Stories about Software


Agile for Introverts: Re-Imagined Programmer Collaboration

As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve been listening to Susan Cain’s, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.” I also mentioned that I’d be saying more on the topic, and here comes some more.  Today it’s going to be the idea of Agile for introverts.

In recent weeks, I’ve spent some time running a bootcamp of sorts that covered, among other things, XP and Scrum principles. Personally, I find that I light up when talking about clean coding practices and that I’m a bit more tepid when it comes to explaining process particulars. Reflecting one evening, it struck me that a lot of the practices involved in Scrum ceremonies and some of the XP practices aim to draw people “out of their shells.” In other words, a lot of agile is the Extrovert Ideal brought to programming.

This made me wonder what some Scrum ceremonies and/or XP practices might look like if they were introvert-friendly. That is, how could one accomplish the goals of these activities in ways that didn’t assume “let’s all get together and collaborate always!” was the right way to think.

What is introvert-friendly?

Before I can offer thoughts on how to make something introvert-friendly, I want to define what I mean by that. I feel it’s important to do so because the definition most people would assign by default is “things that don’t require interaction with others,” and that’s not right.

I’m going to go out in a limb here a bit and assume that I’m a good representative of the introvert population as described by Cain. I don’t feel that this is too much of a reach, since I got a 20 out of 20 on the informal “are you an introvert” quiz. So, I’ll explain my own psyche and trust that you find it reasonably representative of how you feel if you are also an introvert.

I don’t seek to minimize social interaction, per se, but I do shy away from unpredictable situations with a large amount of stimulus.  I also have an intense preference for a sort of social order that is predicated upon minimized conflict and a world in which information and opinions aren’t generally shared unless solicited.  You can actually read back through my blog posts and see a lot of this described before I’d ever heard of Susan Cain’s book.

There are probably more, but these certainly capture some of the themes at play here.  And from this basis, I propose the following concepts as introvert-friendly.

  • Differences of opinion are resolved by folks having time to process different viewpoints and build a case rather than by extemporaneous argument/debate.
  • Meetings and gatherings are limited in size.
  • In professional situations, it’s better to remain silent unless you have something high value to say, especially in larger groups.
  • Interpersonal interaction is primarily for camaraderie and logistical resolution (e.g. knowledge transfer or merging code), rather than important work.
  • The most productive work happens in a state of flow when you can tune the world out and concentrate.
  • It’s worth letting a group make a sub-optimal choice to preserve social harmony.
  • It’s good to be able to opt out of groups that frequently make sub-optimal choices.

Notice that none of this is, “I want to be home, alone, always, with no interaction.”  That’s not introversion — that’s being a recluse.  Rather, this is “I prefer orderly interactions, a cap on external stimulus, and time and space to form my ideas.”

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Do Programmers Practice Computer Science?

I’ve gotten some questions about the idea of what we do being scientific or not, and that raises some interesting discussion points.  This is a “You Asked for It” post, and in this one, I’m just going to dive right into the reader question.  Don’t bury the lead, as it were.

Having attended many workshops on Agile from prominent players in the field, as well as working in teams attempting to use Agile I can’t help but think that there is nothing Scientific about it at all. Most lectures and books pander to pop psychology, and the tenants of Agile themselves are not backed up by any serious studies as far as I’m aware.

In my opinion we have a Software Engineering Methodology Racket. It’s all anecdotes and common sense, with almost no attention on studying outcomes and collecting evidence.

So my question is: Do you think there is a lack of evidence based software engineering and academic rigor in the industry? Do too many of us simply jump on the latest fad without really questioning the claims made by their creators?

I love this.  It’s refreshingly skeptical, and it captures a sentiment that I share and understand.  Also notice that this isn’t a person saying, “I’ve heard about this stuff from a distance, and it’s wrong,” but rather, “I’ve lived this stuff and I’m wondering if the emperor lacks clothes.”  I try to avoid criticizing things unless I’ve lived them, myself, and I tend to try something if my impulse is to criticize.


