Estimating tasks with points

September 17, 2008

Following on from my entry on the altnetuk session on Agile Process, I’m just going to layout the different types of estimating with points that I know of. I’m not sure why but at that session it felt like someone had put and end to point to complexity estimating and forgot to let me know!

Pure time based estimates

You’ll be wrong. The time it takes for dev a to do a task will be different to the time it takes dev b. You will run in to problems with the task and it’ll totally throw all your estimates out (may be exaggerating).

Your manager will not understand why you can’t do 7.5 hours worth of work in a day. There is no room for ramp up, context switching or any of those minutes you don’t think of.

Burn down charts tend also to look like complete failures. As every hour of your day is accounted for, but you don’t actually spend every hour of our day on storied tasks, those other hours show up on a burn-down chart as slacking. When this happens, it’s not reasonable for the team to commit to less in the next iteration, as it implies they’re not spending their time doing any work. This totally ruins the point of committing to any work in a planning meeting, if there is little or no intention of completing it all. This also makes it difficult to ball park future iterations.

Time to points

The team eventually manages to estimate tasks without thinking about the time it takes. Easy to figure out your capacity or velocity. Easy to manage when team size fluctuates (illness, holiday, expansion). Easier to sell to management. No room for improvement, how do you increase our velocity without making time? It’s possible, but only by admitting that you’re not estimating with time any more.

Pure points

Difficult to start a project with a new team. I do this by assuming we’re unstoppable and committing to all the stories we have. Then I use the number of points we do complete as a baseline for the following iterations. Motivates developers quickly. Increasing velocity in this way is far easier to motivate developers with. The idea that you’re getting better at doing work is much nicer than the idea that your old estimates were slack. More quickly with pure points do new developers fall into line in planning poker. They stop influencing the task with how quick they think they are (maybe quicker than some of the team maybe slower) and go straight to how complicated the task is. Points always help when you get estimating discrepancies. More clearly separates your teams estimating technique / accuracy from another’s. With a per team velocity and meaning for points, it’s more difficult for management to unfairly compare two teams estimates and use it as a flawed performance indicator.

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Agile session Alt.Net London

September 17, 2008

So to start the conference I chose to take part in a session about agile development and processes. I think mainly because I wanted a refresher on some of the points and to see if I could contribute. It’s nice to see plenty of people there new to Agile as I was at my first open conference. Learning the basics of the process, and making a good start. I was also interested to see how people had developed from their initial attempts at introducing Agile to their shops.

At one point there was a lot of talk about how we estimate, and I was surprised to see that everyone had assumed estimating in hours and half days. Assigning some time to points and then estimating with points. I wonder what happened to estimating by points representing complexity. At uSwitch, when we introduced planning meetings and planning poker, we started with 5 points to a day. This was mainly to get developers used to the idea of estimating in points and as a team. Over time in teams where this method had remained, they have naturally loosened the tie between the points and the number of hours they represent when estimating. They still use the rule to define how much capacity they have in a given iteration, 5*Devs* 10days = capacity.

For me and my teams, we’ve moved this to the next logical stage of entirely decoupling estimation points from time and tying them to the complexity of a task. Has this gone out of fashion and no one told me?

I think I’ll break this off into a separate post on estimating

Crystal and full project breadth

Ian Cooper shared with the group the method or agile flavour he’s using with his current team, it’s called Crystal and sounds interesting. It sounds like the emphasis of crystal is the continuous improvement and customisation of the process to your team and project’s needs. A quick bout of googling tells me that the following has not much directly to do with Crystal. From what I’ve been able to gleam (and it’s not much) Crystal is primarily focused on improving methodology frequently, aiming to minimise it’s weight.

The main point that Ian brought up that caught my attention was the move from the pure priority prioritisation to a more whole system or breadth approach with incremental refinement. Purely working of stories by priorities, apparently leads to systems that have a lot of work and attention spent on apparent high priority sections while those features and functions that the client may deem as a lesser priority are essentially neglected, typically tacked on the end of the project. This can lead to seemingly unfinished projects (my conclusion).

The three thirds approach that Ian described seems to encompass the entire system with increasing levels of ‘focus’. The first phase is the ‘Walking Skeleton’ this is just enough of the entire system to get something going from a technical perspective, this might take up most of the ‘framework’ stuff that one has to do to get a project going. Many people likened this to an iteration 0, which doesn’t deliver much or any business value but is necessary to build something you can demonstrate.

