Over the past five years, Agile has gained significant traction and has been adopted by organisations of all shapes and sizes.
At Made, we run all of our software delivery through an Agile methodology called Scrum. We've been using Scrum for the last three years and have had some great success with it.
We're getting to the point where we would consider ourselves experienced practitioners of Agile, so in this post we'll share some of our learnings, provide an introduction to Agile and explain how we are using Scrum to deliver software at Made.
Agile started to gain traction in the early 90s as a reaction to the widespread failure of many large software projects. Back then, the software development process tended to be slow and documentation heavy. The first few months of a project would be spent detailing everything within a specification document, which would often end up being several hundred pages in length. Nobody ever read these documents, but when requirements changed, people ended up in dispute and claims of scope and cost adjustments ensued. People realised there must be a better solution, and so Agile was born.
At its core, Agile is a set of principles that can be used to guide the delivery of a software project. It encourages communication, collaboration and working software over documentation and plans that cannot change.
While the Bible has The Ten Commandments and Asimov has his Three Laws of Robotics, Agile practitioners follow something called the The Agile Manifesto:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
The Manifesto is embraced by all good Agile teams. Teams value the items on the right hand side (the text that is not in bold), but favour the left hand side (text in bold). You'll often hear Agilistas citing items from the Manifesto as a rationale behind a decision or approach.
In addition to the manifesto, Agile practitioners also follow a more granular set of principles, which guide the day-to-day running of a an agile project:
- The highest priority is to satisfy the customer through the early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
- Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
- Deliver working software from couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
- Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
- Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
- The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
- Working software is the primary measure of progress.
- Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
- Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
- Simplicity, the art of maximising the amount of work not done, is essential.
- The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
- At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
Scrum is an Agile methodology. Its name comes from the sport of rugby, where a team needs to work together to drive forward and achieve a common goal. It follows the principles set out in the Agile Manifesto, with some additional concepts that sit on top of it, such as Sprints, Product Backlogs and Daily Standups.
Scrum is the most popular of the Agile methodologies, so it's often considered to be the same as Agile. It's not, and you should explain the difference when you hear people refer to Agile and Scrum as one.
There is a lot of jargon within Scrum, which can make it difficult for newcomers to adopt and understand. For those who are not familiar with the Scrum practices, here are the main terms you're likely to encounter.
A User Story is a feature written from a user's perspective, for example: "As a Customer, I would like you to remember my credit card details, so I don't have to enter them each time I purchase a product". User stories are preferred to feature lists as they allow the team to more easily understand the business value.
The Product Backlog is a list of user stories for a particular project. It is essentially a to-do list, which has been prioritised by the Product Owner according to the expected business value to be gained on a user story's completion.
A Story Point is the estimated effort required to complete a User Story. It's a relative measure of complexity, rather than some number of hours. We have written a more detailed article which explains story points here.
A sprint is a timeboxed period (typically between one and four weeks) where a team commits to completing a set of defined User Stories. A project is comprised of multiple sprints.
A Sprint Backlog is a list of User Stories that the team will aim to complete during a sprint. All of the User Stories will have Story Point estimates alongside them, and this total should align with velocity achieved in the previous sprints.
A Spike is a fixed period used to investigate uncertainty. For example, you could run a 2-day spike to evaluate a new technology that the team hasn't used before.
Velocity is the rate at which the team is completing user stories. Once a project is underway, and the team is in a rhythm, you would expect to see a consistent velocity between sprints.
Estimating complexity is particularly difficult in software projects. Scrum uses Planning Poker to help with this. It's a card game in which the team is given a set of cards, each of which are numbered with a value from a modified version of the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40 & 100. The numbers get further apart as you get higher to emphasise that bigger things are inherently harder to estimate.The Product Owner describes the User Story and each team member puts a card face down on the table. All cards are turned over simultaneously, and then the team discusses the differences in estimations. This technique encourages discussion and helps to provide fair estimates that the team has agreed upon.
A blocker is an impediment that is holding up progress on User Story. For example, if a User Story was to setup Tax Rates for a particular country, but the engineer didn't have this data, the missing data would be considered a Blocker. Blockers should be flagged to the team and if the team cannot resolve them, then the Scrum Master should try to.
The Burndown chart visualizes the progress against velocity and provides an early warning system if the team are tracking behind the intended target. If a sprint was ten days long, and the team had 100 Story Points to complete, then the team would need to average upwards of 10 points per day to track good progress and see a positive burndown chart.
