On Developers, Golf and Luck

empathyI love golf, I am quite atrocious at it, but still love the game.

According to legend, back in the 60’s, South African golfer Gary Player was playing a round with a friend. At the very start of the round, he sank two consecutive extremely long putts and got 2 birdies.

After his second long putt, his playing partner sad: “Wow, you are lucky!”.

Unfazed Gary replied “I am a great believer in luck, the harder I work the luckier I get”

What’s this got to do with the price of turnips in Termonfeckin, you might ask. Let me explain.

Just yesterday, I was discussing one of my previous blog posts with a tester I really admire and respect. The discussion was around whether developers can be taught testing and whether they really want or care to work with testers on improving their skills.

My experience says “Yes” and “Yes”, my interlocutor had a different opinion. Perfectly fine.

At a certain point he said, and I quote  “you’ve been in a great position to have people with the right mindsets, eager to learn and conduct testing activities”


I heard that before, I actually heard it too many times, in different forms.

In the last 10 years I was told: “you are lucky to be in that situation” or “you were fortunate to have the right people around you” and also “you have had the fortune of not having my situation where developers don’t care about testing, blah, blah blah…” and just about any other way of saying that I WAS LUCKY.

Honestly, I don’t think I have been lucky. Could I be lucky every time? Luck is about chance? I understand maths and getting lucky every time sounds quite, let me think, unlikely.

I made my own luck.

I learned to treat developers with respect, show them my appreciation for their work, empathise with their fears and expectations. When in this context, developers, or for that matter any category of people, become more interested in our own needs, more willing to help and learn something you might be teaching.

If we keep on saying that developers can’t test, that if there are no testers the world is going to end because developers are not able to do their job properly, how do we expect to have them listen to us and help us? First we shut them out of our little testing world and then we expect they want to learn what we do and help us, this is just not reasonable.

Funnily enough us, testers, are the biggest moaners of them all, always complaining that the industry doesn’t value us like it values developers, but we still don’t understand that empathy is important to get people to be on your side.

Don’t take my word on this, I am just a lucky man.


Not doing something useless is very valuable


The first thing we tried to do once we had set the WIP limit (see last episode) was to start working on 5 only of the 60 cards we had on the board.

A few suggestions were thrown in, Gus mentioned a possible approach where if something is closer to the right of the board, i.e. is closer to be finished and delivered to production, then it should get precedence. This way the team could take the 5 rightmost cards and start working on them and ignore the other 55.

This sounded like a decent idea and got some nods from the team, but Fritz the business analyst had a secret that was breaking his heart, he slowly raised his hand, head slightly down and said “Lads, I don’t know how to say this, but,  since we visualised the work on the board and I can actually see what you guys are working on, I started to realise that there is a bunch of irrelevant cards. Some of them are outdated, some other are plain wrong, I am so sorry”

The team were not happy, Mike, a senior developer, said “What do you mean outdated? Wrong? Why did you give us wrong and unnecessary work to do? Do you know how busy we are?”

new-meme-i-am-going-to-kill-you-now_o_153496Fritz was blushing and wasn’t sure how to answer that question, he gathered his thoughts and then said “Folks, don’t take it out on me, but you well know that when the customers came brandishing tickets, we just took them on and started working on them, no attention was given to whether they were there to improve some older card or made them irrelevant. Our inbound pipeline is running wild! Before we had WIP limits and visualisation I didn’t even know how to tell the customers they had to wait”

Mike was furious “Are you saying that half of the work I do every day is irrelevant? This is unbelievable, I am going to kill you!”


“Hang on, hang on, hold your horses Mike” said Gus “where you see something bad I see a massive opportunity for improvement. Listen to me carefully, here’s the plan: we take one hour to look at the board with our customers and identify the irrelevant cards. Removing them is a massive value added activity, imagine all the work you will save by not having to finish them! This is great news! After this we will have less cards left and choosing the most important 5 to start with will be much easier. It’s not an issue it’s an opportunity to improve our work stream. Fritz, thank you so much for being brave and showing the problem to us! ”

“And don’t worry Mike” Gus added “I will not forget that we have a problem managing our incoming work, we will fix that straight after”holdyourhorses.jpg

Fritz was a bit relieved, Mike still not too happy.

