SyncNorwich – Agile August Review
Yesterday I attended the SyncNorwich Agile August evening. I was lucky to have got in at all, having been on the waiting list until just that morning, when fortunately for me someone decided they couldn’t attend. The ever-increasing popularity of SyncNorwich means that if you want to be guaranteed a place, you need to book early!
We were hosted by the Virgin Money Lounge, which if you don’t know is a great venue. I use it when I’m in the centre of Norwich and need to do some work or just kill some time. There was plenty of alcohol supplied by the sponsors, and three excellent speakers – all of whom address Agile in different ways in three 30 minute slots.
Agile at Aviva
The first to speak was Janet Randell. She was from Aviva (along with a fair proportion of the audience!) and has been heavily involved in bringing Agile to the UK’s largest insurer. You don’t always think of Agile as something that would be done by a company as large or complicated as Aviva, but the way that the financial landscape is now changing so fast, coupled with the expectations of a modern consumer, mean that they need to be able to respond quickly.
I thought Janet read the audience very well and tailored the content accordingly. For instance, most of us already knew about the Agile methodology, so instead she gave us a quick run-down of how she interprets what Agile is, before concentrating on how Aviva have managed to embrace this change, given their size and complexity. The talk was stuffed full of useful information and I think we could have easily listened to it for an hour and half!
I would definitely recommend Janet’s talk to anyone who is struggling to convince people that Agile can work for larger companies. She targeted some of the very common reasons people cite for not being able to use Agile, such as not being able to release to Production every 2 weeks, or having existing planning & governance rules in place.
For instance, in a large company there’s lots of moving parts and often new software has to integrate with those parts. There’s integration and architecture challenges to consider, which aren’t part of the actual work of the project but can’t be left just because “we’re doing Agile”. Janet suggested a separate stage (which she calls “inception”) which runs just before each sprint, ironing out these problems and paving the way for the work that’s about to happen. This “just in time” approach means that you can still be Agile, but you won’t come to a grinding halt when you need to integrate something. Ultimately I suspect this comes down to having good management who understand this and can clear blockages before you get to them.
One of the challenges Janet spoke about particularly resonated with me and I don’t think is a problem confined to just large companies: needing to have an idea of cost & time prior to the project starting. This requirement sometimes seems to be anti-Agile (“don’t ask how long something will take, tell us what’s important and we’ll do a sprint with something in it, and if you want more we can do another sprint”), but time and again I’ve found it’s the one question The Business want to know.
I’m sure there are various ways of estimating how long a pile of user stories will take, but I’d not heard this one, which uses relative estimation to come up with a number. You story-point your stories as normal, either using an existing idea of effort (if you have one) or just ranking stories relative to a baseline. Then, look at just one story in detail and calculate a more accurate time estimate based on tasks. Using this calculation, extrapolate the other stories to come up with an overall estimation. It’s not particularly accurate, but it doesn’t have to be: in Agile your plan can (will, and should!) change.
Aviva are clearly committed to Agile. They still have constraints and issues but it’s great to see such a large company changing how it operates. Cultural change is key, not because it changes your approach or what you have to do – just how easy that process is.
Agile at Virgin Wines
Next to talk was Dom Davis, Head of IT at Virgin Wines. He gave a refreshingly frank talk about Agile in the “real world”. Surprisingly, his first exposure to Agile was in the 1990’s at a large investment bank, and after passing through another company where he tried to implement Agile he eventually ended up at Virgin Wines, a company who were not previously Agile.
His description of Agile resonated with the first speaker: Agile is more of a toolkit. There’s no single implementation of Agile: every company is different. Also, Agile is not the panacea of everything that is perceived wrong with software projects – you can still muck it up with Agile and it won’t stop developers missing deadlines, or the business changing its mind.
He gave a really good analogy of Agile as being like a car journey. You can’t plan a car journey up front in enough detail to prevent an accident. You need to make a series of small changes as your journey progress – an un-forseen stop at a traffic light, an unplanned U-turn, dealing with getting lost.
Dom is clearly experienced at running Agile projects and had some very good, frank advice for avoiding common pitfalls. The one that stuck in my mind was always reporting on tasks that longer than you expect. As a developer, when this happens I usually think “meh, we can make that up” or “well, that’s what the padding was for”. I think this is probably a natural developer reaction: we don’t like being wrong! However, we should always report on tasks that take longer than expected: we can’t make them up, and that isn’t what the padding is for!
I also loved his definition of Deadlines, Sad Lines, Angry Lines etc….
Working from Home
Finally, John Fagan gave us a different point of view: life from the coal face in a truly Agile, distributed company. John works for Axon Active with around 20 other team members who are geographically distributed from each other in 12 cities, 4 countries.
For him this distribution of people is not a problem. He gave lots of examples of really successful companies who don’t impose geographical limitations on their hiring process, preferring to hire the best regardless of location. As someone who works day to day geographically far away from my Head Office (although close to my team) I can attest to the fact that it really can work, but you need to make sure you have good communication.
Taking a different tack from the other speakers, John described how the Agile Scrum was a good communication tool for distributed teams. The daily stand up brings people together and means that everyone knows what’s going on.
He advocated always using Video for calls within the team. We’ve tried this internally and not yet managed to make it a success! We still do it for daily stand-ups if we’re not all in the same place, but haven’t yet managed to achieve it with the rest of the company. I completely see where he’s coming from though – a video call is much, much more engaging than a voice call – you also tend to give it more concentration and focus.
There were some new tools John mentioned which I hadn’t heard of before. PlanningPoker.com is a way to do planning poker estimations online, if you’re not all in the same room. Moqups is a HTML5 application which you can use to produce wire-frames quickly and share them (similar to Balsamiq). He also mentioned Google’s Campus London, which I’d not heard of before, but is a free-to-use collaboration space in London. I’ll definitely be checking it out next time I’m in the Capital and need somewhere to work.
Thanks again to the 3 speakers, and also to SyncNorwich for making it happen. If you’re interested, there are a few other events coming up soon:
On October 10th they (and SupaPass) are presenting the Tech&Startup Panels: an all day lineup of panels, all about Tech & Startups. The keynote speaker is Jeremy Silver (Sibelius, MusicMetric, Shazam).
On September 19th, there’s an all-day workshop for start-ups: Get The Money where you can meet experienced VCs, angels and successful entrepreneurs. In the evening, investors will share their advice, FXHome will talk about how they raised £58K on Kickstarter, and one chosen company from the day’s workshop will give their pitch.
And, on October 22nd it’s the first DevelopHER event, a SyncNorwich spin off with meetings to bring together women in IT.
All these events are free (thanks to awesome sponsors) so get involved!