Potentially Shipping Increment
A Potentially Shipping Increment (PSI) is a piece of functionality which can launch on completion. One of the big focuses in Agile is to limit work in progress and ship frequently. There is a lot of tooling, like Continuous Integration Environments, which help to support the delivery of PSIs.
Once a project is underway, it's easy for the Product Backlog to grow and grow until it becomes a bit of a mess. One of the tasks for the Scrum Master and Product Owner (and sometimes the team) is to sit down together, go through the items in the backlog and remove duplicates, or those which are not a priority and are not going to deliver value to the business.
Before a sprint begins, it's important that the team are all aligned, and that we have up-to-date story points for the features. The role of the Sprint Planning session is to go through the highest priority items in the Product Backlog and agree which User Stories will be included within the next Sprint.
Within a Scrum project there are a number of key roles that are required:
The Product Owner (PO) is in charge of the project vision. This person is typically somebody senior within a business, who has the authority to make decisions about direction, features and understands the business objectives.
Their primary role is to mediate between the internal stakeholders and the Scrum team delivering the project and ensure the team is delivering the most value to the business within each sprint.
The Scrum Master (SM) handles day-to-day delivery of the sprint. They lead the ceremonies and work closely with the team to remove any blockers that may be impeding progress.
The Scrum Master's job is to protect the delivery team and ensure that committed work will be completed for Sprint Showcase. In a well-functioning Scrum team, it's healthy to see a certain amount of tension between the PO and the SM. Naturally, the PO will want more from the scrum team than is feasible and it's the SM's responsibility to help the team deliver consistently and function well.
A sprint team consists of people in various roles, such as Software Engineers, Designers, Business Analysts, User Experience and so forth. The team will be required to deliver the sprint and typically work full-time on the Sprint. Sprint teams tend to remain consistent but can change if the user stories being delivered necessitate the change.
Within Scrum, there are ceremonies at key moments in the project. The three main ones being: Daily Standup, Sprint Showcase, and Retrospective.
Each morning, the sprint team comes together to have their Daily Standup. The standup is a short and informal standing meeting, where the entire team attends. Each team member answers the following three questions:
What did you complete yesterday?
What are you going to complete today?
Is there anything that is blocking you from achieving this?.
Standups are a regular opportunity for the entire team to communicate progress, understand blockers, cross-pollinate information and evaluate risks.
On sprint completion, a Sprint Showcase meeting takes place. In the Showcase, all the completed User Stories are showcased to the project stakeholders. The idea behind this session is that the team is sharing what should be a shipping increment, something that the business can release to end consumers and that the business can start seeing some return on their investment from. It's therefore critical that at the end of each sprint, the Scrum team are delivering features that are truly ready to launch.
Following Sprint Showcase, a Retrospective is run. This is a fun exercise used to capture feedback from the team on the things that what went well, things that didn't go so well and what learning can be taken into the next sprint. The Agile / Scrum methodologies heavily focus on team improvement and the goal is for the next sprint to be better than the last. This 'always be improving' mentality is key to Agile. My colleague Fareed has written about his Favourite Retrospectives here.
Now lets look at how this works at Made:
- Before the project starts - We'll typically run a story planning workshop. In this workshop we'll capture an initial product backlog from the attendees and work together to prioritise stories into an appropriate order.
- Before the first sprint - We'll run a high-level Planning Poker session with the team. We'll add Story Point estimations to the items in the Product Backlog and work with the Product Owner to agree a first sprint.
- Sprint starts - The team will work their way through the User Stories within the Sprint Backlog.
- Daily Standups - Each morning at 10am the team will get together to have their Daily Standup.
- Showcase - At the end of the Sprint, the team will organise a Showcase session, where the completed work is demoed to key stakeholders and feedback is captured.
- Sprint Planning & Retrospectives - Following the showcase, the team will get together to have the next sprint planning session. Any feedback will be included in the backlog and the next sprint will be agreed. If necessary, a sprint Retrospective will take place.
- Repeat - The next sprint starts and we repeat from step 3 onwards.
In recent years, we've seen Agile principles being adopted by non-software teams such as by the Lonely Planet legal team, teachers of degree courses and by marketing teams. We find this really interesting and are looking forward to seeing Agile being used cross-functional departments and the impact this will bring to organisations and teams across the world.