QA does not stop in QA

Quality Assurance does not stop after the software receives the “thumbs up” from the QA team. QA must continue while the product is Live! … because QA is not perfect, and real users only exist on a Production system. We need to be humble and accept that our design, development and quality processes will not catch all the issues. Consequently, we must equip ourselves with tools that will allow us to catch these problems in Production as early as possible … rather than “wait for the phone to ring”

When the product exits QA, it simply means that we have we’ve run out of ideas on how to make the system fail. Unfortunately, this does not imply that the system, once in Production, will not fail. If we are successful and get a high volume of traffic, the simple law of large numbers guarantees that our users will find yet-never-thought-of ways to – unintentionally – make the system fail. These are part of the “unknown unknowns” as Mr. Donald Rumsfeld would say. Deploying the product on the production servers, and handing-off (abdicating?) the responsibility to keeping it up to the Ops team shows wishful thinking or naïveté, or both.

Why QA must continue in Production

There are a few categories of issues that one needs to anticipate in Production:

  • Functional defects: in essence, bugs that neither developers, nor QA caught – while this is the obvious category that comes to mind, it is far from being the only source of issues
  • User experience (UX) defects: Product works “as spec’d”, but users either can’t figure how to make the product work, or don’t like it. A typical example is a high abandon rate in a purchasing experience, or any kind of work flow, or a feature that’s never used, a button that’s never clicked.
    This is not reserved to new products, by improving the layout of a given page, we may have broken another feature on that same page
  • Performance issues: while we may have run performance, and load tests, in our QA environments, the real world always offers surprises. Furthermore, if we are lucky enough to have the kind of traffic that Google or Facebook have, there is no other way but to test and fine-tune performance in production
    Running tests on non-production systems requires to not only simulate the load of the system, but also to simulate the “weight” of existing data (e.g. in database, file system) as well as longevity to ensure that there is no resource leak (memory, threads, etc)
  • Operational issues: while all cloud applications are typically clustered for high-availability, there are other sources of failure than equipment failure:
  • External resources, such as partners, data feeds, can fail, or have bugs of their own, or simply not keep up their response time. Sometimes, the partner updates the API without notification.
  • User-provided data can be mal-formed, or in an unexpected format, or a new data format can be introduced after the launch of the product
  • System resources can be consumed at an unexpected rate. Databases are notorious for having non-linear response times based on load: as long as the load is under a given threshold response time is high, but once the load exceeds this threshold response time can deteriorate very rapidly.

 

A couple of examples:

  • At my previous company, weeks after the product had been launched, we started receiving occasional complaints that some of the user-created videos were not showing up in their timeline. After (reluctantly) poking around in our log files, we did find out that about 10% of the videos that had been uploaded to our site for the past 2 weeks (but not earlier) were not processed properly. Our transcoder simply failed. Worse, it failed silently. The root cause was a minor modification to the video format introduced by Apple after our product was released. Since this failure was occurring for a small fraction of our users, and we had no “operational instrumentation” in our code, it took us a long time to even become aware of it.
  • Recently, we launched a product that exchanges data with our partner. Their API is well documented, and we tested our product in their sandbox environment, as well as their production environment. However, after launch, we had reports of occasional failures. It turns out that users on our partner’s site were modifying the data in ways that we did not expect, and causing the API to return error codes that we had never seen. Our code duly logged this problem each time it occurred in our log files … among the thousands of other log events generated every minute

 

Performing QA on Production Systems

As I mentioned, the Google and Facebook of the world, do a lot (if not most) of their QA on Production systems. Because they run hundreds of thousands of servers, they can use a small subset to run tests will live user data. This is clearly a fantastic option.

Similarly, “A/B comparisons” techniques are typically used in Marketing to compare 2 different user experiences, where the outcome (e.g. a purchase) can be measured. The same technique can be applied in testing, e.g. to validate that a fix of an intermittent bug difficult to reproduce does work.

 

More generally, Production code needs to be instrumented:

  • To detect failures, or QoS (Quality of Service) degradations, with internal causes (e.g. database is slowing down)
  • To detect failures, or QoS degradations, with external causes (e.g. partner API times out a lot)
  • To monitor resource utilization for each service or application – at a finer grain than provided by Operations monitoring tools which are typically at the server level.

The point is that if a user can’t buy a book on our website because our servers crash under load – this is a bug. While the crash is not due to code written incorrectly, it is due to the absence of code warning us that the system was running out of steam … this is still a bug.

