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From Agile 101 book: The Ant and the Cicada

One summer a cicada was resting in a field, when she noticed a small ant running around here and there.

– “What are you doing?” asked the Cicada.
– “The Queen has asked me to build a new anthill!” replied the Ant.
– “But they already have one there, just a few meters away” offered the Cicada, puzzled.
– “Yes, but it’s getting a bit small, and in winter, with the rain, the things we have collected get wet

The Cicada, ready to learn from her hard-working friends, decided that it would be a good idea to prepare for the winter. The leaves and sticks she used to build her shelter the previous year were getting dry, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a new home to spend the winter in comfort.

She quickly started to plan the wonderful shelter she would build. Now that she had time she would build it with every possible comfort. She would be the envy of the whole meadow. The stories about her new home would be heard far away, further even than the cypress hedge. It would have spacious windows so the light would flood in, and she would design a clever pulley system that would save her many trips to and from the barn to store what she had collected.
The Ant, however, had a plan. In August she would build the first room, which would be the barn. That way, if the rains started early this season, she and the other ants would have at least some extra space to store their grain. Then she planned the rest of the work according to its importance. If she didn’t have enough time to finish it all by the deadline, she would have built at least the most important parts.

In September she would dig a hole that would later become the hall were the first larvae of the year would live. In October she would build an additional room to increase barn capacity. Lastly, in November she would finish the work by digging a hall where she could grow fungi.

In the meantime, the Cicada was worried about having a dining hall that was big enough, and a structure as solid as necessary to hold everything she had imagined. She would run back and forth looking for the materials she would need to build all the things that she had planned in her head.

In October the first rains came, but the Cicada didn’t even have a basic shelter to take cover in. Also, water ruined some of her first constructions that were halfway built, and she had to start again. Then November came and the weather became really ugly. She had to hurry up and started working from sunrise to sunset.

Those first October rains made the Ant think that something could go wrong, and she decided to test whether the work that was already done would be useful. She started to fill her new barn with grain and soon she noticed that the access hole was too small for big leaves, and that it should be a bit higher if they wanted to avoid water or mud coming through. In order to fix this, they had to stop doing other things.

Winter came early that year, and the Ant realized that she wouldn’t have enough time to build the last room, so in the main anthill they decided that they should open an extra entrance, in case the main one got blocked by a stone or an enemy.

The Cicada, however, was surprised by the bad weather. She didn’t really know what was finished and what wasn’t. Also, what she had considered finished had not been tried out, and now there was no time to improve it. Winter was here and no more work could be done.

In her new shelter, under the leaking roof, the Cicada promised herself that this would never happen again: “Next year I’ll start work even before the Ant,” she said to herself.

You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).

Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

Agile 101: Scrum’s sprint 0 and the initial design

Sometimes we’re in projects in which we need to prepare a large number of things before starting out. Can we start building without stopping to plan or analyse what we’re about to do?
When we read about Scrum, we get the impression that all texts start directly with development, but…what about environment, team or office preparation tasks? What about design? Shouldn’t we stop to think about the whole design and architecture of what we’re about to build before we start programming?

About preparation or “before” programming. Some people call it “sprint #0”, the sprint where you prepare your tools, install the stuff you need, train the team, etc.. It can be a longer sprint (3, 4 weeks or so). Some detractors criticise this sprint because it is not agile, and because it hides some work that is taken care of in the same way as the rest.

It is true that it can be very comfortable, because we tell the client that we’ll be back in 3 weeks to have the preparation meeting for the first sprint, and by then we have organized it all. I have also used those zero sprints in my first projects, but now I prefer to solve those issues also in an Agile manner.

I try to make every one of those tasks (installing the development server, installing the demo server, creating a project and tasks in Trac or Redmine, installing the Integrated Development Environment or IDE, etc.) part of the first sprint and, if possible, have a set deliverable at the end of each demo.

In that demo, we could show, for example, the project-management tool already installed in the final URL and the task list with the tasks ready to be assigned, or we could launch the IDE in that demo meeting, and check whether the environment has been created correctly and whether Jetty executes a “Hello World” application correctly.

