Introductory Reading on Agile Requirements

I was recently asked about some introductory reading on agile requirements and working with agile at scale. This is the list of books, blog posts and a video I came up with.

  • An absolutely fantastic 15 minute overview of the product owner role in scrum. (over 125.000 views for a film of scrum!) by Henrik Kniberg.
  • A book I often see recommended (but that I unfortunately haven’t read myself) is Mike Cohn’s “User Stories Applied”.
  • A book I’ve read parts of and that I like so far is Mike Cohn’s “Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum”.
  • A really interesting article about working agile at a larger scale: Scaling Agile at Spotify.

Of course I also recommended my own series about scrum, starting with the Scrum for Developers post.

Using Kanban for Scrum Backlog Grooming

Keeping track of the backlog in a Scrum project is a challenge. It quickly grows to hundreds of items that are in various state of readiness for inclusion in a sprint. In my current project, we’ve setup a Kanban board to help managing the backlog and make our backlog grooming sessions efficient.

I think that in many ways the product backlog and the product owner role are Scrum’s weak spot. Scrum brings order to the development process and sets clear demand on the specifications input into the development process. That helps to make visible what we developers have known all the time: It isn’t our fault that projects screw up, because we can’t do a good job on bad requirements. So with Scrum having helped to make the requirement problem visible to everyone it’s time to address the requirements handling.

In my current project, there are a number of distinctive steps that a product backlog item goes through.

  1. A new request from someone is noted as a product backlog item.
  2. The PO decides to trash it right away, or to go forward with more detailed analysis.
  3. The PO (or a BA helping the PO) makes an analysis.
  4. The product backlog items is presented to the developers in a backlog grooming meeting.
    • The developers have questions and send the item back for further detailing.
    • The developers approve the item and make an estimate of the entire product backlog item.
  5. Only items approved by the developers are eligible for inclusion in a sprint at the sprint planning meeting.

To keep track of this process we use a Kanban board.

Programming is more Qualified than Ever

Business software has automated many routine tasks. Is there anyone still doing accounting manually? The automation is also applied to software development itself, removing routine tasks and leaving the hard tasks to solve manually.

15 years ago I was thinking of what a future career as a programmer would look like. I didn’t know much about professional development, but I was sure of one thing: Administrative business applications was not an option. I wanted to do something new, creative – not spend my days adding another field to another form (including adding it in CRUD code, CRUD Stored Procedures and the database schema).

Now I’m here, working with administrative business applications and enjoying it. It’s not at all what I thought of it back then. It’s far more interesting and challenging.

The tools have become so much better. 10 years ago, a single added field to a form could require changes to 10 different places in the code – all of it plumbing code. With the frameworks available today it’s often possible to handle it with just two changes – one to the GUI and one to the database schema. The rest can be handled automatically.

With routine tasks automated, the focus moves to two different areas: The hard problems and the customer requirements. This makes programming more qualified than ever. It requires deeper expertise within both technology and business understanding.

Developers held Accountable without Authority

With authority follows accountability. The other way around is also true. Anyone who’s held accountable has to have authority. Unfortunately it is far too common that developers are held accountable for a project, even though they don’t have any real authority. They typically are responsible for the delivery, but the authority stays on management level and that’s where the accountability belongs.

A bad manager will take all the credits for the success, while any failures are blamed on the developers. A good manager of course does it the other way around, but let’s ignore that for now. This post is about bad managers that do not accept the accountability that comes with authority.

There are two different cases where the developers are held accountable without having authority.

  • The developers should really be accountable and have the corresponding authority, but management won’t delegate the authority.
  • Management has the authority and they should, but they refuse to accept the accountability that comes with authority.

Everything is the Top Number One Priority

Setting priorities is hard. When a customer is asked to number 10 items with priority 1-10 it often ends up with one 10, two 5s and seven number 1. That usually means that there is one item that isn’t worth doing at all (the number 10), two items that are nice-to-have (the number 5s) and seven items that are really needed.

When coding, one thing should be done at a time. Trying to get everything started at once and multitasking is just inefficient. When given items that are “prioritized” like the above example the order in which to do things has to be defined.

In one project I worked in the managers actually made a priority like this. To refine it they then set letters to distinguish between the number one priorities. I even think they got as far as introducing another number, to distinguish between the different items with priority 1a, giving priority 1a1 and priority 1a2…

That’s ridiculous. When setting priorities I have a simple rule to the top priority:

There can be only one

Software Development is a Job – Coding is a Passion

I'm Anders Abel, an independent systems architect and developer in Stockholm, Sweden.

profile for Anders Abel at Stack Overflow, Q&A for professional and enthusiast programmers

Code for most posts is available on my GitHub account.

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