 

In order to monitor quality in Production, we need to:

  • Clean up the code that writes to log files: eliminate all logging used for code testing, or statements such as “the code should never reach here”. Instead, write messages that will be meaningful to the poor soul who, a few weeks later, will be poring over megabytes of log files on a Sunday night trying to figure out why the system crashed
  • Ensure that log messages have consistent severity levels (e.g. as recommended by RFC 5424Wikipedia has a nice table), so that meaningful alerts can be triggered
  • Use a log aggregation system, like GrayLog2 (open source), so log files from multiple nodes in the same cluster, as well as nodes from different services can (a) be searched from a console and (b) viewed, time-aligned, on a single page (critical for troubleshooting). GrayLog2 can handle hundreds of millions of log events and terabytes of data.
  • MEASURE: establish a base line for response time, resources consumption, errors – and trigger alerts when the metrics deviate from the baseline beyond a predetermined threshold
  • Track that core functions – from a user perspective – complete, and log when, and ideally, why, they fail along with key parameters. E.g.: are users able to upload files to our system, are failures related to file size, time of day, location of user, etc?
  • Log UX and operationally meaningful events to track how users actually use the system, what features are most used and track them over time. These metrics are critical for the Product Management team
  • Monitor resource utilization and correlate with usage patterns. Quantify key usage parameters in order to scale the right resources in advance of the demand. For example, as traffic grows, the media server and the database servers may grow at the different rates.
  • Integrate alarms from application errors into the Ops monitoring tools: e.g. too many “can’t connect” errors should trigger an Ops alert that our partner is down – slow response time on a single server in a cluster may indicate the disk is failing

 

Quality is not a one-time event, it is an everyday activity, because users change their behaviors, partners change their APIs, systems get full and slow down. What used to work yesterday, may not work today, or no longer be good enough for our customers. As a consequence, the concept the “test driven” development must be extended to the Production systems, and our code must be instrumented to provide metrics that confirm that everything works as desired, and alerts when they don’t. But that’s not sufficient, developers and QA engineers must also take the time to look at the data, not just when a fire drill has been called, but also on a regular basis to understand how the system is being used, and how resources are consumed as the system scales, and apply this knowledge to subsequent releases.

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Day-by-Day Model of an Iteration

This post presents a practical guide of what happens during a typical Agile iteration – a sort of play-by-play for each role in the team, day by day.

This post presents a practical guide of what happens during a typical Agile iteration – a sort of play-by-play for each role in the team, day by day. Please open the attached spreadsheet which models the day-by-day activities of a 2-week Agile development iteration, and describes the main activities for each role during this 10-day cycle of work. In addition, we will highlight how to successfully string iterations together, without any dead time; as the success of any given iteration is driven by preparation that has to take place in earlier iterations.

This is intended as a guide, rather than a prescription. While each iteration will have its own pace – a successful release will follow a sequence not too different from the one presented here.

Golden Rules

Each company is different, each project is different, each team is different, each release is different, and each interpretation of Agile is different. The following states the immutable principles to which I personally adhere.

  • Once Engineering and Product Owner agree on the deliverables of an iteration, they are frozen for this iteration
    • Engineering must deliver on time
    • Features cannot be changed, added, or re-prioritized
    • Only exception is a “customer down” escalation of a day or more
  • Engineering delivers “almost shippable” quality code at the end of the iteration
  • Each release is self-contained: all the activities pertaining to a given user story must be completed within the iteration, or explicitly slated for another iteration at the start of the iteration
    • E.g.: QA, unit tests, code reviews, design documentation, update to build & deployment tools, etc
  • Dev & QA engineers scope their individual tasks at the beginning of each iteration. The scope and deliverables of the iteration are based on these estimates.
    • Engineers are accountable to meet their own estimates

The above implies that Engineers must plan realistically by
(a) accounting for all activities that will need to take place for this iteration, and
(b) accounting for typical levels of interruptions and activities not specifically related to the project (scheduled meetings, questions from support, beer bashes, vacations, etc).

Estimates must be made with the expectation that we are all accountable to meeting them. This sounds like a truism, except that it is rarely applied in practice.

Day by Day

Before the Start of an Iteration

Preparation and planning prior to an iteration are critical to its success. As the spreadsheet highlights, the Product Manager spends the majority of his/her time during a given iteration planning the next iteration, by

(a)  Prioritizing the tasks to be delivered in the next iteration
(b)  Documenting the user stories to the level of detail required by developers
(c)  Reviewing scope with Project Manager and Tech Lead

Pre-requisites at the Start of a Release

The following must be delivered to Engineering at the start of a release. The Product Owner, Project Lead and Tech lead are responsible for providing

  • “A” list of user stories to be implemented during the release
  • Detailed specs of the “A” list user stories
  • Design of the “A” list features sufficient to derive the coding  and QA tasks necessary to implement the features
  • Estimated scope for each feature – rolling up to a target completion date for the iteration

These estimates are “budgetary”. Final estimates are given by the individual engineers.