The next phase delivers the ‘First Business Value’ taking the walking skeleton and adding enough to actually add to what the business has, making a contribution.

Here is where my notes get a little woolly and I wish I wrote this post while I was in the room! The final phase adds all the other features, improves on the initial business value, works on feedback from the client on the second phase, and perhaps includes changes to requirements.

From the weakness of those last two paragraphs, I think I’m definitely going to do a little more research, so check back for a bit more bulk in later posts.

This notion of increasing the focus with subsequent iterations really did intrigue me, and I’m definitely going to see how I can apply it to our next project.

So, I’ve just got back from the altdotnet conference in London. This is my second altdotnet conference, and it was as good as I remember. You could see people had moved on, and it was nice to see that altdotnet has had its affect on uSwitch.com in a positive way. 5 attendees were currently employed by uSwitch, that’s a great improvement from the 1 from last year.

As always at open spaces events, I do wish I was less passive in my contribution, but every time I did pipe up someone else got to where I was going but probably more clearly than I would have. Maybe by the next conference blogging will have helped improve my confidence and clarity.

I aimed to learn about acceptance testing and how I could move that piece of the agile puzzle forward in my organisation, and luckily Gojko Adzic was in attendance. He literally wrote the book on using Fitnesse for acceptance testing, and clearly had lots to say. I attended (accidentally) two sessions on acceptance testing. Our BDD talk quickly moved on from the standard definition argument to a broader discussion on how ‘Behaviour’ should inform our acceptance tests and involve all stake holders rather than just be a developer concern. I think I’ll separate out my write ups on the different sessions I attended.

Ian started the conference with a quick demo of the Park Bench method of a open space session, and chose the controversial subject someone had brought up in the previous nights session brainstorming exercise. Is altdotnet = faddotnet. The park bench quickly ended up being the same old are we anti msoft, should we be, why are there so few of us, why doesn’t anyone else care, this session was the closest to an alcoholics anonymous I wanted the event to get. (We’re only ever two step aways from that in an open space conference).

I really did start wishing we stopped concerning ourselves with how we’re perceived. It seems only ever really to be a concern of people who are unsure they want to wear an alt.net badge. To them I say, don’t! But if you’re interested in the things we do, and interested enough to read our blogs, attend our meetings, then you’re welcome. I think the difference between an alt.net’er and a microsoftie, is the just the plain old giving a damn. Enjoyng what we do for a living, with just a little mix of compsci for added goodness, but not so much that we end up being java devs 🙂

It was also good to brush up on some of the basics of Agile and DDD, just to remind myself on what I find so interesting about my job. Thanks guys! Now for me to work on giving some back….

Lost dev seeks direction

September 12, 2008

My first blog post on this wordpress site. How exciting, I’m trying to get other the initial, “I’m not worthy of publishing my thoughts” thing that I’m sure all those that blog need to get over, so please bear with me.

I’ve also got to keep my sentences shorter!

Hopefully, I’ll be able to use this blog to improve my understanding of all things alt.net and development. I’ve recently found the pace at which I’m learning has decreased so much, I’m a little disillusioned. TDD, Agile, used to keep me so interested in my feeds, and offered so much for me to get my teeth into. I used to learn something new everyday. It’s taken a few months for me to realise, I’m not learning anymore, and everything I thought I knew, I don’t know as well as I should.

I’ve always had a few things I tried to do to keep fresh, reading books, feeds, mini projects. They all have problems which seem to mean they don’t work for me. Books weigh too much, and how much really goes in unless you’re using it every day. Feeds, seem to have dried up on me. I keep reading the same posts, perhaps I need to find new people to read. Mini projects, just don’t happen, where do you people find the time (you people I’m talking fellow bloggers).

So starting a fresh, I’m trying two things to push things along. Twitter, to see what my peers are thinking at an even coarser level than blogs. Blogging, I’m picking up that blogings more therapeutic than anything else. The Hillbilly makes this clear in most of his posts. You post to gather your thought, and most of all, have people tear them apart, so you can learn from the pieces. There’s a little hitch to that, in that I need people to read my posts. Hopefully that will come with time.

So how should I sign off?