For a while i’ve been hearing enthusiastic noises about how Scrum development practise can focus productivity and improve morale; and been agitating within EDINA to try it out. So Chalice became the guinea-pig first project for a “Rapid Application Development” team; we did three weeks between September 20th and October 7th. In the rest of this post I’ll talk about what happened, what seemed to work, and what seemed soggy.
- We worked as a team 4 days a week, Monday-Thursday, with Fridays either to pick up pieces or to do support and maintenance work for other projects.
- Each morning we met at 9:45 for 15 minutes to review what had happened the day before, what would happen the next day
- Each item of work-in-progress went on a post-it note in our meeting room
- The team was of 4+1 people – four software developers, with a database engineer consulting and sanity checking
- We had three deliverables –
a data store and data loading tools
- a RESTful API to query the data
- a user interface to visualise the data as a graph and map
In essence, this was it. We slacked on the full Scrum methodology in several ways:
- No estimates.
Why no estimates? The positive reason: this sprint was mostly about code re-use and concept re-design; we weren’t building much from scratch. The data model design, and API to query bounding boxes in time and space, were plundered and evolved from Unlock. The code for visualising queries (and the basis for annotating results) was lifted from Addressing History. So we were working with mostly known quantities.
- No product owner
This was mostly an oversight; going into the process without much preparation time. I put myself in the “Scrum master” role by instinct, whereas other project managers might be more comfortable playing “product owner”. With hindsight, it would have been great to have a team member from a different institution (the user-facing folk at CeRch) or our JISC project officer, visit for a day and play product owner.
What seemed to work?
The “time-boxed” meeting (every morning for 15 minutes at 9:45) seemed to work very well. It helped keep the team focused and communicating. I was surprised that team members actually wanted to talk for longer, and broke up into smaller groups to discuss specific issues.
The team got to share knowledge on fundamentals, that should be re-useful across many other projects and services – for example, the optimum use of Hibernate to move objects around in Java decoupled from the original XML sources and the database implementation.
Emphasis on code re-use meant we could put together a lot of stuff in a compressed amount of time.
Where did things go soggy?
From this point we get into some collective soul-searching, in the hope that it’s helpful to others for future planning.
The start and end were both a bit halting – so out of 12 days available, for only 7 or 8 of those were we actually “on”. The start went a bit awkwardly because:
- We didn’t have the full team available ’til day 3 – holidays scheduled before the Scrum was planned
- It wasn’t clear to other project managers that the team were exclusively working on something else; so a couple of team members were yanked off to do support work before we could clearly establish our rules (e.g. “you’ll get yours later”).
We could address the first problem through more upfront public planning. If the Scrum approach seems to work out and EDINA sticks with it for other projects and services, then a schedule of intense development periods can be published with a horizon of up to 6 months – team members know which times to avoid – and we can be careful about not clashing with school holidays.
We could address the second problem by broadcasting more, internally to the organisation, about what’s being worked on and why. Other project managers will hopefully feel happier with arrangements once they’ve had a chance to work with the team. It is a sudden adjustment in development practise, where the norm has been one or two people full-time for a longish stretch on one service or project.
The end went a bit awkwardly because:
- I didn’t pin down a definite end date – I wasn’t sure if we’d need two or three weeks to get enough-done, and my own dates for the third week were uncertain
- Non-movable requirements for other project work came up right at the end, partly as a by-product of this
The first problem meant we didn’t really build to a crescendo, but rather turned up at the beginning of week 3, looked at how much of the post-it-note map we still had to cover. Then we lost a team member, and the last couple of days turned into a fest of testing and documentation. This was great in the sense that one cannot underestimate the importance of tests and documentation. This was less great in that the momentum somewhat trickled away.
On the basis of this, I imagine that we should:
- Schedule up-front more, making sure that everyone involved has several months advance notice of upcoming sprints
- Possibly leave more time than the one review week between sprints on different projects
- Wait until everyone, or almost everyone, is available, rather than make a halting start with 2 or 3 people
We were operating in a bit of a vacuum as to end-user requirements, and we also had somewhat shifting data (changing in format and quality during the sprint). This was another scheduling fail for me – in an ideal world we would have waited another month, seen some in-depth use case interviews from CeRch and had a larger and more stable collection of data from LTG. But when the chance to kick off the Scrum process within the larger EDINA team came up so quickly, I just couldn’t postpone it.
We plan a follow-up sprint, with the intense development time between November 15th and 25th. The focuses here will be
- adding annotation / correction to the user interface and API (the seeds already existing in the current codebase)
- adding the ability to drop in custom map layers
Everything we built at EDINA during the sprint is in Chalice’s subversion repository on Sourceforge – which I’m rather happy with.