Day 1 – Kick-Off

The whole team gets together and kicks-off the iteration: the PM presents the “A” list features to Eng, and the Tech Lead presents the critical design elements. Tasks are assigned tentatively.

During the rest of the day, engineers review the specs of their individual tasks, with the assistance of PM and Tech Lead.  This results in tasks entered into Jira, with associated scope and individual plans for the iteration.

The Project Lead combines all tasks into a project plan (using artifacts of his/her choice) to ensure that the sum of all activities adds up to a timely delivery of the iteration. The Project Lead also identifies any critical dependency, internal and external, that may impact the project.

A delivery date is computed from the individual estimates, and the team (lead by Product Owner, assisted by Project Manager and Tech Lead) iterates to adjust tasks and date

Day 2 – Deliverables are Finalized

Day 1 activities continue if necessary – resulting into a committed list of deliverables and a committed delivery date

The team, lead by Project Manager, also agrees on how the various tasks will be sequenced to optimize use of resources, and to front-load deliverables to QA as much as possible.

Developers start coding, QA engineers start writing test cases and/or writing automation tests

Day 6  – V1 Spec of the Next Iteration

By Day 6, the Product Manager provides the V1 Spec of the next iteration.

V1 Spec is a complete spec of all the user stories that the Product Owner estimates can be delivered in the next iteration. Typically, V1 will contain more than can be delivered, in order to provide flexibility in case some user stories are more complex than originally thought to implement.

During the remainder of the release, the Tech Lead (primarily) will work with the Product Owner to flesh out the details of the next release, to design the key components of the next release to a degree sufficient to be able to (a) list out the tasks required to implement the user stories, (b) estimate their scope, and (c) ensure that enough details has been provided for developers and QA engineers.

During the discussions of the next release, the Project Lead will identify any additional resources that will need to be procured, whether human or physical.

Day 7 – Release to QA

Release to QA means more than “feature complete”. It means feature complete and tested to the best of the developers’ knowledge and ability (see below).

Day 9 – Code Freeze

By Day 9, all bugs must have been fixed, so that the QA team can spend the last day of the iteration running full regression tests (ideally automated) and ensuring that all new features still work properly in the final build

By that time, the content and scope of the next release has been firmed up by Product Owner, Tech lead, and Project Manager, and task are tentative assigned to individual engineers.

Day 10 – Show & Tell

At the end of the last day of the iteration, Eng demos all the new features to the PM, the CEO and everyone in the company we can enroll.

We then celebrate.

Tools and Tips

Sequencing Iterations

  • Depending on the complexity of the user stories, the Tech Lead (and other developers) may need to spend all of their time doing design, and may not be able to contribute any code.
  • It is sometimes more productive to write automation tests once a given feature is stable. As a consequence, the QA team may adopt a cycle where they test manually during the current iteration and then automate the tests during the next iteration (once the code is stable)
  • Exceptions to “almost shippable” are things like performance and stress testing, full browser compatibility testing, etc.
    • These tasks are then planned in the context of the overall release, and allocated to specific iterations

Release Duration

The duration of a given iteration is at the discretion of the team. It is strongly recommended that iterations last between 2 and 4 weeks.  It is also recommended that the duration of iteration be driven by its contents, in order to meet the Golden Rules. There is nothing wrong with a 12- or a 17-day iteration.

Start on Wednesday

Similarly, the starting day of the iteration is up to the team. Starting on a Wednesday offers several advantages:

  • The iteration does not start on a Monday -). Mondays are often taken up by company & team meetings.
  • Iteration finishes on a Tuesday rather than a Friday. Should the iteration slip by a day or two, it can be completed on Wednesday, or Thursday if need be. This means that the QA team is not always “stuck” having to work weekends in order to meet the deadline, nor do they have to scramble to make sure that developers are available during the weekend to fix their bugs, as would be the case if the iteration started on Monday
  • By the second weekend of the iteration, the team will have good enough visibility into its progress, and determine whether work during the weekend will be required in order to meet the schedule.

