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

via GIPHY

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.

Join 38,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

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.

Related: When you have to take the fall

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.

Related: When clients don’t pay

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…

Related: Why i ask for a deposit

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.

Get more. Grab our exclusive monthly Scalable Startups. We share tips and special content. Our latest Why I don’t work with recruiters

When You Have to Take the Fall

Also find Sean Hull’s ramblings on twitter @hullsean.

One of the biggest jobs in operations is monitoring. There are so many servers, databases, webservers, search servers, backup servers. Each has lots of moving parts, lots that can go wrong. Typically if you have monitoring, and react to that monitoring, you’ll head off bigger problems later.

A problem is brewing

We, myself & the operations team started receiving alerts for one server. Space was filling up. Anyone can relate to this problem. You fill up your dropbox, or the drive on your laptop and all sorts of problems will quickly bubble to the surface.

Also check out – Why generalists are better at scaling the web.

As we investigated over the coming days, a complicated chain of processes and backups were using space on this server. Space that didn’t belong to them.

Dinner boils over

What happened next was inevitable. The weekly batch jobs kicked off and failed for lack of space. Those processes were not being monitored. Business units then discovered missing data in their reports and a firestorm of emails ensued.

Hiring? Get our MySQL DBA Interview Guide for managers, recruiters and candidates alike.

Why weren’t these services being monitored, they wanted to know.

Time to shoot the messenger

Having recently seen a changing of the guard, and a couple of key positions left vacant, it was clear that the root problem was communication.

Looking for talent? Why is it so hard to find a mythical MySQL DBA or devops expert these days?

I followed up the group emails, explaining in polite tone that we do in fact have monitoring in place, but that it seemed a clear chain of command was missing, and this process fell through the cracks.

I quickly received a response from the CTO requesting that I not send “these types of emails” to the team and to direct issues directly to him.

You might also like: A CTO Must Never Do This

A consultants job

As the sands continued to shift, a lead architect did emerge, one who took ownership of the products overall. Acting as a sort of life guard with a higher perch from which to watch, we were able to escalate important issues & he would then prioritize the team accordingly.

Are you a startup grappling with scalability? Keep in mind these 5 things toxic to scalability

Sometimes things have to break a little first.

What’s more a consultants job isn’t necessarily to lead the pack, nor to force management to act. A consultant’s job is to provide the best advice possible & to raise issues to the decision makers. And yes sometimes it means being a bit of a fall guy.

Those are the breaks of the game.

Want more? Grab our Scalable Startups monthly for more tips and special content. Here’s a sample

When You're Hired to Solve a People Problem

Also find Sean Hull’s ramblings on twitter @hullsean.

A good five years ago I worked for a firm in online education. Among various products they provided through their website, they were struggling with a process to get content churned out more quickly. The bottleneck was slowing down their business, and limiting the new products they could offer.

Help Us Publish, Please…

Among a number of things I was asked to look at, one particularly vexing problem surrounded publishing. Adding new products had become a cumbersome & difficult process. It took days sometimes weeks. For obvious reasons the stake holders wanted to wrestle this process out of the hands of engineering, and place it were it arguably belonged in the hands of the business units.

[quote]
When you’re hired to solve specific technical problems it only figures that you go looking for software solutions. But sometimes the problems turn out to involve the people and processes of an organization. Getting them unstuck is one of the biggest challenges an professional services consultant can face. But it is also one of the most rewarding to solve.
[/quote]

Bumping into Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt

As I dug into the meat of the problem I began to work closely with the database administrator. He was a very smart gentleman & friendly in his own way. But he also spoke with a very thick accent and brusqueness about his manner that proved difficult at times. After working together for some awhile, however I began to win him over, and he started to trust me.

Looking for a top-flight database administrator? Here’s our interview guide for recruiters, managers and candidates alike

It became apparent that he was rather resistant to handing over the keys to the publish process to non-technical folks in other departments. Having handled his share of outages, and bungling screw ups, which sometimes fall on operations during some of the least hospitable hours on the dial, I could understand his concern. What’s more he knew the code which had grown unwieldy.

If I were to use a polite euphemism I would call it spaghetti code.

Management, Managers & Trouble Brewing

Around then the CTO decided to send a manager to sniff around. Unfortunately the manager in question was a very hands off type. His edict was simply to get this done in two weeks, and proceeded to go on vacation. Upon his return when things were still hitting snags, things started to go south.

Despite AWS failures firms like AirBNB and Reddit didn’t have to go down.

Though some of the process had been automated, I refused to move the changes into full push-button automation without first testing on dev environments. Of course those requests had fallen on deaf ears.

Problem comes to a head

Next the hands off manager escalated things upstream, of course adding his own spin on the situation. Shortly thereafter I’m called into the CTOs office only to get royally chewed out. A serious smack down which I’ll admit came almost out of nowhere.

A related article which readers also found quite popular: A CTO Must Never Do This

Oh, honestly I’m not complaining. On some level this is the job of the consultant. To act as the third party, wise or unbiased second opinion, and even punching bag at times.

Once things calmed down, I explained the situation from top to bottom. Yes there was messy code, and yes the process was complex, but it could of course be automated. What really stood in the way was a very resistant engineer who currently owned the process.

As much of the Sandy recovery continues, Devops can learn real lessons from the hurricane.

The CTO for his part concurred, having had trouble communicating with the engineer himself, and really not liking him much. He then appointed a proper project manager to oversee redoing the publish process from scratch.

A Plea for Cooperation

If I were to do it all again, for my part I’d sniff out the people dynamics more carefully. It’s often the case the companies have the engineering talent in house to solve a particular problem, but not the will or knowledge to put it into play.

Is your business growing? Having trouble scaling? Here’s how we do a performance review. It’s the first step on your way to hyper growth.

To managers & CTOs I’d encourage where possible to look for people, process and communication issues. Try to ferret out when something is an engineering problem, or whether it is one of people, silos and territory.

Want more? Grab our Scalable Startups monthly for more tips and special content. Here’s a sample