Sunday, February 27, 2011

It's all about the conversations!

More pondering as I contemplate my previous consulting gig.  This time, I'm considering requirements discovery.  Pre-agile, people would write large requirements documents, hoping to document all the requirements needed for the developers to build a system that would satisfy the customers.  Unfortunately, this view of discovering all the requirements ahead of time is awfully naive.  Things change.  Requirements go undiscovered.   Requirements that are captured are not thought out as well as we would like and when it comes time to implement the requirements in software, the requirements don't make sense or are plain wrong.  Thus, large efforts to capture all the requirements has some amount of wasted effort.  This effort focuses most of the conversations at the beginning of the project.  Conversations after the requirements document has been written and signed off is discouraged; it's viewed as evidence that there are errors in the requirements document.  There doesn't seem to be any room for learning with requirements documents.

Now we have agile methods and the user story.  User stories are not requirements.  They're a planning tool for the agile team.  They are a statement of value that the business would like built.  There may or may not be acceptance criteria associated with the user story, depending on where the user story is in its lifecycle.  The most important part of the user story is the conversations that need to happen to flesh the story out so the feature value can be realized in the product.  This detail seems to escape a lot of people trying to use user stories to build products.  User stories give me the freedom to have conversations with all interested parties regarding the statement of value.  I learn just-in-time about the requirements as I implement the feature.  The business learns about how those requirements they communicated manifest themselves in a product.  And we both have the freedom to adjust, learning about the product along the way.

The above statements about user stories does not preclude one from using prepared, written documentation to feed the conversation.  My previous gig, we have a lot of federal government documentation regarding reporting and calculation requirements.  These requirements are set in stone by the government.  Yet, there needs to be conversations as to how those requirements will be accomplished across releases and sprints.  This is where the conversations come back to the forefront.

User stories allow me to deliver value to the business or customer in bite-size portions.  Value is delivered in small increments, thus I can deliver these more frequently and solicit feedback from the business or customer.  When I have short feedback loops in place, I can nimbly change my course if I need to.

Agile database modeling

My previous project has me doing a lot of introspection lately.  One of the recurring themes that I have been noodling on has been evolving a data model using agile development techniques.  The applications being built on this project are based on the .NET platform.  The development group is currently using the Database Project template in Visual Studio 2010 but looking to support a database migration process here soon.  The VS 2010 Database Project template does an admirable job of keeping track of all the DDL for your project, but it offers nothing for refactoring your database over time and migrating a production database.  It seems like the template is meant for rebuilding the database from the ground up, thus there is no concept of database schema changes or migrations.

The database will evolve over time.  Development groups should learn how to build their data model incrementally over many iterations and releases.  Database migration tools can be very helpful in your quest to evolving your database over time.  Tools like Liquibase and Rails migrations are very good at supporting this sort of development behavior.  There are tools on the .NET platform that do this sort of thing.

Another thing that has caused quite a bit of headache is the desire of the data group (data architects and DBAs) to try to get out ahead of the developers some ways and build out much more of the data model than the developers need for the current sprint.  We have found that when your data modeling efforts are not driven from user stories that they tend not to align with the efforts of completing the user stories.   Thus developers and data people end up conversing about data model changes that could have been avoided in the first place by waiting for the right time to initiate changes to the data model.  My advice for building an operational data store that one or more applications will be developed on top of: don't try to develop the entire data model upfront.  You will inevitably end up changing the data model to support requirements as they change (hopefully you're using stories to guide your development).  Typically your application developers will have constraints and needs that need to be accommodated in the data model.  As the data person, you need to be communicating with them and working from user stories.  Ideally, the data people are part of the project team and are dedicated to the agile process.  We really did not have that on this project.  I think that caused issues and slowed us down a bit.

Refactoring Databases should be required reading for development groups.


Great experience with Acceptance Test Driven Development (ATDD) and SpecFlow

I recently left a .NET gig where I was brought in to bring agile and craftsmanship behaviors to the entire project team.  One of the more successful endeavors was the acceptance test-driven development (ATDD) effort.  I was lucky enough to bring Joel Levandoski () on board to head up this effort.  Joel is an awesome developer and on this project, he was running as the lead QA resource, bringing automated testing to the group.  The QA group traditionally had not done automated testing, so we had a bit of learning to do.  Joel did a fabulous job of learning a new tool (SpecFlow for .NET) and training other QA people on its use.

Our QA developers created acceptance tests from the acceptance criteria specified in the user stories.  We spent a lot of time evolving our user stories, but by the end of the first six months, I think we finally have a format that we like and that will facilitate communication between all the participants on the project.  Our acceptance tests were written using SpecFlow, a Gherkin-compliant BDD testing framework for the .NET platform.  SpecFlow is an amazing tool and its integration with Visual Studio is pretty nice.  Having this integration with the IDE is a great selling point to using SpecFlow; SpecFlow specifications can be translated to normal xUnit tests using the VS integration.  SpecFlow generates a stub unit test driver class for every feature file and it's compliant with several unit testing frameworks.  This SpecFlow feature allows it to run directly from the various GUI unit test runners.  This is a nice convenience.  We used the MSTest generation strategy baked into SpecFlow.

Initially we used WatiN for testing our ASP.NET MVC app, but later migrated to an application suite of web and Silverlight applications.  Therefore, we gravitated to using WebAii from Telerik.  This tool worked well for testing both web and Silverlight environments.

Our specifications were very focused on actions and outcomes to those actions.  We took a concerted effort to push the details of the steps into the fixture code.  Keep the specifications light and to the point.  We followed the technique advice from  Doing this really made our specifications communicate the intent of "what" was being tested, not the "how" the test worked.

Many thanks to Joel Levandoski and Tim Anderson for driving the ATDD efforts forward and making this effort a reality.  There were numerous times that I would find Joel writing specifications during sprint planning as the rest of the group was reviewing user stories and associated acceptance criteria for the upcoming sprint.  This is incredibly powerful to come out of sprint planning with a good portion of your acceptance tests executable (all fail as inconclusive).