Specs

The artifacts, format and level of details through which specs are delivered to Engineering is a matter of mutual agreement between Product Owner and Engineering, recognizing that Engineering is the consumer of the specs. As such, it is Engineering  who determines the adequacy of the information provided (since Engineering cannot create a good product from incomplete specs).

Specs must be targeted for QA as well as Dev. In particular, they must be prescriptive enough so that validation tests can be derived from them. For example they may include UI mockups, flow charts, information flow diagrams, error handling behavior, platforms supported, performance and scaling requirements, as necessary.

Release to QA

While the QA team has the primary responsibility of executing the tests that will validate quality, developers own the quality of the software (since they are the ones writing the software). As a consequence, when developers release to QA, they must have tested their code to ensure that no bugs of Severity 1 or 2 will be found by QA (or customers) – unless they explicitly agree in advance with the QA team that certain categories of tests will be run by QA.

Regardless of who runs the tests, the “release to QA” milestone is only reached when enough code introspection and testing has been performed to warrant confidence that no Severity 1 or 2 bugs will be found.

Releasing to QA

Developers and QA can agree on how code will be released to QA. While the spreadsheet shows one Releate to QA  milestone, this was done for clarity of presentation. In practice, it is recommended that developers release to QA as often as possible. Again, this should be driven by mutual agreement.

Furthermore, each developer must demonstrate to his/her QA colleague that the code works properly before the code is considered to be released. This demo is accompanied by a knowledge transfer session, where the developer highlights any known limitations in the code, areas that should be tested with particular scrutiny, etc.

Estimating Scope Accurately

One of the typical debates is whether time estimates should be measured in “ideal time” (no interruptions, distractions, meetings), or “actual time” (in order to account for the typical non-project-related activities). This is a matter of personal preference – what counts is that everyone in the team uses the same system.

I prefer to use “Ideal time”: each engineer keeps 2 “books” within an iteration: the actual iteration work – scoped in “ideal time”, and a “Other Activities” book, where all non-project-related activities are accounted for. This presents the advantages of (a) using a non-varying unit to measure the scope of tasks so that you can compare across people, project, time, and (b) having a means to track “non-productive time” on your project – and thus have data on which to drive decisions (e.g. pleading management for less meetings)

Click here to get the spreadsheet

Software Specification is a Process Not a Document (2 of 2)

Engineering depends on the business team to create actionable specifications early enough before a release, to control the scope to a level commensurate to resources and time available, and to use artifacts that are relevant to the information to be conveyed.

Timing is Everything

Product Management delivering complete specifications in a timely fashion greatly improves the productivity of the Engineering team (Complete being relative the type of specifications – as we discussed in the previous blog). The more precise the information provided at the start of each phase (scoping, release or iteration), the more efficient and accurate will the resulting development work be.

This sounds boringly obvious, but I have seen the contrary scenario over and over again, where business leaders grumble that the Engineering team is not productive, while failing to provide more than a PowerPoint level specification at the start of  releases. As a consequence, developers spend the first third to half of the release working with the Product Managers to define the specs, instead of writing code – or even worse, developers start writing code without spec, and then having to do it over once the specs have been thought through.

Scoping is a 2-way Commitment

Another pitfall to avoid is “scope-creep”. While the name itself would imply that it should be avoided at all costs (who wants to be creepy?), scope creep is an all-too-common occurrence

Scope creep, on the surface, appears to stem from good intentions (we want to meet every customer request – even last minute ones), yet it is one of the most demoralizing behaviors for the Engineering team – akin to continuously pushing back the finish line, after the start of a race.

In order to avoid scope creep, we (Engineering) need to remind the business team that based on the information provided during the scoping phase, Engineering reserved a set of resources for the duration of the release, and committed to deliver the feature set in the allotted time. This in turn creates an implicit contract that the scope of the release – will be bound by the amount of resources allocated to the release. While changes are expected as we get closer to the release start, and even once the release has started, the business team can’t forget that there are only 24 hours in a day, and that no matter how cool it would be to add another 25% functionality, asking the Engineering team for such an increase in scope flies in the face of the process: If we could really do 25% more, we’d have said so the first time during the scoping phase.

In summary, once Engineering  allocates resources for a release and commits to deliverables and schedules, the business team, in turn, must commit to keep the scope of the release commensurate to the resources allocated.

Use the Right Artifacts for the Job

As we replaced Waterfall development process with Agile Software development, we also replaced Market/Product Requirement Documents with User Stories. I have to admit that I don’t get that part, or rather that I find that sometimes user stories are the best vehicle to express customer requirements, and other times, straight requirements do a better job.