We got on to it, and we soon found out, that the problem we had was even bigger than what Fritz described. Within 40 minutes we had removed 22 irrelevant or wrong cards, that would have represented at least 2 weeks work if we kept on working on them.

Some of the cards on the board were so old that the customers didn’t even remember what they were about…

While removing cards, the team, including Mike, started focusing on the positive, i.e. the work that they didn’t have to do because of the removed cards, rather than the work that they had already done on those.

The atmosphere improved substantially, from death threats, to group high fives every time we took a card off the board. The board itself started to look a bit cleaner and all we had to do now was to identify the 5 most important cards to work on, easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Once we finished,  Fritz, finally freed from his secret, said “Folks, I would have never been able to do this cleanup job using the digital backlog, seeing the tickets on the board opened my eyes”

“Well” added Mike “after all it looks like, a picture” pointing at the board “is better than a thousand words in Jira”.

The team had a laugh and got back to work with a smile on their faces.




Testers: what’s your strategy in a continuous delivery context?

smallbatchIn my last stint as a tester from October 2012 to Jan 2014, I helped my organisation at that time moving from delivering once every month, to delivering multiple times a day.

Let me first clarify that we didn’t move to multiple deliveries per day just for the fun of it, but because we needed it.


Your organisation might not yet know it needs this level of agility but more than likely it will at some stage in the future.

How did this transform the role of the testers within the organisation?


The start

When I joined I found scrum teams that delivered either once a month or once every 2 months. The teams had 3 different defects management databases full with old and new defects. Testers were doing the following activities:

  1. automation (~30-50%)
  2. exploratory testing (~50-70&)

The batches were big, the exploratory sessions were long and found a lot of defects. The automation was not effective, as it was slow and unpredictable, its value was negative.

When I left

When I left, we were using kanban, delivering multiple times a day, defects were more or less a myth of the past, no defect management tool existed. Testers were doing the following activities:

  1. Three amigos BDD sessions with customers and developers
  2. Exploratory testing (1~5%) – never longer than 10 minutes per card, more often than not reporting no defects
  3. Pairing with developers
  4. Coaching developers on testing
  5. Writing automation (0%)
  6. Talking to the customer and the team
  7. Improving the system
  8. Designing the product with the team and the customer
  9. Helping define what to monitor in production
  10. Any other valuable activity the team needed them to do

As you can see the activities that before occupied 100% of testers time, now occupy from 1 to 5% of testers time.

Were testers busy before? Yes, absolutely

Were testers busy after? Yes, absolutely

Were testers complaining because they weren’t doing automation or enough exploratory testing? No, believe me. Most testers I worked with saw the new activities in the role as a learning activity and an opportunity to broaden their skills and become more valuable to any company.

If a tester didn’t want to adapt to the new reality and embrace the change and new ways of doing things, he would have been busy for 10 minutes  a day (~2%) and he would have not been useful to the team.

Did we get there with the touch of a magic wand? No, the end stage was the result of many experiments. It was, back then, a good recipe for that context at that time (it is continuously changing)

So, tester, what’s your strategy for working in a company that releases multiple times a day?


Limiting WIP should wreck your head

Previously on “A knowledge worker’s tale”: team X were able to convince Zach the customer that he could not have new tickets worked on until the ones he had in progress were completed, unless the new ones were more urgent and replaced the older ones.

stop-starting-and-start-finishing-6Having the ability to talk sense into Zach with little effort felt good, the team was energised, they had a new tool that could help them talk to their customers, but the initial problem still stood, the board still contained 60 in progress tickets and it was not going to clear on its own.

They were still in front of the board after the conversation with Zach when Gus said, “guys, do you remember when I suggested we visualise the work in progress and you didn’t want to waste time doing it because you were too busy?” “Yes” said Rick the tester.

“You didn’t believe me back then, but you made an effort and trusted me. Things worked out well back then” said Gus. “Well I need you to trust me again, because what I am going to tell you now will feel very strange and some of you will immediately think that I have gone insane”

The lads looked at each other and silently agreed to listen, after all, he was right before, let’s give him another chance.

Gus started “How many people are in this team excluding me?” The lads looked around and mentally counted when Rick said “8, we are 8, 5 developers, 2 testers and 1 analyst”.

