Ruthlessly Helpful

Stephen Ritchie's offerings of ruthlessly helpful software engineering practices.

Category Archives: Scrum

First, the mental creation

With physical things, like buildings and devices, etc. people seem to be generally okay with generating strong specifications, such as blueprints, CAD drawings, etc. These specifications are often about trying to perfect the mental creation before the physical creation gets started. In these cases, the physical thing you’re making is not at all abstract, and it could be very expensive to make. It’s hard to iterate when you’re building a bridge that’s going to be part of an interstate roadway.

missed-it-by-that-much

What I’ve seen in the world of software, the physical creation seems abstract, and engineers writing software appears inexpensive when compared to things like steel and concrete. Many people seem to want to skip the mental creation step, and they ask that the engineers jump right into coding the thing up.

If the increment of the thing that your team is to write software for is ready to be worked on, and you have a roadmap, then an iterative and incremental approach will probably work. In fact, the idea that complex problems require iterative solutions underpins the values and principles described in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The Scrum process framework describes this as product increments and iterations.

However, all too often it’s a random walk guided by ambiguous language (either written or spoken) that leads to software that lacks clarity, consistency, and correctness.

Sadly and all too often, the quality assurance folks are given little time to discover and describe the issues, let alone the time to verify that the issues are resolved. During these review sessions, engineers pull out their evidence that the software is working as intended. They have a photo of a whiteboard showing some hand-wavy financial formulas. They demonstrate that they’re getting the right answer with the math-could-not-be-easier example: a loan that has a principal of $12,000.00, a term of 360 payments, an annual interest rate of 12%, and, of course, don’t forget that there are 12 months in a year. And through anomalous coincident, the software works correctly using that example. Hilarity ensues!

banks-care-about-rounding

Unfortunately, QA is often squeezed. They are over-challenged and under-supported. They are given an absurd goal, and they persevere despite grave doubts about whether a quality release is achievable. Their hopelessness comes from knowing that the team is about to inflict this software on real people, good people, and the QA team doesn’t have the time or the power to stop the release.

the-dirty-remains

What are the key things to take away:

  • When the physical creation of software seems to be cheap, comparable to the mental creation of writing down and agreeing to light-weight requirements, then the temptation exists to hire nothing but software engineers and to maximize the number of people who “just write code”. In the long run, however, the rework costs are often extremely expensive.
  • In the end, the end-users are going to find any defects.
  • Better to have QA independently verify and validate that the software works as intended, of course, what is intended needs to be written down:  clearly, consistently and correctly.
  • QA ought to find issues that can to be resolved before the users get the software — issue reports that show clear gaps in required behavior.
  • QA conversations with engineers ought never degenerate into a difference of opinion, which happens when there are no facts about the required behavior. Very often these discussions (rhymes with concussion) escalate into a difference of values — “you don’t understand modern software development”.

Interestingly, the software’s users are going to find the most important defects. The users are the ultimate independent validators and verifiers. End-users, their bosses, and the buyer can be ruthless reporters of defects. In fact, they might very well reject the product.