I’ll offer two short answers to the questions first.  Yes and yes.  There is certainly a lack of evidence-based methodology around what we do, and I attribute this largely to the fact that it’s really, really hard to gather and interpret the evidence.  And, in the absence of science, yes, we collectively tend to turn to tribal ritual.  It’s a God of the Gaps scenario; we haven’t yet figured out why it rains, so we dance and assume that it pleases a rain God. Read More


Prediction Markets for Software Estimates

The ongoing kerfuffle over the “No Estimates” movement is surreal to me.  So before I get to prediction markets for software estimates, I’ll discuss the surreal a bit. Instead of attempting to describe it, which, I can only imagine, would be meta-surreal, I’ll make use of an allegory of sorts.

No Wedding Estimates

Imagine that wedding planners have long struggled with an important issue.  For years and years, their clients have asked them to help pick a date on which it would not rain so that they could have outdoor weddings.  And, for years and years, their predictions have been spotty at best, resulting in irate clients, wet formal wear, and general heartburn.

In all that time, wedding planners have pored over weather patterns and diligently studied farmers’ almanacs.  And yet, the predictions did not substantially improve.  It got so bad that a group of upstart wedding planners met one year in the mountains and authored a document called “The Contingency Manifesto.”  This resulted in an important advance in wedding planning for outdoor weddings: reserving a backup plan not dependent on the weather.


And yet, not all was fixed.  People still wanted outdoor weddings, and continued to be disappointed when it rained, contingency notwithstanding.  They still demanded wedding planners help them figure out months and months in advance whether or not it would rain on a particular day.  And, this is understandable after all — weddings are important.

Quite recently, a group of wedding planners emerged under the hashtag #NoOutdoorWeddings.  Their message was simple: “we can’t predict the weather, so have your wedding inside and stop whining.”  The message was, of course, music to the ears of frustrated wedding planners everywhere.  But some planners and most clients balked.  “How can you tell the clients not to have weddings outside?  They’re the ones paying, so it’s our obligation to facilitate their wishes!”

This schism, it seemed, was irreparable.  And surreal.

  • Why is it necessary for wedding planners all to agree?  Can’t the ones that don’t want to deal with weather contingency just not do it and the ones who want to can?
  • Why can’t people figure out that trying to predict a chaotic system like the weather is a fool’s errand?
  • Why would you ask a wedding planner to make a prediction that could easily be influenced by his own interest?
  • Frankly, if one person is dumb enough to ask another to predict the weather on a day 9 months from now, and the other person is dumb enough to do it, can’t we just agree that the two deserve each other and the inevitable lawsuit?

How Estimation Actually Works Today

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Agile Methodologies or Agile Software?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing mostly management-y things, so I haven’t had a lot of trade craft driven motivations to pick Pluralsight videos to watch while jogging. In other words, I’m not coming up to speed on any language, framework, or methodology, so I’m engaging in undirected learning and observation. (I’m also shamelessly scouring other authors’ courses for ways to make my own courses better). That led me to watch this course about Agile fundamentals.

As I was watching and jogging, I started thinking about Agile Manifesto and the 14 years that have passed since its conception. “Agile” is undeniably here to stay and probably approaching “industry standard.” It’s become so commonplace, in fact, that it is an industry unto itself, containing training courses, conferences, seminars, certifications — the works. And this cottage industry around “getting Agile” has sparked a good bit of consternation and, frequently, derision. We as an industry, critics might say, got so good at planning poker and daily standups that we forgot about the relatively minor detail of making software. Martin Fowler coined a term, “flaccid Scrum” to describe this phenomenon wherein a team follows all of the mechanics of some Agile methodology (presumably Scrum) to the letter and still produces crap.

It’s no mystery how something like this could happen. You’ve probably seen it. The most common culprit is some “Waterfall” shop that decides it wants to “get Agile.” So the solution is to go out and get the coaches, the certifiers, the process experts, and the whole crew to teach everyone how to do all of the ceremonies. A few weeks or months, some hands on training, some seminars, and now the place is Agile. But, what actually happens is that they just do the same basic thing they’d been doing, more or less, but with an artificially reduced cycle time. Instead of shipping software every other year with a painful integration period, they now ship software quarterly, with the same painful integration period. They’re just doing waterfall on a scale of an eighth of the previous size. But with daily standups and retrospectives.