Another important step is the initial architecture design. If we make a huge design with all the application architecture (known as a big up-front design) before we start programming, we will be returning to a waterfall design. Firstly, we analyse everything, three months later we do all the design work during a couple of months, and then we program everything in one go until we finish it six months later. If we finish all work and show it to the clients and they say: “that is not what we discussed a year ago…” then we have a problem.

It is better to design one of the modules of the application, or one of the new features, then draft the specifications, and finally send them to development. While part of the team implements them, analysts can gather requirements for another module or another feature, and go on doing so sprint after sprint.

There will be sprints in which we won’t have new stuff to analyse and others in which the development goes a bit faster than the specifications, but normally there is always some task ready to be carried out while Product Owners sign off the latest requirements, or until those requirements are completely defined.

If we work like that, new modules or features could be regularly deployed to production or preproduction, so users will be able to take advantage of them without waiting until the very last feature of the application has been designed.

You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).

Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

Agile 101: Scrum for fixed-price projects

One of the most common questions we ask when we’re wondering whether we should adopt a methodology like Scrum is how to face the fixed-price contracts that are so common in public procurement and many other sectors. One of the Agile principles says: “we welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.” This means that using Scrum we will be flexible with features we must develop, and we will admit new ones that were not in the original contract listing. This sounds very good but… the final price of the project is not going to change!


I work in the public-procurement department in a software-development company. That means that in at least 90% of the projects I work on I have a public institution as a client. Contracts are normally defined by a document with specific administrative specifications and another one with technical features. These contain all the services that are being hired, the characteristics of the product to be developed and the maximum price of the tender. They include even the technical features of the software and the profile of the projects’ participants. It is all very narrowly defined. It is the price that the public administration must pay to avoid arbitrariness.

If our company has been lucky enough to win the tender, then both of us, provider and client, have to face the harsh day-to-day reality of projects. Circumstances change. New legislation comes up that affects the project. Things that were deemed correct a few months ago are no longer valid, because needs have changed. What should we do? If we adapt the project to every change that the client needs, then we providers have to bear the brunt of additional cost. If we refuse to change anything for the client, always waving the contract and its specifications in their face, we risk delivering something that might be perfect for last year’s decree, but—for that very reason (or for any other reason)—is no longer of any use.

The way to avoid this, or at least the way that has worked best for me so far, arises from the way of working in Scrum projects. At the beginning of the project I make a list with the features to be developed, and give them a score that the client knows right from the beginning.

I normally give the example of a large jar full of ping-pong balls. Each ball is a feature that must be developed. The jar is full. If the Product Owner wants to include two new features, I ask that person to tell me which other features—or ping-pong balls of a similar size—should we take out of the jar. Normally this vision solves the predicament and the Product Owner does not resist giving up other features, now recognizing that they aren’t important. If it all gets recorded in the meeting’s minutes and, most important of all, if the Product Owner understands what is being given up and what will be gained instead, it is normally a comfortable solution for both sides.

You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).

Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

Agile 101: Scrum in a maintenance project

There is a common doubt among those considering using Agile methodologies to manage a project: would it be possible to apply Scrum to projects where, on top of the upcoming and planned tasks, there are frequent interruptions to solve maintenance problems, to correct errors or to resolve issues? Many project managers face these types of problems and use several approaches to tackle them. Let’s see some of those approaches: 

Short sprints

With this solution, we will keep the tasks that have already been programmed for that sprint. If our sprints are 1 or 2 weeks long, we will be able to make the unplanned tasks a priority on the to-do list for the next sprint. If the sprint is one week long, we will start urgent tasks after 3 days, on average.
In an ideal world, this would work but it would pose some disadvantages. Not every issue can wait for a few days to be solved. A whole service could depend on it.

 

Low load factor

If we know that as a general rule we will have unplanned tasks or issues that we must solve quickly, we can lower our load factor during the sprint so we have “room” to solve these problems.
If in each sprint the team has the capacity to solve 10 planned stories, we could promise to deliver just 7, so the team has time to solve urgent issues. That way we won’t fail when it’s time to deliver what we promised, sprint after sprint.

In my opinion this solution can be useful in some projects but it could create another problem. Let me explain. Normally the load factor is 75%. If we lower it so we’re able to devote 30% of the team’s time to urgent tasks, we should apply a load factor ranging from 40 to 50%. On this 40% we’re using Scrum but, how are we managing the rest of the team’s time? What do we know about that pile of tasks that we’re solving sprint after sprint?

