Monday, September 25, 2006

Practice what you preach

Man, I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would write about time boxing and prioritization again that soon. Or couldn't I? Whish it were true, as knowing myself it would be the mother of all lies to say so, as it was almost the day after my last posting that faith struck again. Read on and you will understand why I haven’t been updating this blog for more than two weeks now.

What was the case? I was just about to move in two weeks and still had a lot of things to do. One of them visiting a SOA Suite 'code camp' in Slovakia on which I was to present about Oracle Business Rules, and I still needed to prepare myself. But at the same time many things needed to be done privately to prepare for the move. I already had some extremely busy weeks before, so I saw going to Slovakia as an opportunity to escape and get some rest before the move itself. And boy, what a mistake that was.

As always it started with too many things to do in too little time. We have a parquet floor in our new house that looked so dull that I nearly fell asleep only by looking at it. So we decided that it needed a different colour. But also the ceiling, walls, casing, etc needed to be repainted. I hoped that during my stay in Slovakia the painting could be done and the floor soured. Painting alone would have taken two weeks the least when I would have done it myself, but as my brother in law was doing it and since he is a professional I hoped for some magic here.

And magic he did, but when I got back on Friday the floor still needed to be soured. I hoped (but was not really expecting) to be able to sour and clean in one day. Two of my best friends helped me out on Saturday, but on Sunday I was on my own. And despite my best efforts it took me until Monday before souring was finished and then I still had to clean, paint and enamel. So despite the fact I was supposed to go to the office I was pushing myself to the limit while trying to get the floor to the stage that it was painted, working for eight hours in a row, no rest except for a quick coffee.

I had to compensate Tuesday evening to get some urgent work done, so on Wednesday I still had not packed even one cardboard box. And what a contrast that was with my original planning that assumed that I would start packing somewhere during the Sunday! As a result I had one Wednesday evening and one Thursday left to pack before Friday, which was the day the remover would come. And I only had that Thursday because I could switch it with Friday, which originally was my day off.

So what you then do is stop thinking, start packing like a madman, and see how far you get. And at 01:00 we were almost done! But not quite, so when the remover came at 9:00 it was an utter chaos in our old house, and a couple of boxes were carried away while I was still packing them. There was only a small comfort in hearing that the removers were used to this because they saw this happening all the time. Despite my wife pledging me not to do so, I had to leave at 11:00 to the office. Later on my wife told me that that was the moment she knew for sure she was married to a lunatic.

Now what has this all to do with time boxing and prioritization? Everything! It perfectly illustrates the situation that we encounter very often being a customer wanting every requirement to be implemented, which in theory makes time-boxing using the MoSCoW principle and leave out Should Haves if they don’t fit anymore in the time-box (when there is a temporary work-around) almost impossible. In my case the requirement was that everything should be packed before the removers would come. The time-box is obvious: Friday 9:00 the removers are there, period.

However, no matter what kind of customer you have in practice MoSCoW can at least be used to determine a best order in which things should be done, doing the most important things with the biggest risks first. In my case that was preparing big and heavy things for removal, like securing the washing machine. I got that done. And even though customers say they want every requirement implemented, when no time or budget is left they suddenly are capable of making compromises and drop Should Haves like they couldn't care less. Just like that. In my case the compromise was that the removers left enough stuff behind so that I needed to drive myself two more times to get the old house empty as a work-around.

Maybe some next time I will tell you about the similarities between something that all people understand, being that you don’t leave your garbage to the new owners of your old house, and the principle of refactoring, which only a few software developers seem to understand.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Excuse me, but what are you talking about?

You don't even need to watch carefully to discover that often two people that seem to be talking about the same, in fact could not be further from that. "Tell me something new", you might react. And you're right, I'm not telling something new, it happens all the time. And that is the saddest thing in my business, because it costs us all a huge amount of time, money and frustration.

Knowing all this it always amazes me how apathetic we seem to be about it, because it is so easy to do something about it. Try asking people what exactly it is they mean when they tell you something, that's all. Simple enough, wouldn't you say?

The other day I had a conversation with someone about preventing overrun on activities, and he said he was using the time boxing principle for that. But from the rest of the story it became clear that there still was a considerable track record of deadlines not being made. And as always the problem was that the customer kept on adding new requirements during the project and was not able to prioritize them properly, naturally. Now where have I heard that story before?

So I simply asked this guy what he meant with this "time boxing" principle. Well, not exactly like that, I must admit. In practice it is not always as that simple as that because before you know it people get the impression you think they are stupid or something. Or even worse they start to think that you are stupid, and you don't want that, do you? So what I asked instead was how they had implemented this "time boxing" principle. Do you notice how different the question is, but that in principle I ask the same?

And what he told me is that they had divided the functionality into smaller pieces that, on an average, could be implemented in a couple of weeks and that they had set a final delivery date for every piece of functionality to deliver. Plain and simple, right? "So what happens when you find out that something takes more time than anticipated?", I asked. "Well, we have planned for contingency, of course", was the reply. "And what if they customer finds out that the specifications are not complete?". "Well we create a change request for every extra thing they want and see if we can implement it in the time box. Otherwise we postpone it to the next time box or, if they really, really need it, increase the scope and set a new end date. But that will cost them, of course". "Have you ever hear of the MoSCoW principle?", I asked. "Huh?".

So what I found out with this simple question, is that the time boxing principle had been implemented only poorly, because they were not applying a proper prioritizing principle, which coincidentally will make time boxing fail without.

I'm not going to explain here what time boxing and the MoSCoW principle are all about. You can easily find out elsewhere. And I'm also not going to tell you that using them is as easy as it sounds, because it's not. Maybe some other time I will tell you what you can try to do about that. I will also not explain here that normally you don't plan for contingency when you do time boxing and what a waste of time making change request forms is in that case.

But I do hope I gave you an example how asking simple questions can help you in
preventing people from wasting each others and especially your precious time.