There may be somewhat more nuance to it in places, but it’s a common theme, this focus on the process instead of the “practices.” In fact, it’s so common that I believe the Software Craftsmanship Manifesto and subsequent movement was mainly a rallying cry to say, “hey, remember that stuff in Agile about TDD and pair programming and whatnot…? Instead of figuring out how to dominate Scrum until you’re its master, let’s do that stuff.” So, the Agile movement is born and essentially says, “let’s adopt short feedback cycles and good development practices, and here are some frameworks for that” and what eventually results is the next generation of software process fetishism (following on the heels of the “Rational Unified Process” and “CMM”).

That all played through my head pretty quickly, and what I really started to contemplate was “why?” Why did this happen? It’s not as if the original signatories of the manifesto were focused on process at the exclusion of practices by a long shot. So how did we get to the point where the practices became a second class citizen? And then, the beginnings of a hypothesis occurred to me, and so exists this post.

The Agile Manifesto starts off with “We are uncovering better
of developing software…” (emphasis mine). The frameworks for this type of development were and are referred to as “Agile Methodologies.” Subtly but very clearly, the thing we’re talking about here — Agile — is a process. Here were a bunch of guys who got together and said, “we’ve dumped a lot of the formalism and had good results and here’s how,” and, perversely, the only key phrase most of the industry heard was “here’s how.” So when the early adopted success became too impressive too ignore, the big boys with their big, IBM-ish processes brought in Agile Process People to say, “here’s a 600 page slide deck on exactly how to replace your formal, buttoned-up waterfall process with this new, somehow-eerily-similar, buttoned-up Agile process.” After all, companies that have historically tended to favor waterfall approaches tend to view software development as a mashup of building construction and assembly line pipelining, so their failure could only, possibly be caused by a poorly engineered process. They needed the software equivalent of an industrial engineer (a process coach) to come in and show them where to place the various machines and mindless drones in their employ responsible for the software. Clearly, the problem was doing design documents instead of writing story cards and putting Fibonacci numbers on them.

The Software Craftsmanship movement, I believe, stands as evidence to support what I’m saying here. It removes the emphasis altogether from process and places it, in very opinionated fashion, on the characteristics of the actual software: “not only working software, but also well-crafted software.” (emphasis theirs) I can’t speak exactly to what drove the creation of this document, but I suspect it was at least partially driven by the obsession with process instead of with actually writing software.


All of this leads me to wonder about something very idly. What if the Agile Manifesto, instead of talking about “uncovering better ways,” had spoken to the idea of “let’s create agile software?” In other words, forget about the process of doing this altogether, and let’s simply focus on the properties of the software… namely, that it’s agile. What if it had established a definition that agile software is software that should be able to be deployed within, say, a day? It’s software that anyone on the team can change without fear. It’s software that’s so readable that new team members can understand it almost immediately. And so on.

I think there’s a deep appeal to this concept. After all, one of the most annoying things to me and probably to a lot of you is having someone tell me how to solve a problem instead of what their problem is, when asking for help. And, really, software development methodologies/processes are perhaps the ultimate example of this. Do a requirements phase first, then a design phase, then an implementation phase, etc. Or, these days, write what the users want on story cards, have a grooming session with the product owner, convene the team for planning poker, etc. In both cases, what the person giving the direction is really saying is, “hey, I want you to produce software that caters to my needs,” but instead of saying that and specifying those needs, they’re telling you exactly how to operate. What if they just said, “it should be possible to issue changes to the software with the press of a button, it needs to be easy for new team members to come on board, I need to be able to have new features implemented without major architectural upheaval, etc?” In other words, what if they said, “I need agile software, and you figure out how to do that?”

I can’t possibly criticize the message that came out of that meeting of the minds and gave birth to the Agile Manifesto. These were people that bucked entrenched industry trends, gained traction, and pulled it off with incredible success. They changed how we conceive of software development and clearly for the better. And it’s entirely possible that any different phrasing would have made the message either too radical or too banal for widespread adoption. But I can’t help but wonder… what if the call had been for agile software rather than agile methods.


You Want an Estimate? Give Me Odds.