For example, when a workflow needs to be implemented, nothing beats a flow chart or a state diagram to define it – we can dispense with the user story on the 3×5 card.

Write Things Down

There is no dispute that face to face discussions are the fastest way to nail down a user story. Often the expected behavior is self-evident from the software implementation itself. However, we must remember that multiple constituencies need to reach common understanding on the software’s behavior: not only the Product Champion and developers, but also, QA, support, services, etc.

Again, there is no way that more than 2 people can reach the same understanding of how a workflow should perform, or what a report is meant to compute unless it is written down, preferably in pictorial form

Technical Risk Must Be Eliminated Prior to Scoping

The business team expects estimates that are fairly accurate – say within 10%. You can see eyes roll when you present  your estimates and then add that the estimate is accurate within 30% … and it’s a fair reaction. As a consequence, time must be invested in research, design and/or prototyping, in order to reach the desired level of accuracy. Sometimes, we need to invest the time to build a prototype in order to validate a design or an architecture. While this initially may appear to be a prohibitive price to pay, a much much higher price would be paid if one embarks on a release, only to miss the deadline by a month or more, because we found out that the original design was inadequate.

Managing Perceptions

Which scenario is best?:

(A)  Promise to deliver 12 features and end up delivering 10 – OR –

(B)  Promise to deliver 9 features and end up delivering 9

In my experience, Scenario (A) is a perceived failure, while (B) will be perceived as a success.

If you agree with me, then you will want to think hard about your iteration plan, and about what features you implement in which iteration. Naturally, the later the iteration within the release, the more likely it is that its features will not be implemented (either because of schedule slips, or changes in priorities). Consequently, plan low-impact features for the last release(s); this way you’ll have to option of jettisoning them if necessary while still nailing the committed schedule. Conversely, if you high-impact features for the end, your only choices will be to disappoint — by taking them out in order to meet the schedule, or to disappoint — by forcing a schedule slip.

In conclusion, software development is a team activity – not only within the Engineering team but also with the business team: Engineering depends on the business team to create actionable specifications early enough before a release, to control the scope to a level commensurate to resources and time available, and to use artifacts that are relevant to the information to be conveyed.

Planning – and Executing the Plan – are Part of the Job

Along with writing good code, planning and meeting the plan are part of an engineer’s responsibilities, in order for the product to be successful and the business to thrive

Being an engineer entails more than writing good code. It also requires being a good corporate citizen. We write and test software so that it can be used by our customers. The Engineering team is one of the teams that constitute the business. As such, we need to coordinate our activities with those of the other teams in the business: Marketing, Sales, Operations, and Support. We are dependent on these other teams for our software to find its way into the hands of our customers. We also depend on them for the business to survive. Let’s not forget that Engineering is an expense center, and that without the Sales team, there would not be any paycheck.

Our obligation to the other teams in the company can be summarized fairly simply: we need to deliver what we promised, on time. We thus need to be able to forecast within a reasonable horizon what we will be able to create, and then deliver against our forecast.

Planning is Difficult but Necessary

Some argue that writing software is a creative and innovative endeavor, which, as such cannot be predicted. The comparison is made with Civil Engineering where designing a new building is akin to applying well documented formulas and following well defined processes lending themselves to formulaic forecasting. While there is truth to the argument, it cannot be taken to the limit. It does not means that forecasting a software project is impossible, but rather that it is hard.
This being said, we don’t have a choice. As I often point out to my colleagues, sales people have to forecast every quarter, and one can argue that forecasting sales is eminently more challenging, since it relies on the behavior of people over whom we have very little control: our customers. Yet, no company can operate without a sales forecast, and forecasting is one of the skills that salespeople need to develop, along with their sales acumen. Engineers are in the same situation.

More specifically, the reasons we make plans are:

  • To forecast when a given release will be complete. This in turn will drive forecasts for sales projections, staffing assignment in services – which in turn drive financial projections, and how the company manages its expenditures – such as our salaries
  • To make strategic decisions: for example, if certain set of features take too long, or too many resources, we may decide to postpone their implementation, and allocate resources to another product or set of features.
  • To make our own decisions: by knowing how much work each task will take allows us to staff projects appropriately, and thus be as efficient as possible.  Over-staffing and under-staffing both have negative consequences that are easy to understand
  • To align internal resources: the most obvious example is that the QA team needs to know when a certain feature will be ready to be tested.
    The above illustrates how important it is to meet our commitments, once we have announced our plans. If we don’t meet our plans, we let other people down, and force them to scramble to make alternate plans. Yet, meeting one’s commitments is not only about working hard. It starts with making good plans.

