a stronger company delivering better results faster.

Agile Defect Prevention | Part 2

June 24, 2012 2 comments

Continuation of

So you have your escaping defects under control and your team is looking to optimize further to become an elite agile team…what more can you do towards defect prevention? Just as WIP Defects (‘Work In Process’ Defects) are an antidote to Defects, TDD (Test Driven Development) is an antidote to WIP Defects. WIP Defects, although a great way to contain faults from getting into the customer hands, is still an anti-pattern to elite agile teams. These teams are test-infected and write more tests than application code, and catch most problems while authoring the application code.

Fine Craftsmanship

In an elite agile team, everyone writes and executes tests. Product Owners carefully craft use cases with well thought through acceptance criteria, and regularly validates both that the working application behaves as intended and is a delightful experience. Software Engineers write unit tests to assure solid code craftsmanship, performance tests in the sandbox to assure efficient basic application behavior, and manually inspect their user experience like a fine cabinetmaker inspecting the glide action of the drawers in the cabinet he is building. Quality Engineers work closely with the Product Owner to understand the intent of the features, and with the Software Engineer to understand the design and share test approaches, authoring and running tests along the way. Quality Engineers peer inspect tests with Software Engineers so that both are intimately familiar with the tests. Both Software and Quality Engineers regularly run unit and regression tests, and validate both performance and user experience in each context the application runs in.

Consider writing failing test cases instead of WIP Defects as a start down this path. I have found that Quality Engineers who are not use to developing tests early and conducting peer inspections of tests with Software Engineers, are initially uncomfortable by the idea of not writing defects. You need to document the defect somehow. The best documentation is the regression test and not a defect report. This will foster correcting the problem promptly as a failing test instead of a WIP Defect hand-off or scheduling an escaping Defect fix. Get into the habit of running regression tests for the feature being worked on often throughout the day in the sandbox environment, with visibility by the whole team, as part of the CI (Continuous Integration) cycle.

Measure cycle time and efficiency in defect prevention over defect counts. You may still need to track defect counts, fix/find rates, etc. (especially in a larger organization), however in an elite agile team these defect counts are so small that everyone in the team is aware of them. Defect prevention and correction are part of the cycle time to deliver the changes. Take the time to be clear on acceptance criteria, compatibility with standards and architecture, and stability of the code changes. Collaborate within the team such that progress on code design and development, and the tests to validate them, is well known. Elite agile teams write and execute the tests early and often that assure working software remains working.

Even in elite agile teams there are Defects that a found late in the iteration or are a larger problem than can be solved at the time of discovery to fix prior to declaring work done. This warrants creating an escaping Defect. The elite agile team carefully scrutinizes each escaping Defect for defect tolerance of the business and impact to the customer, before opting to let the escaping defect into the field. The intent of the agile life cycle is to add business value often, and in small enough iterations to foster continuous feedback, so it might be more important to deliver the change with the defect than delay delivery. An escaping Defect may survive past an iteration and still be held back to release into the field until fixed in another iteration.

Elite agile teams continually test with constant feedback of pass/fail results. There are no unknown failures left without attention to understanding the problem as it is introduced. Problems are corrected promptly and not let into the field for exposure to customers. The whole team is aware of test status through continuous integration practices. There are very few, if any, known defects in the field.

Quality Engineering Intern/CoOp Position

October 3, 2011 Leave a comment

As a Computer Science major (undergraduate or graduate degree programs), why should I choose Quality Engineering as part of my internship or co-operative work experience? I am studying in a computer science degree program to be a software developer and expect to have a developer position upon graduation from college. This post is a pitch to College Students to consider at least one Quality Engineer internship/CoOp job so that you become a more well rounded developer. You should find the job to be career enriching and offers you another career choice.

Zero BugsQuality Engineering (QE) is the practice of defect prevention (finding defects as the code is developed) as opposed to quality assurance (verification and validation after the code is developed), striving towards zero defects in the field. Quality Engineering is early acceptance test planning in agile product delivery teams, collaborative with developers for both exploratory and automated testing, and centers around continuous integration. Quality Engineering embraces traditional testing techniques of defect discovery and test coverage in parallel with developing features.

Quality Engineering as has come a long way over the years. Testing was once considered a downstream activity in a separate test group that pushed defects into a large backlog for developers to fix in subsequent phases. This was usually made up of minimally technical testers with experience and domain knowledge of the customer’s needs. Test automation in the past was a small group of highly skilled test developers who automated tests written by others, requiring stable code to be worthwhile automating. In contrast, the modern software tester has a technical degree (usually computer science), is embedded in a software development project team, is highly collaborative with the developer counterparts in the team, is skilled in traditional test approaches, is skilled in exploratory and automated tests (creating regression tests along the way), and is the voice of the customer throughout the feature development life cycle. Today both the developer and the tester are engineers working together to deliver working software in small iterations, where software is delivered in small testable chunks.

