Process NAZIs

While formalism is gone when it comes to the science of computer programming, it appears the pent-up desire for formalism has exerted itself in spades when it comes to the management of computer programming.

The latest fad in this formalism is the Scrum process. The idea is simple enough: you maintain two lists–a product backlog, and a sprint backlog. The first is a list of long-term ideas, the second a list of things being worked on in the current work iteration called a “sprint.” Daily sprint meetings are held to make sure everyone touches base, and at the end of each sprint cycle everyone meets to discuss what was accomplished and to plan the next sprint.

There are some good ideas here. But many of the ideas here which make the scrum process work are ideas that also allow Waterfall to work, and allows various agile processes to work, such as XP. They can be boiled down to the following observations about software development:

(1) Gall’s Law: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

(2) The human mind can only keep track of 7 things, plus or minus 2. This means that any complex task must be broken down so it fits within our ability to track it.

(3) An intellectual task begun on one day is best finished the same day, or at least bread crumbs should be left behind to help you pick up where you left off the day before.

(This third point is why my work day tends to be variable: once I know what I’m working on for that day, I need to finish those tasks: if I’m done by 4, then I’ll just goof around until quitting time. However, if the task isn’t done until 10, I’ll call my wife and let her know I’m going to be late. It freaked out my bosses at various jobs that for no reason I’d just stay in the office until really late–they were worried there was a deadline they didn’t know about. No; it just happened that the task I set for myself that morning was bigger than I anticipated.)

Any good process also takes into account the following managerial realities:

(4) Good inter-team communications is necessary for team cohesion. A cohesive team is a team which supports its members.

(5) Corporate memory (meaning the collective memory of the team) needs to be maintained in a reasonable way, so that new members can be brought up to speed, and leaving members do not cause the team to fall apart.

(6) Management must understand the business goals of his team, and effectively communicate them to the team. (Which means business goals should be well known by management.) Management must also understand the development bandwidth of his team and effectively communicate those limitations to those establishing business goals. And management must effectively collect both of these pieces of information in order to establish a reasonable development timeline for product deliverables.

Now any process that acknowledges these realities will allow you to effectively manage the team. But–and this is important–when the process serves itself and no longer serves the realities above, then the process should be paired down or scrapped.

For example, today I encountered a complaint that ‘//TODO’ considered harmful–an assertion that if you are putting ‘//TODO’ markers in your code, you’re somehow not properly following the Scrum process. In an attempt to keep the “purity” of the Scrum process (all information about future tasks stories should be in the product back log) the assertion is that ‘TODO’ markers in code (which mark areas that probably need to be revisited) should be removed. This way, you guarantee everything is in the product backlog.

But in an attempt to maintain the “purity” of the process, we violate rule 2 above: rather than maintaining an informal pointer to the code (and thus lumping all future potential modifications under a single umbrella that can be tracked) we’re forcing developers to keep track of all of the functionality outside of their code–forcing them, in other words, from putting disparate things into a common bucket and setting it aside so they can work on other things. (If you have more than 7 areas in your code you have to mentally track because you’re prohibited from using a bookmark, then you’ve filled your “7 +/- 2” bucket with information that is not immediately relevant.

We also violate rule 3 above by taking away breadcrumbs. And we potentially violate 4 and 5: //TODO markers make one form of inter-team communications and corporate memory which is then simply lost down the rabbit hole–for no better reason than it doesn’t fit into the process model.

I’ve also encountered the assertion that no defects should ever be fixed until a story is created for them. While this is all and good for large defects which take some time to resolve, there are plenty of bugs that go into the bug tracking system which are quicker to resolve than answering an e-mail. So do we also schedule time for answering e-mail? Enforcing the notion that bugs are “out of sight, out of mind” rather than scrubbed on a daily basis and assigned to the developers regularly, then allowing the developers to decide if they can answer the issue quickly or if the bug needs to go in as a story strikes me as a violation of rule 4 above: it essentially isolates the testing team from the development team and contributes to the fallacy that testing and development are separate groups with incompatible goals, rather than serving in a symbiotic and mutually supporting relationship.

(In my opinion, testing exists to take certain development tasks off the shoulders of development–such as verifying code changes work correctly–in the same way that a squire supports a knight by taking some of the tasks of battle off the shoulders of the knight. Developers are expensive, specialized resources and should be treated as such–and an entire support network should be built around them, including squires (who eventually could become knights if they so choose). By separating the two into separate teams you leave the knights isolated while their support staff is put into an adversarial role–and it leaves the illusion for upper management that their Knights are replaceable, overpaid cogs rather than the people who actually do the work for which the rest of the staff is there to support. And this misalignment of responsibilities violates rules 4 and 6, since it prevents cohesion and misrepresents to management the development bandwidth available.)

In the medieval times of old, a Knight was supported by up to seven separate support personnel, from squires to horse keepers. In today’s modern army each front-line soldier is supported by an average of seven separate support personnel, from logistics to planning.

Unfortunately most development processes have a lifecycle: they go from being the flavor of the week to being abused to being discarded as working failures. The number of shops out there who have scrapped XP or other Agile processes speaks towards the wreckage: after all, most processes grow out of the desire to assist with my six rules above–but eventually they’re usurped by people who worship the process for its own sake, and by people who wish to isolate themselves from the reality of the Knights and Soldiers of old.

Because most processes eventually die at the hands of managers who wish to isolate themselves from the reality that their Developers are like the Knights of old: expensive resources requiring a support staff to maintain maximum efficiency. And because most people working the process eventually decide gaming the bureaucracy is more important than winning the war.

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