Making Good Plans

How does one make good plans?

  • First and foremost: include everything (easier said than done but none the less critical)
    • Think through ALL the tasks that are required to complete the job: create a new Maven project, become familiar with the idiosyncrasies of a new software package, upgrade libraries to a new version, organize design reviews, code, unit tests, integration tests, performance tests, error recovery tests, security intrusion tests, documentation, training, etc.
    • Account for everything that happens in a typical day/week: e.g. Meetings, interrupts from Ops, support, or other
  • Be realistic: Engineers tend to be optimistic – make sure that you take into account that something at some point is going to go wrong
    • The best technique that I know is to use history as a reference. Have you typically been late/early on your past projects. Are there activities that you typically fail to account for?
  • Build some buffer – because it is important to meet the commitment (and if you don’t need the buffer, you’ll use the time to implement an extra feature, or start the next release early)

Tracking Progress

A tool like Atlassian’s Jira allows each developer to enter their tasks and the time for each task. It is critical that each developer enter their own time estimate. No task should be longer than 2-3 days. If it is, it is best to break it up. I have found it to be the right balance between having enough detail in the task to grasp its whole scope, while keeping the total number of tasks manageable.

It is important to think of a task as a complete project: including reviewing requirements, design, code, integration, testing, documentation, hand-off to QA. Of course, each of these tasks can be spelled out when their scope warrants it. Again, include the typical daily overhead in the estimates .
Once we have entered the tasks in Jira, it is critical to track them accurately. Don’t be shy about entering time beyond your original estimates if you are running late: your teammates, and your team lead, need to know — so that they can make alternate plans if necessary. Progress tracking tools are not meant to find faults, but for project management and communication: it is a much worse offense to your team to keep quiet about your being late, or struggling, on a task, than the fact of being late.  Being late is a problem that can be dealt with – keeping quiet is a professional fault that hurts the project even more than bad code.

One important note: a task is DONE when you won’t need to put any more work into it. In particular, this means a piece of code is not done until it has been fully tested and validated.

Agile Processes for Formal Releases

2-4 week milestones culminating in a show-and-tell where Engineering and Product Owner(s) engage in a discussion about priorities deliver a lot of the advantages of Agile methodologies, even without official buy-in from the management team

Engineering can  follow a mostly Agile methodology, even if the rest of the company does not. For example, you can still break up the development effort into 2-4 week sprints/milestones, even if the Product Owner does not indulge in reviewing priorities for each milestone. In fact, I contend that by having frequent end-of-milestone review, you will in effect elicit prioritization from the Product Management team.

2-4 Week Sprints/Milestones

Regular milestones (every 2 to 4 weeks) are essential for a several reasons, each sufficient in its own right

  • 2-4 weeks is the proper horizon for planning. While it is not impossible to make plans over longer horizons, the accuracy of these plans drops significantly when they extend beyond 4 weeks. Per Agile, the plan for each Sprint needs to be made “bottoms-up” by the developers who are working on the project
  • Commitment to the plan – Since the developers created the plan themselves, we can ask them to commit to its timely execution. Accuracy in estimating one’s work is a skill that each developer must fine-tune
  • Visibility of progress. By having an “almost shippable” release tested at the end of each sprint, we can all assess progress realistically. As the Manifesto for Agile Software Development states “Working software is the primary measure of progress.”. My measure of progress is binary – if a feature passes all the tests then it is 100% done, if not it is not done (0% complete).

With the rhythm of 2-4 week milestones, every one on the team can see the product being built, with the confidence that true progress is being made and the expectation that no nasty surprises are lurking at the tail of the project.
Show-and-Tell

Show-and-tell is the culmination of the milestone, where the project team demonstrates the new features to their colleagues inside and outside of Engineering. It is critical to advertise the Show-and-Tell outside of the Engineering team, including to the CEO, VP Sales, VP Marketing, etc. The benefits of Show-and-Tell sessions are multiple:

  • Rewards for the engineers: The show-and-tell is a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of each engineer on the project and offer them public recognitions
  • Avoid surprises at the end: the last thing you want when you have toiled away for 3-6 months on a project is to hear something like “Nice work guys … but this is not what I expected!”, whether it is from your own team, or from customers. Thanks to regular show-and-tell, there are no surprises. We also give the tools to the Product Management team to share these early releases with customers, as appropriate.
  • Reassure Management: By demonstrating regular forward progress to the management team, we can relieve some of their anxiety as to whether we will be able to meet our deliverables. Equally important, when the project was too ambitious to start with, Engineering can give early warning to the management team that alternative plans need to be made, whether it is to reinforce the Engineering team, or to manage customer expectations.

