Agile Principles: How to Maintain a Sustainable Pace

larry apke, agile, scrum, indiegogo, agile development, agile doctor

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

When I think on this principle I cannot help but think about the potential “dark side” of agile and how it can be misunderstood and implemented incorrectly. It also reminds me of an interesting story I was told by one of my coaching colleagues recently.

Once upon a time a company hired a very talented vice president of software development. Unfortunately, when this brave soul entered employment the amount of technical debt in the code was enormous. This was a situation that needed to be fixed because this pasta code was very expensive to maintain and made it difficult to deliver software quickly and with quality.

The company’s leadership heard about agile and decided that this was the answer to all their problems so they set about sprinting. Since the concepts are so easy they felt they could forge ahead without expert agile scrum help. In their quest for agility they found that they could indeed write code faster, but without proper guidance they forgot about the concept of sustainability and did nothing more than create technical debt faster. Unfortunately for our VP, the pleas to adopt sustainable agility went unheeded and six months was all the VP could take before moving on.

The bottom line is that many companies misuse agile because they think by being agile they can cheat the iron triangle of development. What too few people realize is that you don’t choose two of three sides because it is actually an iron square where you choose three of four sides (scope, resources, schedule and quality or, as Jeff Atwood refers to it, an Iron Stool). You misuse agile when you choose everything but quality because the code becomes unmaintainable over time and agility becomes mired in the big ball of mud you have created.  I refer you to my article about refactoring in the Agile Record for the problems with unnecessarily complex and technical debt laden code.

The misguided desire to emphasize speed over quality leads to the accumulation of technical debt and is a symptom of project (and not product) centric thinking. Like I refer to in an earlier blog post, there are reasons why no one washes a rental car.  Overtime you will no longer get speed or quality and your ability to sustain agile over long periods of time is compromised.

I try to run at least a few miles everyday, but I do not sprint the entire run. If I did, I would barely make it more than about a quarter of a mile. This is why I have begun to prefer the term iteration over sprint. Sprinting goes against this principle because sprinting is, almost by definition, unsustainable. It certainly is not “constant pace  indefinitely”.

I argue that in order to maintain constant pace indefinitely there are two things an team must do and an organization must support, acceptance test driven development (ATDD) and continuous integration / delivery (CI/CD). I believe currently that BDD is the best means of accessing ATDD (and TDD) so I have taught that to my clients with spectacular success.

Without ATDD and CI/CD all teams are doing is what I call feature chasing. The question is not one of sustainability but how many and how quickly can I deliver new features. While this might be important for startups, most are not involved in such high competition that chasing features at the expense of quality and long term sustainability is ludicrous. Even those who must feature chase to remain competitive must recognize that they are creating technical debt that must be paid, and paid quickly, before servicing the “interest” on the debt is all that can be afforded.

Interestingly enough, though many people believe that employing ATDD, TDD and CI/CD slows the progress of software delivery, my experience is that, with very little training and a healthy dose of discipline, the gains far outweigh the investment. This is obvious if we look at the product and not just the project, but my experience shows that even within the misguided and arbitrary project the payoff is realized.

I have a number of teams that I have coached that delivered high quality software into production in short project time frames precisely because, and not in spite of, BDD. As Bob Martin states, “The only way to go fast is to go well,” and no one is more recognized as an expert on quality code than him.

My last point is related to the above in that one of the greatest dangers of feature chasing is not just that we tend to accumulate technical debt faster, but it (and the sprinting as fast as we can mentality) generally pressures us to not take advantage of training opportunities like learning TDD, BDD and the like. With technology changing so quickly it is critical that our people make certain to invest their time not just chasing features but building the skills necessary for sustainable development so they can maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

- Larry Apke

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