 

A different team for each type of task

This solution consists of having a Scrum team for the identified and planned tasks, and a Kanban team for the urgent issues. With Kanban we can add new tasks to the TO-DO column as they arrive, and we will follow them up until they get shifted to the DONE column. With this the team will be even more agile, reducing the overhead in meetings and planning that we could suffer with Scrum.
We still have a dilemma with unplanned tasks, which are, well, unplanned. There will be times when the Kanban team providing support will be oversized, because there are very few issues. But then a week later the number of issues and their importance could be so high that we will need any help we can get.

To minimise those risks, we could rely on the previous solutions. We could have short sprints, so the Scrum development team can plan the tasks for the next iteration. We could also use a lower load factor so the team can have a bit of room in their planning to give a hand if needed. In the same way, the support team can help with planned sprint tasks when their TO-DO column starts to look empty. To make the most of this, it would be good if all members in all teams rotated, so that everyone knows every aspect of the job.

You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).

Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

Agile 101: How to write an Agile book

Yes, you can also write a book in an Agile manner. Not only software can be created this way. All these Agile things can be applied to a myriad of fields, not only to technology. In this chapter I will tell you how I used this work philosophy to write the book that you have before you:

Focus on what’s important,
delete the non-essentials

Nowadays books—especially technical books—are going through the same phenomenon as CDs did a few years ago. You bought a CD only because you had heard that song on the radio, but, how could a CD have less than 20 songs (and cost less than 20 dollars)?

It had to be filled up with something. Maybe the last few songs did not have the same quality as the two or three first hits in the disc? Well, it was necessary to justify the price, to pad it a little. This could make you hate the author for those last three songs in a duet with Tom Jones or the techno-pop version of their first hit.

The same can happen with books. We feel better if our book is 500 pages long, and we write it for two years but, at what cost to you, the writer? And for the reader who buys it? Probably that reader is only interested in the chapters on Agile quotes or about Scrum’s advantages.

Something of the sort happened to me while I wrote this book. It had very few pages and I was tempted to add some filler chapters. They weren’t really as interesting as the rest and they weren’t as close to the main subject of the book. I ended up taking them out. The first version of the book was about 67 pages long, but I chose to keep it that way instead of having readers think that the book was too long or too boring.

Real artists ship!

This expression, attributed to Steve Jobs refers to the fact that real artists are not constantly re-thinking their work until they have the perfect painting or the perfect sculpture. They ship their works, put them up for sale, and then see what the market is really interested in.

Have you written a tutorial on how to install Pentaho? A WordPress configuration manual? What are they doing in a drawer? Get a cover (there are hundreds of websites for that), format it, write an attractive description, and put it up for sale at Amazon’s KDP, at iTunes or wherever you want.

It is only 30 pages long? Well, then sell it for one or two dollars. If you sell a few you’ll get a return for the 20 or so hours that it took you. Also, you’ll have learned lots of things about digital marketing, sales, royalties…and also about which kinds of subjects sell books and which don’t.

Perfection is a vertical
asymptote

No matter how much you try to write the perfect book, with the perfect cover, with the exact price to maximise sales and no typos… you won’t be able to do it. Perfection is a vertical asymptote (sorry again, Math 101 Calculus).

The better you try to make it, the higher the cost will be for you. When you’ve put an enormous amount of hours into it, putting in another enormous amount won’t get you any closer to getting a bestseller.

When I put the book up for sale, I realized from the first opinions on the book that users thought it would be a Scrum manual. I had to learn from that and change the description to make it clearer. Small changes in the description had very high impact on sales.

In the same way, when I updated the book to its second cover, sales increased by 30%. Sadly it went further down when I changed it to the third cover. It was more expensive, and in my opinion prettier, but apparently Amazon’s users didn’t like it.

Your leads will tell you if they find the content, the cover or the subject interesting or not. You can think it over again and again, but until the book is not in the virtual shelves you won’t know what works and what doesn’t. Avoid the paralysis that sets in with perfectionism and don’t overthink it. Put your book up for sale and let them decide (remember, real artists ship!).


You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).

Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

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