Just like the milestones ensure that the Engineering team can manage its progress without surprises., the Show-and-Tell perform the same function for the business team.
Furthermore, the “Show-and-Tell” give “fair warning” to the rest of the company that the release is on its way, so that the marketing and sales machines can rev up in anticipation of the completion of the release (rather than “wait-and-see” until it’s officially released).
Engage into Discussions about Prioritization

While the business team may not embrace the Agile methodology, by holding the Show-and-Tell events, we effectively engage the Product Management team in a discussion about prioritization. Even when their perspective is “Everything is important, everything must be delivered”, by witnessing the progress, a discussion naturally ensues about whether we need to enhance, or rework, what has already been built, what features should be developed next, and the reaction of customers to the early releases.
There is no magic formula to make these discussions happen, but, in my experience, it simply happens naturally.

More than ever, in today’s fast-changing environment, Engineering must be both predictable and adaptable. Predictable so that the rest of the company can operate efficiently (e.g. by starting to market a release before it is actually complete) and adaptable in order to respond quickly to changes in the market and/or the competition. Having frequent milestones, and show-and-tell, give visibility to progress and set the stage to review priorities , and adjust them if necessary, with minimal impact on the efficiency of the Engineering team.

Violating the Laws of Physics: When the Business Imposes both Release Date and Features

Managing an Engineering team, when the company imposes both features to be delivered and the release date

In all the companies where I have worked, the business side has been “supportive” of Agile software development methodologies – in its own way J. They like the story, agree it makes total sense … except for the part where we talk about adjusting priorities and not committing ahead of time to delivering specific features by a certain date – even whilst recognizing that historically, priorities have significantly changed in the midst of a release.

 

Given that, for all practical purposes, headcount is fixed (budgets are rarely elastic), and quality is non-negotiable, this combination of fixing features of the release and the release date violates the laws of physics!  Only Engineering can estimate how long it will take to develop a certain of features (given fixed resources and without impacting quality). The Business team (product managers, VP Marketing, CEO, etc) cannot estimate the amount of effort a given release will take. Just like we don’t tell our contractor how long (or how much) it will take to remodel your kitchen, the business team must let Engineering scope the effort, and time, required for a release.

 

In this multi-part blog, I will present my recommendations on how to best manage a team in this environment. I hasten to say that I have not found the perfect solution and I am still working hard at f refining it daily.

 

Three important aspects drive the management techniques:

  1. Understanding, and communicating to the Engineering team, the “Why”: why the business needs to impose both dates and features … and why this is unlikely to change materially
  2. Communicating to the business teams what they can expect from the Engineering team, and establishing “rules of engagement”
  3. Understanding, and implementing, the Agile principles that are most helpful in this environment.

The (Legitimate) Reasons for Formal Release Processes

To be clear, a continuous release process, where new features are deployed as soon as they are developed and tested is ideal. Unfortunately, this is only possible in specific environments, e.g. self-hosted web-apps, and does not work for ISVs.

 

Most ISVs which sell to enterprises need to publish their 18-24 month product roadmap. Customers don’t just buy today’s product, but also tomorrow’s. This 2-year product roadmap is most critical  for startup whose buyers accept the risk of buying from a fledgling company because of the promise the continuous stream of benefits committed in the product roadmap. “Committed” is the operative word: because of its startup status the company must meet every single one of its promises in order to maintain the fragile trust of its customers.

 

Here are some common (legitimate) reasons that prevent “continuous” release, and require formal release:

  • The software is installed on customers’ premises. In this case, it is important to “version” the code. It would be impossible to manage communications, installation, or support, if each customer installed a different version
  • The overhead of introducing new features makes it too costly to release one feature at a time. Any function can cause this overhead to be too dear – even in the case of a hosted (SaaS) web-app:
    • QA – if a bug cannot be afforded (e.g. financial applications, regulatory conditions),
    • End-user communications & training: when the usage paradigm is changed significantly, deliberate communications and user training will be necessary. Similarly, some environments have seasonality that limit the opportunities to introduce something new (e.g. schools, retail)
    • Integration with 3rd party partners, and/or customer systems: will require a phase of joint testing upon any change in our software
    • Customer release processes: even in a SaaS environment, customers (e.g. in  mission critical applications such as e-mail, and/or sensitive applications like finance) will impose their own pace of deployment, and limit the number of upgrades to 1 or 2 a year
    • Marketing: the business may be such that opportunities to communicate to customers, partners and analysts are rare and costly, and consequently, it is necessary to group features in a release to maximize the excitement about product announcement.
    • Customer commitments: As the CEO, VP of Sales, and sales team scour the country, or the globe, in search of orders, they make commitments to customers in order to win deals, as to features being available by a certain date.

