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Kick Sprint Reviews to the Curb

May 11th, 2012 · No Comments

User Stories Suck for the Last Mile

Yeah, that’s right. I said it. User stories suck for the last mile. What’s the last mile you say? It’s a term borrowed from my telco days, when Sprint had a U-verse-like offering that was way ahead of its time and you could only get in Kansas City. It was awesome. But it died, because getting the last mile of networking was proving to be too expensive. The last mile, in this case, was the distance between Sprint’s closest network terminal and your house.

For user stories, the last mile is the distance between the story being functionally complete (i.e. everything works as expected) and accepted (i.e. and it looks the way I want it too). It is often a long list of layout and style changes like “left-justify X” and “make the margins line up between Y & Z”. These changes are often hard to communicate via written words, but more importantly the delay between feedback and development is too long and, since the changes tend to be small, the cost of switching tasks between all the stories that need tweaking can be pretty spendy.

Sprint Reviews Can Make This Worse

If most of your feedback collecting occurs at the sprint review, this only becomes worse because the person recording comments is frequently not the person giving feedback. Usually, one team member takes notes while the other team member demos stories and the product owner(s) discuss changes. As a result, you create this huge backlog of bugs, tweaks, chores, or whatever you call them that you do prior to the stories being accepted and you starting new ones.

Years ago I started a practice of implementing as many of the tweaks as I could immediately following the sprint review while they were fresh in my mind, but it’s still not optimal. Why?

Because the sprint isn’t finished. We walked out of the sprint review with more stuff to do prior to the stories being accepted. This is a bit discouraging, especially if even more problems are found after the initial round of tweaks go in. If you end up going through cycle after cycle of tweaks, discouragement turns into frustration.

“Peer” Programming Works

About two months ago I gave up on sprint reviews. Instead, when I finished a story I simply skyped at my product owners that I was done, even before I pushed my code or marked the story delivered. I shared my screen with them, gave a demo, then they would just type changes at me in Skype, which I would implement in real time. Because we were using IM and screensharing, they could keep doing other stuff while I made the changes. When I was done, I’d IM them back and we’d start over. After a while, the feature was done. I’d push the code, the CI server would update test, they’d give it a final run through and accept the story. Piece of cake.

I call this peer programming rather than pair programming just because only one of us is actually programming, but the peers are giving feedback in real time. It’s very, very efficient, and we haven’t had a sprint review since we started doing this.

Take It Up a Notch for the Big Event

Earlier this week I spent three days onsite “peer programming” with the product owners. We set up shop around a table in the Developer Town offices with my second monitor where everyone could see it and went through the application one feature at a time tweaking features prior to ‘soft’ launching the new product on Wednesday afternoon. It was exhausting, but the end product is totally awesome.

This kind of pre-launch peer programming is a perfect way to efficiently get all the little details right. It’s very effective communication because the feedback loop is super short and the people with questions and answers are together. It’s a lot better than a sprint review because, among other things, the story gets accepted at the end of the session.

Making it Productive

Here are some pointers for making peer programming work well:

Have the product owner verify that features are “functionally complete” prior to the peer programming session. They can make sure the workflow is working in a relatively bug-free manner so that the changes that are left are going to be primarily small changes to the design and layout.
Use developer-tools to make CSS changes in real time, then copy them into your code once the change you are making looks right. This minimizes the amount of time between code change and feedback (you don’t even have to refresh your browzah).
Peer program as soon as a story is functional. That way, your mind is still in the code and you don’t have to re-acclimate yourself. This has the added benefit of avoiding a deliver-reject-restart cycle, which is a bit demoralizing.
Take breaks when you need to. Peer programming is tiring, so step away from it every now and then if you are in a marathon session of it. If you get worn out you will also get stupid.
Crack some jokes and don’t get all mad. Peer programming can be hard for a certain type of person. You know who you are. You don’t like criticism and every little change is a personal attack. You’re in the wrong business. Okay, seriously, there aren’t many people like that and most of them work in corporate IT environments, but it’s easy after really long peer programming sessions to start getting frustrated and worried that you’ll never get it right. Just take a deep breath and hang in there. Slog on through, and try to crack a joke or two if you start feeling defensive.
Peer programming throughout a sprint is definitely more effective than using a sprint review as a periodic feedback point. If you can’t get your product owner to review stories during the sprint, just replace the sprint review meeting with a peer programming session and get through as many of the stories as you can. When you run out of time, schedule some more time. Wait – we just said they didn’t have time during the sprint – why can we schedule it now? Because peer programming is something most product owners will really like. They get to see the site change in real time and find lots of value in this. Everybody can find time for the things that matter to them, and once product owners get it they will free up time.

Sprint Reviews without Demos

So, we just kicked sprint reviews to the curb, but should we really abandon them altogether?

Maybe. It’s very easy for demo-less sprint reviews to become meetings with high ceremony and low value. It’s probably better to not have them than to have those types of sprint reviews. I would only hold a sprint review if there are meaningful issues to be discussed, and then I would plan retrospective activities to help work through the issues. Rote sprint reviews are a waste of time. Make them meaningful or toss them.

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