17 September 2008

A workshop

We're looking into piloting the use of agile methods on some of our upcoming projects, so my director arranged a one-day workshop for the entire unit, including product management and documentation. It was led by Jeff Neilsen and John B. of local consultancy Stelligent. We got an overview of the agile approach to software development—about what you'd get from a few well-written articles and book chapters—and then dug deeper into the practice of user stories. A few of my notes and take-aways:

  • Short development cycles push people to find ways to be more efficient.

  • One of Jeff's clients calls refactoring "entropy reduction."

  • A rule of thumb for how big a user story should be: small enough to build six to twelve of them in a one- to two-week iteration. Of course, how much work this is depends on how many people you have on the development team.

  • Many of the practices suggested by agile practitioners seem counter-productive—scrum rooms, for example, with multiple conversations going on at the same time. Try it anyway: if it doesn't work for you, then drop it.

  • Agile's strength is that it expects requirements to change, and it explicitly provides for this, at the end of each iteration.

  • These techniques are best applied domains where the cost of failure is low: think shoestring-capitalized dot-com startups, not avionics.

  • I haven't seen much from the literature on applying agile methods to projects that are largely integration of third-party packages, nor to projects that are building APIs or frameworks with no user interface.

But what impressed me most about Jeff's presentation was his effective use of PowerPoint. To linger on a key point, generally he used a slide that consisted of a stock photo, full bleed, with oversized type reversed out of the image, something like those Miller Beer ads from a few years ago. (It was a photo of a tray of Krispy Kreme donuts labelled in Chinese that caused me to take notice.) His slides use little or no chrome—by that I mean those distracting standardized frames that corporate messaging departments insist on. Some of his slides reproduce a very small Stelligent logo in the lower left corner. About the only consistent design element is the oversized sans serif typeface that Jeff used; it looked something like Tahoma. This meant that he could incorporate disparate graphic elements from a lot of different sources (diagrams, mostly, and some Dilberts), of different qualities, and the design maintained unity. The effect was engaging without being too slick.

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