Quality Engineering is a role in Agile product delivery organizations that:

  • develop and maintain test automation infrastructure and processes
  • develop automated tests (functional, integration, and load/performance) for GUI (graphical user interface) and API (application programming interface) automated tests
  • contribute to continuous integration practices
  • exercise continuous deployment and both regression and exhaustive testing
  • apply customer domain expertise for comprehensive test coverage, and exploratory and fuzz testing
  • validate acceptance criteria that developed and re-factored code meets customer and stakeholder expectations
  • develop and work with test fixtures (software containers to test components in isolation) and mocking (simulated responses from third party and internal integration interfaces)

Quality Engineering role has become increasingly more developer oriented, by participating in:

  • code design and test planning reviews
  • early tests of newly developed code in developer sandboxes
  • develop, review, and use deployment automation scripting (including up-time deployment)
  • develop, review, and use monitoring and up-time reporting tools
  • assess load distribution for high availability, redundancy, and fault tolerance,  in hosted systems
  • test integration with third party services, and their mocks

Quality Engineering is a an integral part of scaling development. Agile development includes designing for re-use, routine re-factoring, unit tests (including mocking and stubbing for negative tests), and building integrated code frequently. Work is broken down into the smallest testable work items, such that development and test is a continuous practice. A combination of unit tests (authored by the Developer) and regression tests (authored by the Quality Engineer) provide a library of automated tests that run often and identify problems that break running software. This library of automated regression tests allows the planned iteration time (to visually test and develop additional automated tests) to remain constant and predictable.

Test Accumulation Graph

Regression Time in this graph is the time it would take to manually exercise regression tests as the code base increases over time.

Without well written regression tests, the amount of time it takes to test increases exponentially with the addition of new working code (Test Accumulation graph). While adding features to a product with each development cycle iteration, the time to test manually increases (usually linearly). Automated regression tests absorb the time to test, enabling the available test time to be focused on testing changes and writing new automated regression tests. The library of automated can be run over and over again frequently to promptly catch problem regressions (code or configuration changes that result in breaking another part of the system). Therefore, agile product delivery teams rely on the accumulation of tests as part of delivering working software to the customer.

Having experience working as a Quality Engineer will provide you with a deep understanding of core test techniques, a test perspective on continuous integration and continuous delivery approaches, a sense of what acceptance criteria means to consider development tasks done, and designing software applications for test-ability. CI and CD drive defect prevention, assuring that working software remains working. Quality Engineering is a different kind of developer and knowing this role well will help you work collaboratively with quality engineers while working as a development engineer in the future. You may also find that Quality Engineering is a career path that interests you more than Developer Engineering.

Constant Contact Quality Engineering is organized into roles of QE Architecture, a specialized test team as a center of excellence in test automation, and embedded quality engineers on each agile product delivery team. There is typically a 3:1 ration of developers to quality engineers whom operate collaboratively with developers to deliver new and re-factored infrastructure and customer facing features. Most of our Quality Engineers have a degree in computer science (or related major), many have an MSCS, and we even have a PhD in the team. Consider joining our Constant Contact QE organization for one or more of your internship or co-op work sessions. This experience will contribute to building a well-rounded developer education and a chance to learn the other side of delivery software.

Agile Defect Prevention

September 23, 2011 1 comment

I recall a day in the late ’90’s when assessing readiness for deployment of an application at Kodak after a several month long release cycle having 3,000 deferred defects. WOW! I can’t believe that was acceptable at that time, but in long waterfall release cycles that was the norm at the time. How can you manage defects like this? Today, this is unacceptable. The idea of “deferred defects” has always bothered me in software development. So, what can we do about this?

No BugsAlong comes agile software development cycles where a defect backlog is an anti-pattern (No Bugs). The idea is that through continuous integration, unit tests, early inspection, and regression tests, your team finds problems as they are introduced. This is great in theory, but how do we manage the inevitable defects that we can’t get to and is an acceptable risk to meeting business requirements, and those defects that will come in from the field as support requests to fix? My approach to managing this is to focus on “defect prevention” as opposed to “defect tracking.”

Defect prevention, really? …is that possible? Imagine counting defects on your two hands. constraining escaping defects to what fits on your two handsHow can we accomplish this? Efficient agile organizations focus on defect prevention rather than downstream defect discovery. A culture of defect prevention includes separating “work in process”  defects (WIP Defect) from “escaping” defects (Defect) to minimize defect management that escape beyond the sprint that features are developed in. This results in a much smaller defect backlog to manage and dramatically increased customer satisfaction. Agile is not just about releasing more often, but also with complete and tested features. So, we need to treat defects found in development as actionable sub-tasks of the feature work item. If we treat these WIP Defets as sub-tasks and acceptance criteria of completing the development tasks, then we are not introducing them to the field and not adding to the project team backlog as technical debt.

