Programs and Technical Debt

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Summary:
Once you have a program—a collection of interrelated projects focused on one business goal—and you have technical debt, you have a much bigger problem. Not just because the technical debt is likely bigger. Not just because you have more people. But because you also geographically distributed teams, and those teams are almost always separated by function and time zone.

Once you have a program (a collection of interrelated projects focused on one business goal) and you have technical debt, you have a much bigger problem. Not just because the technical debt is likely bigger. Not just because you have more people. But because you also geographically distributed teams, and those teams are almost always separated by function and time zone.

So, my nice example of a collocated team in Thoughts on Infrastructure, Technical Debt, and Automated Test Framework , rarely occurs in a program, unless you have cross-functional teams collocated in a program. If they do, great. You know what to do.

But let’s assume you don’t have them. Let’s assume you have what I see in my consulting practice: an architecture group in one location, or an architect in one location and architects around the world; developers and “their” testers in multiple time zones; product owners separated from their developers and testers. The program is called agile because the program is working in iterations. And, because it’s a program, the software pre-existed the existence of the agile transition in the organization, so you have legacy technical debt up the wazoo (the technical term). What do you do?

Let’s walk through an example, and see how it might work. Here’s a story which is a composite from several clients; no clients were harmed in the telling of this story.

Let’s also assume you are working on release 5.0 of a custom email client. Release 4 was the previous release. Release 4 had trouble. It was late by 6 months and quite buggy. Someone sold agile as the way to make software bug-free and on-time.

You do not have automated tests for much of the code, unit tests or system tests. You have a list of defects that make Jack the Ripper’s list of killings look like child’s play. But agile is your silver bullet.

The program manager is based in London. The testers for the entire program are in Bangalore because management had previously fired all the testers and outsourced the testers. That was back in release 2. They have since hired all the Bangalore testers as employees of the Bangalore subsidiary. The program architect is based in San Francisco, and there is an architect team that is dispersed into 4 other teams: Denver, LA, Munich, and Paris. The developers are clustered in “Development Centers of Excellence:” Denver, LA, Cambridge, Paris, London, Munich, and Milan. That’s 8 development teams.

Oh, and if you think I’m kidding with this scenario, I’m not. This is what most of my clients with geographically distributed teams and programs face on a daily basis. They deserve your sympathy and empathy. Do not tell them, “Don’t go agile.” That’s nuts. They have a right to go agile. You can tell them, “Don’t go Scrum.” That’s reasonable. Scrum is for a cross-functional co-located team. Agile is for everyone. Scrum is for a specific subset.

What do you do?

  1. Assign specific testers to specific development teams. No calling people resources; that allows managers to treat people like resources and plug-and-play them. You need to get rock-solid teams together. Once you have teams together, you can name them.
  2. Name teams so the teams reflect the feature groups they work on. What does an email product do? It gets email, it sorts email, it deletes, it forwards, it creates new mailboxes, and so on. The eight feature teams had to be named for the feature areas: Platform for the general features, Sort, Delete, Forward. There were two teams who worked on Platform. They were called Platform 1 and Platform

User Comments

1 comment
Terry Wiegmann's picture

Great fundamental points and so vividly described! Thanks for the refresh!

February 3, 2014 - 2:14pm

About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website, jrothman.com, as well on createadaptablelife.com.

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