Gus said “Fine, then let’s start with a Work In Progress Limit of 5, this means that the team can only work on 5 cards at the same time, no exceptions, I mean you can’t pick up a 6th card if you haven’t finished one of the first 5, never, absolutely never. Did I say no exceptions already?”

The team looked around to each other with quizzical faces, they could not believe their ears, from the board they saw they were working on 60 items at the same time, and that was certainly too much, but 5? Five cards was ridiculous.

How team X saw Gus when he said “well, let’s start with a WIP limit of 5”

Rick went “Come on Gus, are you joking? Five cards? It’s ridiculous, we’ll never finish, will we?” Jimmy added “Also, if we can work on 5 cards only there will be 3 of us that do nothing every time, how do we justify this to our customers?”

“Very good questions lads” Gus said “Let me answer them in order. Rick, you say we’ll never finish, instead I say we will finish more cards. In fact setting a WIP limit low, forces the team finishing a card instead of starting a new one. In order to start a new one, you need to finish one before that, this will force you to complete the work. Your new motto will be “Stop starting, start finishing”. Does this make sense?”

“As per Jimmy’s question, not exactly. There won’t be 3 people doing nothing at the same time, because you guys will be pairing and working together on tasks. Pairing on a card, no matter what activity you are doing, has 3 great effects, you share knowledge, the quality of the card is higher and the card gets done quicker. And remember, it is not important to be busy, it is important to be doing the right work at the right time. Stop focusing on whether you are busy or not and start focusing on the most important work to be done.”

Gus went to the board and wrote on the very top a big 5, that meant only 5 cards could be at the same time on the board NO EXCEPTIONS.

The team started to understand what that meant but still felt uneasy. Rick said “this is not going to work Gus, I am very worried about this”

“That’s perfectly OK Rick” said Gus “if you weren’t feeling uneasy I would be surprised and also worried, WIP limits are a traumatic change for a team, you will find it difficult at first and it will cause a lot of discussions within the team, even some heated ones. Believe me or not, these discussions are necessary, because you need to change the way you work so that you can start finishing and stop starting”

“You know what?” added Gus “let’s give this a try, if it doesn’t work for you, we will go back to picking up as many stories as you want, but you need to give yourself 2 weeks with this experiment, are you with me?”

“Let’s do this” the team said.

Will team X be able to respect the WIP limit? What will they discover while they try to adapt to the new reality? The new episode is out! Read and find out.

The magic talking board

This is the second episode of the adventures of team X, if you haven’t already, read the first part of the story

Things looked slightly less grim now. We had visualised the work that was coming through and at least we could see how deep the hole we had dug for ourself was.

For a team of 8 (programmers testers and analysts) we had something like 60 work items in progress, it was gigantic, daunting and scary.

But that was huge progress, because now we knew it was there. Now that we could see it and show it, we could do something to stop it from happening again.

messy-deskLittle we knew that what we had created was not only a board, what we had created was a living and talking entity, you don’t believe me? Read on.

The morning after we built the board, Zach appeared, he was the most unreasonable customer in the Northern hemisphere, known for his famous saying “take this ticket, if you finish it last week you are late”. He walked hurriedly to the team area with his usual bunch of new unbelievably urgent tickets to work on.

While he was walking, I swear, I thought I heard the music from “The good the bad and the ugly” such was the tension in the air.

Jimmy, a developer, told him: “Hey Zach, yes, we will work on them but we need to finish these first” pointing at the board.

Zach wasn’t happy, squinted and said, “but this is urgent! I need it now!”.

Jimmy was relentless, looked at the cards that Zach had already in progress on the board and said “that’s fine Zach, no problem, have a look at these cards on the board, they are your 6 tickets already in progress, if your new two are more urgent then let’s replace them”.

Zach eyes widened with disbelief, looked at the other cards and said, “but, but, but… I, I, I… need, need , need… …well no, those are more urgent, work on these new 2 only once you are done with the old ones”, he said goodbye and went back to his office.

From Top to Bottom: Jimmy, Gus and Zach

Jimmy the developer had defeated Zach, the fastest ticket-slinger in the company!

The team X guys looked at each other, high fived Jimmy and noted that the board had told the customer what they had been trying to say for the last 2 years, i.e. “we are too busy we can’t take more work”, but for some magic reason now that the work was visible, that conversation was much easier and Zach was not shouting anymore, miracle!