Escaping defects should then be treated as ranked backlog work items, along with other project work items. They should be prioritized high enough to resolve them within the next sprint or two and not accumulate a growing backlog. Watch the defect backlog as part of the project metrics. A growing defect backlog is a key indicator that the team is taking on more new work than it can handle. It may also be a key indicator that the team is operating as a “mini-waterfall” project, rather than a agile project, requiring more collaboration between Dev and Quality Engineers and early testing. Drop the number of new items the team works on until the escaping defects are well managed or eliminated.

When a WIP Defect must exist past the completion of the parent development task, then promote it to a Defect and place it in the backlog in rank order with other work. However, whenever possible the team should heavily scrutinize this practice and opt to hold delivery of the feature until the WIP Defects are complete. Also, a Defect in the backlog could be demoted and attached to an active development task to include it in the acceptance criteria for that task.

At Constant Contact, we now have our defects in the same tool (Jira/GreenHopper) that we manage new feature work, such that defects are in the same project and iteration backlogs. This provides greater visibility to the product owner ranking the work and the team implementing the work.


November 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Scrum works well to well when there is a distinct backlog of prioritized work and distinct time-boxed release cycles. Scrum scales well with a Scrum-of-Scrums group where scrum masters scrum across teams, provided you introduce program management to oversee the progress across teams. As an organization grows in agile product teams that align with a single delivery cycle, agile service teams emerge (e.g. Engineering Services, Database, Application Operations, automation infrastructure, etc.). Many of these teams have both planned backlog work and on-demand unplanned work (work request tickets).

Scrum is a push model where work is pushed into the team in prioritized order. Many times work on an item may be blocked by a dependency on another team, so the team picks another work item to work on, and so on. This leads to many things started without being completed and accepted in an consistent flow throughout the length of the sprint. The result is a lot of task switching and inefficiencies near the end of the sprint to get the work done in the sprint, and technical debt (deferred defects, refactoring for reuse, etc.). This is especially difficult when you have many interdependencies between scrum teams.

There are three key challenges that emerge as you scale these needs:

  • minimizing work in process (WIP) with smaller work items
  • balance the planned and unplanned work and their priorities
  • minimize bottlenecks in the flow of work

Kanban is another agile concept borrowed from the lean principles of the manufacturing industry in Japan. Kanban (or kamban in Hepburn romanization–kanji 看板, katakana カンバン, meaning “signboard” or “billboard”) is a concept related to lean and just-in-time (JIT) production. According to Taiichi Ohno, the man credited with developing JIT, kanban is a means through which JIT is achieved ( Kanban is a pull model, rather than the push model of Scrum. It uses the same idea of a user story broken into work items with tasks attached. It uses the card (sticky note) concept as in Scrum, but it uses the idea of clarifying distinct process steps (columns) and swim lanes (rows), where each step has a distinct WIP limit. You still have a prioritized backlog to pull work from. Each swim lane has a purpose for processing work, and each step can only pull work from the previous step once a work item or task is pulled from the downstream step. If the downstream step does not have capacity you can’t push the work to them. This leads to tuning the efficiencies and capacities in each step to accommodate a cadence of pulling work through the swim lanes.

Constant Contact (CTCT) is moving from Scrum to Kanban to address these needs. Mike Fitterman (Development Manager) and Rick Simmons (Agile Coach) illustrate the learning of the pilot team (website) at Constant Contact, as presented at the Agile2010 conference: AgileConference2010-Upstream_Kanban_at_CTCT. At Constant Contact, we have nearly all (both product delivery and service) agile teams using this approach at the time of this writing. You can see Kanban boards in many of our conference room and work area walls as you walk through the engineering space. The Scrum-of-Scrums still occurs daily, however it is more focused on larger project progress, interdependencies, and organizational impediments. We are still working out our inefficiencies with this new process, but it seems to be working well for us so far.

Kanban Board

Constant Contact Website Team Kanban Board

Kanban addresses the need to minimize the WIP by constraining each step in each swim lane. It allows for an express lane for high priority on-demand unplanned work (defects and footprint tickets). It makes inefficiencies and bottlenecks apparent to the team to self-correct and tune how the work is done at each step (colored sticky notes and visible policies). Overall it smooths out the cadence of work to keep work flowing through the team with visible status of all work items to the whole team.

Visit to explore more about Kanban agile practices, references, training with David Anderson, founder of Kanban as a software development practice.

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