Leaders of development teams want to be able to adapt their existing product to innovative ideas and shifting market conditions. This is often the reason organizations "go Agile," yet this flexible ability to deliver rich business value is often frustratingly out of reach.

Agile teams and their management are also familiar with the value of individual development practices. For example, Test-Driven Development's ability to catch defects early, and to provide the team with the ability to confidently extend the product. What Rob has found by working with a number of teams, each for six months or more, is another much greater--and more rare--source of business value resulting from diligent attention to software craftsmanship and the resulting two-way trust that forms between Development and Product.

You will hear a handful of surprising (but real) first-person tales, each detailing a time when changing market forces, dramatic pivots, disruptive technological changes, or insightful requests were managed by the delivery team within a single two-week sprint. Each of these "Black Swan User Stories" (Rob's term for powerful, risky, and unforeseen user-stories) resulted in multiplying user productivity, opening whole new markets, or delighting and retaining critical customers.

What we found in each case was that rapid completion of our Black Swan User Stories was the result of diligent, disciplined application of a few Agile technical practices; and that this resulted in the concrete realization of organizations' long-held expectations for Agile software development.

 
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Outline/structure of the Session

0:00 Quick Intro: Who am I? What are the Agile Technical Practices?

Very briefly: My experience as player-coach on a half-dozen XP teams. What are the Agile Technical Practices aka Scrum Developer Practices?

0:03 The Cases: Two or more "Black Swan User Story" success stories, time permitting.

I'll explain my term "Black Swan User-Story" as being a user-story that has Taleb's attributes of a Black Swan Event: Surprising, disruptive, and potentially expensive. I'll draw out the barbell distribution curve, and explain that most stories (and their required code maintenance) fall on the left side of the curve, and the rare few Black Swan Stories land on the right hill of the curve: Much more rare, much greater impact on the business.

I'll then tell two or more (it's a self-adjusting talk) of my favorite first-person experiences building innovative features on Agile teams, told as short, entertaining (and sometimes funny) narratives. They are:

  • 2001: Internationalize a custom survey-builder to preserve existing customers in Japan, and to make the product available to other nations.
  • 2002: Allow surgeons to create PDF reports from their ad hoc HTML reports, to better fit into patient medical records. This single change greatly streamlined the process of getting reports into records, which was being handled by nurses and interns.
  • 2002: Allow for the nightly conversion of existing patient data and database schemas from an old FoxBase database to a new Oracle database (with an unstable data model). This adaptation and reuse recouped 80% of one medical records team's time.
  • 2004: Convert the company's proprietary XML schema to a partner's schema for cleaner business-to-business workflows.

0:25 What is common in all cases?

I'll then summarize the conditions common to all cases:

  • The user-story was a surprise to everyone, including the Product owner/advocate who invented it. I call them "Black Swan User Stories": Surprising, disruptive, potentially quite valuable, and potentially quite expensive. On a long-standing Agile team, such a story results from the Product advocate's knowledge of the software's existing capabilities, the team's skills and reliability, and the needs of the market. A Black Swan Story is frequently the innovative pivot, the wildly insightful customer request, or a clever repurposing. Once implemented, the Black Swan Story opens a whole new market segment, improves the flow of value in another area of the organization, or greatly aids in retaining critically important customers.
  • The user-stories seemed at first to be nearly impossible to implement in any reasonable amount of time. Many team members saw the Black Swan as a major architectural change, based on their decades of experience on pre-Agile teams. Yet every user-story was completed in less than a sprint. In each case, the teams were able to prepare the code to facilitate the new enhancements by using rapid, often dramatic, refactorings.
  • In each case, upon reflecting on root causes, the team involved determined that the software design's existing flexibility was key to completing the story.
  • Furthermore, that design was in place due to disciplined efforts to refactor away "code-smells" (i.e., design problems).
  • That in turn was only possible due to a comprehensive and very fast suite of regression tests built and executed continuously over all sprints.
  • That suite was the result of disciplined Test-Driven Development. Every developer acknowledged that the suite would not have been as robust, or as fast, or as helpful, if unit-tests had been retrofitted rather than written test-first.

0:35 Conclusions: How rare are Black Swan Stories? And "Not a guarantee!"

  • Though we may have expected Black Swan Stories to be rare; in my experience, they have occurred roughly once or twice per year on every long-term Agile team that focused on disciplined software craftsmanship using Agile Technical Practices.
  • So it's not a guarantee, but the opposite is a near certainty. Based on a decade of pre-Agile software development experience, and experience coaching hundreds of Agile teams who chose not to strengthen these skills, I've also noticed the opposite: Without very fast, comprehensive testing, teams' Black Swan stories were either repeatedly rejected as too expensive and dangerous, or took many months to complete, sometimes missing a critical competitive window. Some of those companies no longer exist.

0:40 Final questions, clarifying anything still unclear, or that invokes skepticism.

The remaining time will be used for quick questions, and I'll let folks know where to contact me for further lively and respectful debate.

Learning Outcome

  • Hear real examples of how maintainable, high quality code is critical to the rapid completion of innovative user stories.
  • Explore the surprisingly direct path between software craftsmanship and business value.
  • Learn why leadership would want to encourage, support, and defend a team's dedication to software craftsmanship and the use of Agile technical practices such as Test-Driven Development.
  • Learn why an early commitment to developer practices is crucial to product longevity and innovation.

Target Audience

Executives, Leaders, Product Managers, Development Managers, Developers

Prerequisite

Experience with an Agile framework (Scrum, Kanban, XP) and perhaps some painful experience failing (despite Agile) to sustain quality and the delivery of value over time.

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