Stories about Software


Imagine a Process Regression

I was recently out to dinner with some friends that are fellow techies, and we were talking about software development methodologies. One of them, who works in a shop that practices pretty true-to-form Scrum, was talking about how management via the product owner was starting to put pressure on them to produce certain, lower point estimates during the planning poker game. He said that it struck the younger team members who’d only worked there as extremely strange and that he personally felt that the powers that be were sort of trying to steer them to a more “waterfall-ish” style. I had a random thought and, rudely, burst out laughing during his anecdote which was, in no way, intended to be funny.

The thing that I had thought of, I explained to my confused friends, was how incredibly weird and counter-intuitive moving to a waterfall development methodology would seem to his teammates who had come into the software development world knowing only Scrum. It’d be like coming home one day and telling your family that you were through buying soap because from now on all you needed was some lye, some elbow grease and the river on the other side of town. Of course, there would (and has been) culture shock going from Waterfall to Agile, but that’s mostly born of a kind of “that’s an impossible pipe dream” mentality. Going the other way has more of a “you want to do what…. and why?” vibe.

Think of this. You’ve never known anything but a disciplined agile approach to software. You have an automated build and deployment setup. Every time you check in code, the build executes, unit tests are run, and the code is pushed to a test environment for exploratory QA and validation of user stories. Checkins are frequent, collaboration is ubiquitous and refactoring and cleaning the code is something you do on a regular basis. Once every other week, you ship the code and it’s no big deal. The (business) day after shipping, you and the team collaboratively plan what you’re going to do for the next two weeks, trusting that someone is prioritizing the work you wind up doing toward a larger technical product/vision. Your users see regular progress and give you regular feedback, creating a tight communication loop and eliminating surprises. And, if the users change their mind about the features they want or don’t like what you’ve done over the last two weeks, you simply spend the next two weeks steering methodically back in the right direction. But don’t worry, that’s all about to change!

Forget about all of that bi-weekly shipping nonsense. We’re going to ship once, as far as we’re concerned. A second shipment is by no means a given because frankly, the first one is rather likely to fail and anger the users. So, let’s not concern ourselves with anything but the first shipment. For the first month or so, we’re going to gather the requirements for the project. We’ll skip through a meadow, plucking them off of the beautiful flora and placing them in our baskets. That’ll be a good month. At the end of that month, we’ll tell our users that they’d better be sure that our endless array of diagrams and thousands of statements about what the software “shall” do matches exactly what they want because once we move onto the next phase, there’s no going back or changing their minds without either expensive change requests or lawyers.

Next up comes the design phase. This is the part where we spend a month figuring out how to write all of the code that we’re going to write over the next several months, but without actually writing that code. While this may sound nuts, the reason that we have to do this is because the labor is going to be divided up in such a way that everyone will kind of go off into their own silo and write code for months prior to an extended “integration phase” where our architect, Dr. Frankenstein, assembles the various individually created pieces into a reasonable attempt at a piece of software and then attempts to breath life into it. In order for that task to be as minimally gruesome as possible, a lot of planning is needed.

The next phase is implementation. Implementation phase is where we start coding and the previous two months of ‘work’ become completely irrelevant. Everyone codes in their silos until integration time. Some attempts are made at early integrations, but those are abandoned when it’s discovered that they are time consuming and the project managers are worried about the fact that they’re already behind schedule. Everyone will then pray that somehow we make up the time that we’ve gotten behind at integration time, but, who are we kidding? That’s not going to happen. The next phase will ideally be the testing phase, but we won’t have time for that. Instead, we’ll start the death march phase, where everyone works 14 hour days, 7 days a week up to the deadline.

Then, my friend, we ship. Tada! Ooh, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Heh, heh, weird. I’m sure the rest of it will be fine if I just — ooh, yikes. What do you mean this screen doesn’t look at all like what you were picturing? Heh, heh, maybe we can reschedule this demo. This is the phase where the thing we chucked over the wall, behind schedule and with a minimum of testing, blows up in our faces. After another month or so of death march following the release, we manage to wrangle the software into a state where, while the source code looks hideous, it’s at least stable and no one is screaming at us anymore.

There, doesn’t that sound better than the one where you’re shipping software every two weeks and not working 90 hour weeks to make up for the fact that you’re not actually very good at predicting the future? But of course, I kid. It was just an interesting exercise for me to think of how the world would seem going from agile to waterfall. Agile methodologies are inherently developer-centric when done correctly. Developers like quick feedback, routine shipments, and process automation because this makes for sustainable, incremental progress. The main complaining I hear from waterfall developers isn’t that agile doesn’t sound good — it’s that it sounds too good to be true. Usually it’s things like “we couldn’t do agile because we’re a shop that does _______” where the blank is some excuse that isn’t actually reasonable unless the company is shipping Mars Rovers. So if you’re already doing agile — you’ve already seen how well it works — going back would seem certifiably crazy. And, you know what? I like that there’s a generation of developers out there that think Waterfall is just a bed time story that the old timers use to scare the newbies into behaving.