Plans, Planning and Speculation - There's Time for Everything

It has been funny to me from the very beginning that agile methods are often claimed to lack the planning activity while the opposite holds. The difference lies in the fact that planning for the unknown becomes speculation. Prolonged speculation period brings very little added value and is thus kept to minimum in agile projects until better knowledge is achieved by active learning. Simon Baker in AGILE IN ACTION reminded about the two great early agilists believing in planning instead of plans.

Life in a Cubicle

Are you working in a sorry ass company that forces people to work in cubicles in order to foster communication and effectivity? It's sad, but turn on your speakers, pump up the volume, and check out this James Blundt remix.

Hope it helps.


Portfolio Through The Grapewine

Many agile methods miss to address the issue of portfolio management. This is not such a surprise as many organizations miss to address the issue all together. Agile thinking pretty much assumes that the only intelligent way is to work on a single project at the time, and that projects should face delivery or cancellation as soon as possible. After all having too many projects in the inventory is one of the main sources of waste. While all this is very much true, the life on planet earth is sometimes somewhat different. The impression "I heard it through the grapewine" is made famous by Marvin Gaye. The impression means information traveling through gossip and rumor. In some organizations this seems to be the primary channel for portfolio management.

Team is defined as group of people with shared objectives and goals (term "team" is misused a lot!). Teams become superior over individuals when they share these goals and thus have a common direction. Agile methods take advantage of this phenomenon by planning for short enough increments and gaining commitment by having estimates given by the people doing the actual work. This is called time-boxing.

When a team in large organization is piloting agile methods it is usually working as a shadow system parallel to institutional system in the organization. In this case the above mentioned "I heard it through the grapewine" -effect can be very harmful. Each team member will have several inputs about the future of the current project, as well as information about the future projects. Along the current increment short notice invitations to future project meetings will arrive and so on. This makes agile planning unmotivating and even barking mad. Of course the same applies to any method of planning under these conditions. However time-boxing would be perfect tool against "I heard it through the grapewine" -effect, allowing organizations to harness the power of small teams with shared goals and direction. DeMarco calls these teams Jelled (DeMarco and Lister, 1999). If new announcements and meeting invitations are only made public in the same natural rhythm as the team already operates, their negative effect to Jell would be minimized. Who is responsible for this rhythm? Top management, middle management, project management, line management, team leadership? I think this needs to be considered independently for each case, but it is a joint responsibility and everyone should understand the reasoning.

"Increment duration depends on how long you can keep the change away". Allowing rumors and gossip make this a very short period.


The Uneducated Industry

In many cases professional embedded developer has never attended a single programming course at any level. Further she may have never opened a book on even the most fundamental programming practices. She does not read professional magazines. Embedded programmers are often electronics graduates. Even more scary is that the same applies to managers of embedded developers. They have never attended a single programming course at any level, NOR any managing course at any level. Embedded development department managers have just become managers because they have earlier been successful in programming (and designing the HW) with those 1kB micros solo virtuoso and ad-hoc.

Imagine that. In the past years we have reached an era where a light switch has more bit crunching power than Commodore 64. In few years a key chain, a pen or your T-shirt may out power the old 64. The complexity of these devices is exploded by the communication capabilities which enables distributed intelligence. These increasingly complex systems need to be developed within ever shorter time-to-market by team(s) of embedded software developers co-designing the system with teams from other disciplines. Members of such teams need to have proper skills for development, but even more challenging is that developers and their managers need to have social skills in order to keep the whole development ecosystem fit.

These skills are now been teached in programming and management departments, books and articles, and then tuned and learned within methodologies like agile development. However getting these next generation people into industry is a slow process.

It is essential to teach the existing people in the industry to learn.


Norm Day at the Office

Back at work, and running a orientation week before we begin a 3 month release plan, which aims at delivering the first possible release candidate for an embedded product family. We chose a meeting cabinet that we found out to be available.

Fist we checked it up. It seemed to be ok.

We could not find a projector in the premises, so we had to settle for Meeting Charts provided by our friends at 3M. Good news; no .PPT's.


Survey Shows: Agile Champions Live Higher

There has been survey results published at Agile 2006 conference. Pete Behrens has written a nice summary. The survey was about agile adaptation and was run by VersionOne. As VersionOne makes their business in agile scope, the data sample may be "a bit" biased. Even while I do not put much emphasis on the result that 75% of companies deploy agile methods I do see value in other finding:

"The internal agile champion is moving up in the organization to VP from team leader two years ago."

Agile methods have so far been largely deployed by a younger champion engineer in an organization that has gotten frustrated with the dysfunctioning methods. This data may show that agile development is moving directly higher from the trenches. I just hope that the values do not get twisted on their way up. The original ones work so nicely....


Agile Methods and Firmware Development

I made my paper "Agile Methods and Firmware Development" available. You can find a link to the paper from the sidebar, under "My Papers". This is my initial review and analysis of different software lifecycle models and their applicability to firmware development as part of Ph.D. studies. Paper is dated a few years back. One might say that the current journey started upon writing this paper.

Abstract— The size and complexity of software continues to grow
at a steady pace. This is also true for software embedded in our
everyday electronics, which we have called simple devices. The
term firmware is used to describe the low-level software in
embedded systems. It may even be hard to divide firmware and
actual hardware. Software development for such a target has
special characteristics such as a culture of hacking, small teams
and multiple hats, co-design issues, one-time designs, correctness
and robustness requirements, lack of tools and unconventional
customers. Software process models have been studied also in
this environment to ease the pain of developing more complex
systems. I introduce four currently used methods to develop
firmware; build-and-fix, waterfall, ROPES and RUP SE.

Agile methods are getting a lot of attention in the software
development community at the moment. I review the agile
methods which are most documented. The suitability of these to
firmware development is evaluated. It is also analyzed whether
firmware development could benefit from agile methods.

It is shown that agile methods are not the new cure-all solution
to firmware development, but they are applicable. Their full use
needs modification and innovative thinking. It is, however, shown
that firmware development can surely benefit from the usage of
agile methods.