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Technological Thoughts by Jerome Kehrli

Entries tagged [startup]

Agile Planning : tools and processes

by Jerome Kehrli


Posted on Wednesday Jun 14, 2017 at 08:42PM in Agile


All the work on Agility in the Software Engineering Business in the past 20 years, initiated by Kent Beck, Ward Cunningham and Ron Jeffries, comes from the finding that traditional engineering methodologies apply only poorly to the Software Engineering business.

If you think about it, we are building bridges from the early stages of the Roman Empire, three thousand years ago. We are building heavy mechanical machinery for almost three hundred years. But we are really writing software for only fifty years.
In addition, designing a bridge or a mechanical machine is a lot more concrete than designing a Software. When an engineering team has to work on the very initial stage of the design of a bridge or mechanical machine, everyone in the team can picture the result in his mind in a few minutes and breaking it down to a set of single Components can be done almost visually in one's mind.

A software, on the other hand, is a lot more abstract. This has the consequence that a software is much harder to describe than any other engineering product which leads to many levels of misunderstanding.

The waterfall model of Project Management in Software Engineering really originates in the manufacturing and construction industries.
Unfortunately, for the reasons mentionned above, despite being so widely used in the industry, it applies only pretty poorly to the Software Engineering business. Most important problems it suffers from are as follows:

  • Incomplete or moving specification: due to the abstract nature of software, it's impossible for business experts and business analysts to get it right the first time.
  • The tunnel effect: we live in a very fast evolving world and businesses need to adapt all the time. The software delivered after 2 years of heavy development will fulfill (hardly, but let's admit it) the requirements that were true two years ago, not anymore today.
  • Drop of Quality to meet deadlines: An engineering project is always late, always. Things are just a lot worst with software.
  • Heightened tensions between teams: The misunderstanding between teams leads to tensions, and it most of the time turns pretty ugly pretty quick.

So again, some 20 years ago, Beck, Cunningham and Jeffries started to formalize some of the practices they were successfully using to address the uncertainties, the overwhelming abstraction and the misunderstandings inherent to software development. They formalized it as the eXtreme Programming methodology.

A few years later, the same guys, with some other pretty well known Software Engineers, such as Alistair Cockburn and Martin Fowler, gathered together in a resort in Utah and wrote the Manifesto for Agile Software Development in which they shared the essential principles and practices they were successfully using to address problems with more traditional and heavyweight software development methodologies.

Today, Agility is a lot of things and the set of principles of practices in the whole Agile family is very large. Unfortunately, most of them require a lot of experience to be understood and then applied successfully within an organization.

Unfortunately, the complexity of embracing a sound Agile Software Development Methodology and the required level of maturity a team has to have to benefit from its advantages is really completely underestimated.
I cannot remember the number of times I heard a team pretending it was an Agile team because it was doing a Stand up in the morning and deployed Jenkins to run the unit tests at every commit. But yeah, honestly I cannot blame them. It is actually difficult to understand Agile Principles and Practices when one never suffered from the very drawbacks and problems they are addressing.

I myself am not an agilist. Agility is not a passion, neither something that thrills me nor something that I love studying in my free time. Agility is to me simply a necessity. I discovered and applied Agile Principles and practices out of necessity and urgency, to address specific issues and problems I was facing with the way my teams were developing software.

The latest problem I focused on was Planning. Waterfall and RUP focus a lot on planning and are often mentioned to be superior to Agile methods when it comes to forecasting and planning.
I believe that this is true when Agility is embraced only incompletely. As a matter of fact, I believe that Agility leads to much better and much more reliable forecasts than traditional methods mostly because:

  • With Agility, it becomes easy to update and adapt Planning and forecasts to always match the evolving reality and the changes in direction and priority.
  • When embracing agility as a whole, the tools put in the hands of Managers and Executive are first much simpler and second more accurate than traditional planning tools.

In this article, I intend to present the fundamentals, the roles, the processes, the rituals and the values that I believe a team would need to embrace to achieve success down the line in Agile Software Development Management - Product Management, Team Management and Project Management - with the ultimate goal of making planning and forecasting as simple and efficient as it can be.
All of this is a reflection of the tools, principles and practices we have embraced or are introducing in my current company.

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The Lean Startup - A focus on Practices

by Jerome Kehrli


Posted on Saturday Jan 28, 2017 at 11:05AM in Agile


A few years ago, I worked intensively on a pet project : AirXCell.
What was at first some framework and tool I had to write to work on my Master Thesis dedicated to Quantitative Research in finance, became after a few months somewhat my most essential focus in life.
Initially it was really intended to be only a tool providing me with a way to have a Graphical User Interface on top of all these smart calculations I was doing in R. After my master thesis, I surprised myself to continue to work on it, improving it a little here and a little there. I kept on doing that until the moment I figured I was dedicated several hours to it every day after my day job.
Pretty soon, I figured I was really holding an interesting software and I became convinced I could make something out of it and eventually, why not, start a company.

And of course I did it all wrong. Instead of finding out first if there was a need and a market for it, and then what should I really build to answer this need, I spent hours every day and most of my week-ends developing it further towards what I was convinced was the minimum set of feature it should hold before I actually try to meet some potential customers to tell them about it.
So I did that for more than a year and a half until I came close to burn-out and send it all to hell.

Now the project hasn't evolve for three years. The thing is that I just don't want to hear about it anymore. I burnt myself and I am just disgusted about it. Honestly it is pretty likely that at the time of reading this article, the link above is not even reachable anymore.
When I think of the amount of time I invested wasted in it, and the fact that even now, three years after, I still just don't want to hear anything about this project anymore, I feel so ashamed. Ashamed that I didn't take a leap backwards, read a few books about startup creation, and maybe, who knows, discover The Lean Startup movement before.
Even now, I still never met any potential customer, any market representative. Even worst: I'm still pretty convinced that there is a need and a market for such a tool. But I'll never know for sure.

Such stories, and even worst, stories of startups burning millions of dollars for nothing in the end, happen every day, still today.

Some years ago, Eric Ries, Steve Blank and others initiated The Lean Startup movement. The Lean Startup is a movement, an inspiration, a set of principles and practices that any entrepreneur initiating a startup would be well advised to follow.
Projecting myself into it, I think that if I had read Ries' book before, or even better Blank's book, I would maybe own my own company today, around AirXCell or another product, instead of being disgusted and honestly not considering it for the near future.
In addition to giving a pretty important set of principles when it comes to creating and running a startup, The Lean Startup also implies an extended set of Engineering practices, especially software engineering practices.

This article focuses on presenting and detailing these Software Engineering Practices from the Lean Startup Movement since, in the end, I believe they can benefit from any kind company, from initiating startup to well established companies with Software Development Activities.
By Software Engineering practices, I mean software development practices of course but not only. Engineering is also about analyzing the features to be implemented, understanding the customer need and building a successful product, not just writing code.

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