This small event made the team determined to always make sure that their work was visible on the board, the board was a silent ally, they won’t forget to feed it!

If Zach had been brought to reason, what else could the board help them do?

Gus said, now the fun starts, let’s talk about setting a WIP limit…

Wanna know what happened next? Is the WIP limit going to make the team even more powerful? Stay tuned for the 3rd episode to find out what Jimmy and the team X lads get up to!

The new episode is out!

What you are measuring is wrong, let me tell you why


There is one measurement that is commonly accepted when examining the effectiveness of delivery teams. Lead Time.

This is a definition from Wikipiedia.

A lead time is the latency between the initiation and execution of a process. For example, the lead time between the placement of an order and delivery of a new car from a manufacturer may be anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months.

If software delivery team “LightningFast” is able to give to its customers product X in 1 week while software delivery team “SlowAndSteady” requires 4 weeks to deliver the same product we can state without error that LightningFast is better at software delivery than SlowAndSteady. In fact it is 4x better.

(For the purpose of this article let’s consider the quality of the product delivered by the 2 teams to be equal)

At this point we are considering the starting time to be when a development team has some form of requirements to start working on and finishing time when the bits are deployed to a production environment.

As a business owner you would want to hire team LightningFast and try to avoid SlowAndSteady, I agree with you.

Let’s imagine that team “LightningFast” works for “BestProduct.com” and “SlowAndSteady” works for “WeAreTheBest.com”


The CTO at WeAreTheBest.com would willingly spend a lot of money for either replacing SlowAndSteady with LightningFast or coaching SlowAndSteady to lower lead time and become more like LightningFast.

But the business world is not a software delivery speed contest, it is much bigger than that.

Follow me and you’ll discover that even if you have team LightningFast in your organisation you might have bigger problems to solve.

Let’s expand a little our concept and start looking upstream (left).

Team SlowAndSteady have a very effective way of transforming their roadmap into actionable requirements and are able to complete this specific task for product X in 2 days. Team LightningFast don’t have a lot of skills on this department and spend a lot of time upfront to create the requirements. In the specific, for product X it took them 4 weeks.

So let’s calculate lead time one more time.

LigntningFast => 1 week + 4 weeks = 5 weeks

SteadyAndSlow => 4 weeks + 2 days = 4.4 weeks

Okay, does this mean that SteadyAndSlow are more effective than LightningFast? It would seem so. The starting point for the calculation of the lead time changed completely the judgement we had built over the effectiveness of the delivery teams.

This seems interesting, what’s next?

Next is a different question. The question is what is the lead time that we should be measuring? What’s the lead time that is important to our business?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is the whole. From start to finish.

Now, let’s walk backwards to see where the start is.

Next bit I would add is the time that product X took before it got prioritised and given to the delivery team to work on. In many cases, companies have an Enterprise Portfolio from which the Products get selected from when prioritising.

WeAreTheBest.com (the home of SlowAndSteady) have mastered a very good prioritisation process and priorities are continuously assessed based on market conditions, customer feedback and active monitoring so when a product becomes the highest priority for the company the process signals it clearly and they can start creating a roadmap within 1 week.

BestProduct.com (the home of LightningFast)  are struggling with prioritisation, they are not aware of how their customers use their products and have no intention of using customer insights to make decisions on what to build. They rely on the CEO that is the smartest person in the company to decide what gets prioritised. The CEO got it wrong this time and should have started working on product X last year when  it was added to the enterprise portfolio. It took 1 year for the product to get picked up.

Ok. Now things are interesting.

BestProduct.com => 1 week + 4 weeks + 1 year = 1 year and 5 weeks

WeAreTheBest.com => 4 weeks + 2 days + 1 week = 5.4 weeks

Wow, more than a year difference between the 2 companies, this is incredible!

We could go on and on going back to the moment the idea appeared in that company for the first time and add the time lag between the idea appearing and the corresponding product materialising on the Enterprise Portfolio or even go back further and research when for the first time social conditions emerged a problem to be resolved for customers that will be eventually resolved by product X.

I have seen many enterprises and many delivery teams. Don’t take my word for it, look out there, delivery teams effectiveness is equated to how good they are at doing the Requirements to production transition.

