Wednesday, April 19, 2006


So what happens to the agility when the project is distributed? Well, it suffers...

It's not that it doesn't work in a distributed context. In fact ThoughtWorks has been doing distributed agile for quite sometime now. We talked about some of the best practices of agile earlier. Let us see what problems distributed agile poses to these principles.

Time difference
When working across oceans, the first thing that hits the team is the time difference. The typical arrangement renders the team to be in a low cost country like India and the client in the US of A or Europe.

The time difference is the first major barrier to communication. Because even if we assume that the other barriers like distance, language, culture, etc can be handled, we just wake up and live at different times.

As much as agile believes in face-to-face communication, it suffers badly in a distributed context. Mitigation consists of:
  1. Cross pollination
  2. Using Voice communication rather than mails
  3. Video Conferencing
  4. Adjusting working schedules on both sides
These techniques are most effective with mirrored teams. Of course, that's the essence of a distributed project, but it gets missed quite often in that the client site is left with a couple of analysts and the development goes on offshore. The mirrored team aims at having all roles replicated on both the shores which encourages more communication amongst the team members.

One more thing hampered is the amount of documentation, which increases almost exponentially...

As the customer is sitting elsewhere all the analysts can't talk to the customer face-to-face which adds to the documents and artifacts created. Also for transparency and quicker feedback sake, tools like online bugtracking systems are used.

The whole effort towards reducing the feedback time and working closely with the customer comes with major overheads in distributed contexts.

Cost and Benefits
From a customer perspective, distributed development reduces cost significantly. The organization seemingly doesn't reap the benefits of distributed development in terms of profit margin due to the increased cost of travel, communication, etc.

But the benefit of having a distributed team like:
  1. Better team skillset (as compared to on-site)
  2. Reduced costs (as compared to on-site)
  3. Reduced culture shocks to customer (as compared to offshore)
  4. Improved business context (as compared to offshore) because people living in the same country have definite advantage in understanding the business
  5. General cross-pollination leading to better diversity and a more cohesive work force overall in the organization.
Selling Distributed Agile
There are some important points that we need to keep in mind when selling distributed agile (even agile) to clients. Setting these customer expectations goes a long way in favour of project success. Other than the cost / benefits decribed above:
  • Expect lots of communication. Mostly in the form of voice communication rather than email
  • Expect much more participation than any waterfall project your organization has been a part of
  • Expect having to give feedback right from the beginning of the project.
  • Expect software to grow (an agile team will rarely go for place holders)

A related and more detailed article by Martin Fowler can be found here

Friday, April 7, 2006


The key practices of agile software development, known and followed are:
1. Face-to-face communication over documentation
2. Quick feedback from end users over project phases (as in waterfall)

Collective ownership, Pair Programming, use of whiteboard, paper, and most importantly the terrific visual representation of the project health and progress... the wall

For an agile team the wall is everything. The action of moving stories & bugs along the columns and the instant snapshot of the project health is fantastic. Here's how it works...

The process :
  1. The Business Analyst analyzes the requirement and writes a story and acceptance criteria
  2. The developers estimate a bunch of such stories in a planning game
  3. The developers (in pairs) then sign-up for a story each morning
  4. When the development is done, the story is tested for desired functionality by the analyst
  5. After the analyst has signed the story off, the tester picks it up
  6. The testers and devs play ping-pong for a while with the issues (bugs) raised by the former
  7. When the tester signs off the story, it's ready for the client to have a look at.
This procedure takes ideally about 3 days per story. The client can then look at the story and sign it off or (ask for some changes) !!!

The documentation per say in this complete procedure is an index card for writing the story, some more for the acceptance criteria and a few more for the bugs.

  • The client and the analyst discuss the requirements face to face probably using some paper to make rough screen sketches sometimes.
  • The analyst talks to the dev pair that signed for the card and describes the functionality.
  • The devs use whiteboards & pair rotation for design discussions, issues and knowledge sharing
  • The devs keep bugging the analyst all the time for clarifications
  • The tester talks to the devs about issues and only writes a bug on a card if it can't be resolved then and there.
For anyone roaming around, the color coded, columned wall with the stories and bugs gives a clear picture of the iteration health. And a team can easily setup the wall to show the project health coz it's the team that decides the color codes, the statuses (columns), etc on the wall.

It's the team that decides when to start the day, what coding conventions to follow, the core hours of work and it all works out so smoothly because the client is part of the team!!

Now how much better can it get?

Monday, April 3, 2006


Stories being testable and valuable is as important as them being small and independent. Perhaps more... because these are the two important characteristics which in fact drive the size of the the story.

Like we saw that an agile analyst can sometime fool himself by creating independent stories, one can also blunder quite easily when it comes to testability and value of stories. Let's look at an easy example:

Imagine a customer entity in a system with about 50 odd attributes. Creating one story capturing all these attributes will be a real mess. An analyst would (and should) readily want to break the story. What he/she might end up doing, however, is breaking the story thus...
  • First story for creating the customer domain object, giving values for all the attributes (in code) and saving it to the database.
  • Second story for creating the screen
  • Third story for adding validations.

Task & sizewise, this will work fine. But where is the value? What are we actually delivering to the user that he/she can use?

Another problem is the testability. What an analyst should remember is that a story should be testable by the end user... not through code.

So what does one do in these kind of situations? Well, maybe (and I am quite sure) that there are different types of the customer. Breaking the stories so as to capture details for each type can be a great start. This is called a vertical split.

In situations where this is not possible the team might have to resort to internal breaking of stories. The catch is it can be shown to the customer only as a complete functionality, which lengthens the feedback cycle which defeats the whole purpose of breaking the story!!!

These are the situations to beware of... But then that's what we get paid for right??

The perfect split is somewhere out there and finding it gives an analyst immense happiness... and who could help you better at that than the client?