I have a new appreciation for Agile and not because it worked

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A couple of years ago I worked at a startup in the online publishing space. But this story isn’t about online publishing. This story is about deadlines, and not meeting them.

For those who don’t know me, I’m a professional services consultant. I’ve worked on a project basis for 90% of two plus decades of my professional career. I mentioned this to give my opinions and perspectives some context. Although I’m not a manager, I’ve worked under more managers than most. Because I work on 5-10 projects per year, that comes to close to two hundred in my career.

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My career path has given me a unique perspective, on teams, leadership and motivation. Of course like anyone who’s worked in tech, I’ve see a lot of agile.

Daily standups are de rigueur of course. As are breaking up your work into two week sprints, and assigning story points to those tasks.

I have to admit there are times when Agile seemed the most fashionable way I saw teams working. And I guess I believe it was more trendy than functional.

Doesn’t everybody already work off tight todo lists, break tasks down into manageable pieces, and always deliver what they promised? It may be because I’ve spent a lot of time managing myself, and surviving as a freelancer that I’ve picked up some of these habits. But I digress…

1. Crunch time

While we as a team had been working on two week sprints, something happened to derail us. Suddenly a major customer was in jeopardy, because we had not delivered on sales promises.

Although what was being promised, we *could* build, we were stumbling over the details.

As an emergency plan, we dropped our current sprint tasks, and marshaled our forces towards this new goal. Everyone on the team knew the customer was hanging by a thread.

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2. We need to deliver production by Friday

While this edict looks great on paper, it didn’t work out so well. Developers and ops weren’t clear which systems were included in “production”, and how they needed to be connected together.

Each engineer ended up interpreting the goal in their own way, often assuming that others were shouldering ultimate responsibility of delivery.

“Well I did my part, this other part of the team is responsible for those other pieces…” was the refrain I heard. Sadly the deadline was missed, and everything was a mess. Only after management later dug in and sifted through the rubble, did they actually break up the tasks, assign story points, and give each engineer actionable items to work on.

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3. Please work together to make that happen

This doesn’t work because “production” is not an actionable item.

Actionable is much more specific
o deploy this container
o setup these five servers
o fix these three bugs and push code
o setup these new environment variables

Why is “production” not specific?

Which application? Which layer or API must work? Are there intervening steps before production will work? Are their individual tasks for each engineer?

To me you need to “break things down” further if you have tasks that span multiple people, and multiple sessions. I think of a session as a 2-3 hour bucket of productive work. For me it is also the length of time my laptop battery takes to drain from 100% to 0%. When that happens I know I need a break.

And I know that’s how I get chunks of work done.

So to take this to a more specific level, if Friday is 5 work days away, I figure I have 12 increments of work I can do in that time, and if I have 3 engineers, then I need 36 chunks of work.

If you assign 36 chunks of work I believe you are much more likely to get 25-30 of those chunks done.

If you stick to the one macro goal of “get production to work”, engineers may secretly drop the ball figuring, well there are dependent tasks that are not done, so we’re not gonna get there. And also since the goal points at everyone, nobody saddles the failure.

Whereas if you have 36 chunks of work, individual engineers are less likely to drag their feet because it’ll be clear that the hold up was three of john’s tasks…

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All of this gave me a new appreciation for Agile. It truly does keep teams on track, and focuses everyone on actionable work. This allows management more transparency on whats working, and engineers the feedback they need to get to the finish line.

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