This creates a need for improvement localised to that context. A lot of money is invested and spent to resolve the last bit of the ride, while monstrous inefficiencies slow down delivery in measures orders of magnitude bigger.

the narrow focus on a sub-system is called sub-optimisation and it is a very well known concept in systems thinking and lean but it seems to have flown over the heads of most of the agile community.

Still today, a lot of agile experts focus almost exclusively on technical aspects and are not concerned with resolving the real problems in the system.

Do you want to know more about this?

Do you want to know how to identify the real problems in your system?

Give me a shout and let’s have a chat!


3 Simple Steps to Help Overloaded Teams

dublin-rain-491-390x285It was a wet and dark morning in Dublin when I sat with team X for the first time.

I had been told: “Gus, these guys are struggling, they really need your help. They are always late, and everybody complains about the quality of their work, it’s bad, very bad”.

I expected a demotivated team of technically poor developers with its members playing video games or youtube videos instead of doing their job, but I was wrong.

No developer was slacking or pretending to work, on the other hand, I saw people with worried faces shuffling around, some listening to angry customers, some head down into code, some testing and quietly cursing.

To a newcomer, they looked super busy and doing their thing.

I perceived the first hint of trouble later in the day. I went to talk to some of them, just introducing myself and telling them that I was going to work with them to try to make their life easier. Each and every one of them was too busy to talk. All of them had something urgent, being a production issue, being a customer waiting behind their backs, or a release they had to finish by 5pm. Sorry, sorry Gus, I really can’t now, I have this blah blah…

I took it in and let them alone for the day. The day after, I kept on observing without saying a word. The amount of pressure that I saw applied on to these poor kids was frightening. In the same day I saw 8 different people go to the same developer and demand he finished something he was meant to have finished already. The requesters were different people and asked for 8 different things, all quite angrily.

The subsequent days, my observations stressed more and more this situation, the people were pushed over the limits and by trying to finish things quickly and relief some of the pressure were skipping steps and introducing new problems, new issues to work on, and so on.

I kept on observing and asking questions here and there, but the people saw me as somebody that couldn’t help them with the code, hence quite useless. I had to do something different.

On the 4th day, in the morning, after their standup, I told them to stop doing what they were doing and come and have a chat with me.

Believe it or not, It was almost impossible to get them off their seats.

no-thanks-were-too-busyThey felt they could not leave the sinking ship, they needed to continue trying to flush the water out with their hands. Did I have a powerful drain pump and could save the boat easily? They didn’t have time to learn how to use it, they needed to keep on shovelling with their bare hands.

I eventually got them into a room. We had a retrospective. I disguised the retro to be something else, because I had heard from one of the developers: “we don’t do retrospectives anymore, what’s the point if we don’t have the time to change anything?”

That’s a very valid question. Very.

The team was obviously overloaded and didn’t have the maturity and the necessary negotiation skills to express that to their customers and stakeholders. They had reacted to the overload with what I call the “headless chicken approach”. It works like this: “Just do all you can, forget about quality, process, product, customers, just run for your life and even if your work product is terrible, people won’t be able to blame you, as you work like a donkey every day.”

fuck-it-let-s-just-panic-and-run-around-like-headless-chickensDo you think this is uncommon? Well think again.

The first step we took was to visualise the work in progress. The guys were using Jira with no physical board and didn’t realise how much work they were really taking on. The board was scary, full scary I mean.

As the work came from many different products, another thing that we did was separating the products into different classes of service.

By doing this we immediately saw that one product had most of the tickets, why? We don’t know yet, but at least we are aware of it now.
After this very simple step  the team members started having conversations that were beyond the need to finish MyNewFeature, they started looking at current priorities and talking about the whys of the bad situation they where in.

Then they started talking about experiments to fix it.

They were improving the system.

I looked outside the window, the sun had come out.

What were the 3 steps we made that enabled the behavioural change?

  1. Acknowledge we were in an unsustainable situation that needed changing
  2. Agree the team had the responsibility and the authority to improve it with my support and management agreement
  3. Visualise the work they were already doing


Just this small change had transformed a group of intelligent people acting like headless chickens into people that were trying to improve a complex system, not bad for a weeks work I’d say!

If you are curious stay tuned and I will tell you what happened next, no more chickens, I swear.

The new episode of the story of Team X is out