 

In all the situations listed above, one could argue that there is no reason why Engineering should not be involved in setting dates before commitments are made. And the point is correct. It is in everyone’s interest to involve Engineering before making commitments. This is called the Product Roadmap process … which we will discuss in a subsequent blog

Cloud Computing – The Miracle Tool for Testing

Cloud Computing eliminates restrictions due to the number of servers in the QA lab, and thus allows concurrent testing by developers and QA engineers. By making it easy to test often, and to expose early releases to the outside world, Cloud Computing will improve product quality

Does this story rings familiar? You are in a planning meeting for the next release, and learn that in addition to supporting Oracle 11g, the product will also need to support Microsoft SQL Server 2008 (or DB2, or mySQL, or PostgreSQL). Once the typical brouhaha dies down about how complicated this will be, how the whole code will need to be ripped apart, and how much time this will take, the Director of QA turns to you and asks for a couple of additional servers for the QA lab, so that the software can be tested on the two databases in parallel; minimum of three servers: 1 for the database, 1 for our software, and 1 for the test fixtures. The following day, it’s the developer lead’s turn to ask for more servers: need at least 1 “populated” database against which the developers can test, plus another set up for the daily build, etc.  Makes perfect sense … Except that no budget has been allocated for these servers! Soon you find yourself with your beggar’s cup in the CEO’s office, explaining to him, and the CFO, why your team needs these extra servers when “you already have so many!!”

Rejoice! Here comes Cloud Computing to the rescue ..

Cloud Computing could not only eliminate the need to purchase servers for testing, but also actually radically improves your ability to test, and thus improve product quality.

Cloud Computing, such as Amazon EC2,  offers the ability to deploy (and un-deploy) software on demand. One pays “by the hour” of computing used, and storage and bandwidth consumed. This is perfect for testing (by developers and by QA): compute load varies greatly over the cycle of the day, as well as the cycles of the release.

First of all, every developer can now have his/her own test setup against which to test. There is no limitation of hardware, no begging, borrowing or stealing from your colleagues for unutilized servers. One can just deploy at will. Furthermore, there is no restriction on the number of servers. So if you need to test a four-server cluster, you don’t have to hunt around for free servers, you just do it.

Similarly the daily build can deploy to multiple test environments concurrently and thus accelerate the validation of the build.

Finally, the QA team can also test in multiple environments simultaneously, e.g. Oracle and SQL Server at the same time! This offers the potential benefit of being able to test a much larger number of deployment scenarios, than would be possible using one’s own hardware.

Naturally, leveraging a Cloud Computing infrastructure, requires new tools.

First and foremost, all the tests must be automated. While technology has created virtual servers, it has not yet inventing virtual test engineers J.  Secondly, one will have to build tools to automatically deploy, e.g. from the build environment, the new version of the software, and the test fixtures, as well as collect the results of the test runs.

One can be quite creative with the test management tools. For example, if a test setup encounters a high-severity bug, you could configure your test software to pause the test, deploy to a second environment and continue testing in the second environment. This allows you to go back to the first test setup to troubleshoot, and find the cause of the crash.

Another fascinating advantage is that you can deploy demo or beta systems at will  (assuming your deployment model allows it.), and let your sales team or prospective customers to “play with” the early release. By making it easier to expose early releases of the product to the outside world, Cloud Computing further improves the quality of your product.

Will you save money by testing in a Cloud Computing infrastructure?

Obviously the answer depends … on your usage, but also on factors like how much data you need to keep permanently in the cloud. For example you may need to permanently store a synthetic database of a million users (it would be too slow to upload it each time). You will also incur higher networking traffic.

In addition, you may not want to move all your tests to the cloud. For example, you may want to keep your stress-tests, or longevity tests in-house, since these will be running 24×7, and you may want the option of running them on bare-metal.

At the end of the day, to me the attraction of Cloud Computing for testing is that it will increase quality (in addition to reducing costs). It will allow each developer to have access to a test environment at will.  It will create an additional impetus for test automation. Cloud Computing will also allow the concurrent deployment of tests to an arbitrary number of computing environments, and make it easier to give early access to your customers. Net-net, this translates to more tests in the same amount of time with less effort. It’s all goodness.