I was asked recently in a comment what I thought about the “No Estimates Movement.” In the interests of full disclosure, what I thought was, “I kinda remember that hashtag.” Well, almost. Coincidentally, when the comment was written to my blog, I had just recently seen a friend reading this post and had read part of it myself. That was actually the point at which I thought, “I remember that hashtag.”

That sounds kind of flippant, but that’s really all that I remember about it. I think it was something like early 2014 or late 2013 when I saw that term bandied about in my feed, and I went and read a bit about it, but it didn’t really stick with me. I’ve now gone back and read a bit about it, and I think that’s because it’s not really a marketing teaser of a term, but quite literally what it advertises. “Hey, let’s not make estimates.” My thought at the time was probably just, “yeah, that sounds good, and I already try to minimize the amount of BS I spew forth, so this isn’t really a big deal for me.” Reading back some time later, I’m looking for deeper meaning and not really finding it.

Oh, there are certainly some different and interesting opinions floating around, but it really seems to be more bike-sheddy squabbling than anything else. It’s arguments like, “I’m not saying you shouldn’t size cards in your backlog — just that you shouldn’t estimate your sprint velocity” or “You don’t need to estimate if all of your story cards are broken into small enough chunks to be ones.” Those seem sufficiently tactical that their wisdom probably doesn’t extend too far beyond a single team before flirting with unknowable speculation that’d be better verified with experiments than taken as wisdom.

The broader question, “should I provide speculative estimates about software completion timelines,” seems like one that should be answered most honestly with “not unless you’re giving me pretty good odds.” That probably seems like an odd answer, so let me elaborate. I’m a pretty knowledgeable football fan and each year I watch preseason games and form opinions about what will unfold in the regular season. I play fantasy football, and tend to do pretty well at that, actually placing in the money more often than not. That, sort of by definition, makes me better than average (at least for the leagues that I’m in). And yet, I make really terrible predictions about what’s going to happen during the season.


At the beginning of this season, for instance, I predicted that the Bears were going to win their division (may have been something of a homer pick, but there it is). The Bears. The 5-11 Bears, who were outscored by the Packers something like 84-3 in the first half of a game and who have proceeded to fire everyone in their organization. I’m a knowledgeable football fan, and I predicted that the Bears would be playing in January. I predicted this, but I didn’t bet on it. And, I wouldn’t have bet even money on it. If you’d have said to me, “predict this year’s NFC North Division winner,” I would have asked what odds you were giving on the Bears, and might have thrown down a $25 bet if you were giving 4:1 odds. I would have said, when asked to place that bet, “not unless you’re giving me pretty good odds.”

Like football, software is a field in which I also consider myself pretty knowledgeable. And, like football, if you ask me to bet on some specific outcome six months from now, you’d better offer me pretty good odds to get me to play a sucker’s game like that. It’d be fun to say that to some PMP asking you to estimate how long it would take you to make “our next gen mobile app.” “So, ballpark, what are we talking? Three months? Five?” Just look at him deadpan and say, “I’ll bite on 5 months if you give me 7:2 odds.” When he asks you what on earth you mean, just patiently explain that your estimate is 5 months, but if you actually manage to hit that number, he has to pay you 3.5 times the price you originally agreed on (or 3.5 times your salary if you’re at a product/service company, or maybe bump your equity by 3.5 times if it’s a startup).

See, here’s the thing. That’s how Vegas handles SWAGs, and Vegas does a pretty good job of profiting from the predictions racket. They don’t say, “hey, why don’t you tell us who’s going to win the Super Bowl, Erik, and we’ll just adjust our entire plan accordingly.”

So, “no estimates?” Yeah, ideally. But the thing is, people are going to ask for them anyway, and it’s not always practical to engage in a stoic refusal. You could politely refuse and describe the Cone of Uncertainty. Or you could point out that measuring sprint velocity with Scrum and extrapolating sized stories in the backlog is more of an empirically based approach. But those things and others like them tend not to hit home when you’re confronted with wheedling stakeholders looking to justify budgets or plans for trade shows. So, maybe when they ask you for this kind of estimate, tell them that you’ll give them their estimate when they tell you who is going to win next year’s super bowl so that you can bet your life savings on their guarantee estimate. When they blink at you dubiously, smile, and say, “exactly.”