Friday, December 11, 2009

Much ado about... nothing much (Agile Vancouver 2009)

In early November I attended Much Ado About Agile, the Agile Vancouver interest group’s annual conference. I was looking for a short break, and this conference offered a chance to get away from daily responsibilities, reflect, and learn more about the state of the art in software development.

I’ve decided to look back to see what stayed with me, what I learned that was worth taking forward.

First off, it was grand being back in Vancouver – I lived in Vancouver for a couple of years and always enjoy going back, the mountains and the water, the parks and markets and the sea shore, dining at some of the city’s excellent restaurants, and of course snacking at wonderful, quirky Japadog.

The conference agenda was a mixed bag: a handful of Agile community rock stars re-playing old hits or pushing their latest books, including Martin Fowler, Johanna Rothman, and Mary Poppendieck; some consultants from ThoughtWorks and wherever else presenting commercials in the guise of case studies; and some earnest hands-on real developers telling war stories, from which you could hope to learn something.

I was surprised by the number of (mostly young), well-intentioned enthusiastic people at the sessions. There was sincere interest in the rooms; you could feel the intensity, the heat from so many questing minds. We were looking for answers, for insight, for research and experience.

But what we got wasn’t much unfortunately.

The rock stars were polished and confident, but mostly kept to safe, introductory stuff. I remember attending Martin Fowler’s keynote. Martin is indisputably a smart guy and worth listening to: I had the pleasure of spending a few days with him on round tables at last year’s Construx Software Executive Summit where we explored some interesting problems in software development. To be honest, I had to go back to my notes to remember what he spoke about in Vancouver: a couple of short talks, one on agile fundamentals and something smart about technical debt and simple design. If you’ve read Martin’s books and follow his posts, there was nothing new here, nothing to take back. Maybe I expected too much.

I decided to avoid the professional entertainment for a while and see what I could learn from some less polished, real-life practitioners. I stuck to the “hard” track, avoiding the soft presentations on team work, building trust and such.

A talk on “Agile vs the Iron Triangle” about using lightweight methods to deliver large projects delivered on a fixed cost, fixed schedule basis. How to make commitments, freezing the schedule and then managing scope – following incremental, build-to-schedule methods. Most of the challenges here of course are in estimating the size of work that needs to be done, understanding the team’s capacity to deliver the work, and making trade-offs with the customer: accepting but managing change, trading changes in scope in order to adhere to the schedule. This lecture was interesting because it was real, representing the efforts of an organization trying to reconcile plan-driven and agile practices, working with customers with real demands, under real constraints.

Another session was on operations at a small Internet startup where the development team was also responsible for operations. The focus here was on lightweight, open source operations tooling: essential tools for availability checks, log monitoring, performance and capacity analysis, system configuration using technology like Puppet. Nothing new here, but it was fun to see a developer so excited and focused on technical operations issues, and committed to keep the developers and operations staff working closely together as the company continued to grow.

Some more talks about the basics of performance tuning, an advertisement for ThoughtWorks Cruise continuous integration platform, and some other sessions that weren’t worth remembering. I had the most fun at Philippe Kruchten’s lecture on backlog management: recognizing and managing not only work for business features, but architecture / plumbing, and technical debt, “making invisible work visible”. Dr. Kruchten is an entertaining speaker, he clearly enjoys performing in front of a crowd, and he enjoys his work, his enthusiasm was infectious.

And finally a technical session by Michael Feathers on Error Processing and Error Handling as First Class Considerations in Design, who bucked the trend, playing the cool professor who could not care less if half the class was left behind. His focus was on idioms and patterns for improving error handling in code, in particular, the idea of creating “safe zones”, where you only need to worry about construction problems if you are at, or outside the edge of the zone, making for cleaner and more robust code in the safe core. Definitely the hardest, geekiest of the talks that I attended. And like several of the sessions I attended, it had little to do directly with agile development methods – instead it challenged the audience to think about ways to write good code, which is what it all comes down to in the end.

Michael Feathers aside, most of the speakers underestimated their audiences – at least I hope that they did – and spoke down, spoon feeding the newbies in the audience. It made for dull stuff much of the time – as earnest, or entertaining as the speaker might be, there wasn’t much to chew on. There could have been much more to learn with so many smart people there, and I wasn’t the only one looking for more meat, less bun. The conference wasn’t expensive, it was well managed, but it didn’t offer an effective forum to dig deep, to find new ways to build better software, or software better. For me, at least, there wasn't much ado.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Just found this while looking for something else! Good feedback - I was one of those whose talk was most appropriate for novices - and something I'll be more aware of in the future, to make sure at least some of my presentation is more challenging.

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