This blog contains reflections and thoughts on my work as a software engineer

torsdag den 14. maj 2009

Release planning with only one SCRUM team servicing multiple Product Owners

In real life, SCRUM usually requires some adjustments to fit into the organization in which you are working. One of the issues I have come across in my daily work as a ScrumMaster is having to work for multiple ProductOwners but the only ressource available is a single team. SCRUM applied with the green band around your arm says that a ProductOwner has a dedicated team throughout the entire project. In real life – that’s hardly ever so. I tried both ways – working on a dedicated team with a single PO and at my current job we are serving no less than seven ProductOwners with a single team of 4 developers – and everybody is generally happy about it. How is that possible?

We have decided on a model in which we do SCRUM by the book. Whenever we break away from the beaten path we do it because it enhances transparency and maintains visibility in contradition to following the “rules” of SCRUM. We try to do things because they make sense to us – individuals and interactions over processes and tools, we say. Having seven ProductOwners aren’t exactly SCRUM by the book but nevertheless it is the world we live in and things aren’t going to change on that particular issue. How to apply SCRUM under these conditions?

What we’ve tried to accomplish now is a more thorough plannning process – we’ve introduced release planning in our process. We have introduced what we call Pre-sprint planning. It is a meeting held about the 10. in every month. Participants are ScrumMaster (me), our IT Manager and a role we’ve invented called ProductOwner Coordinator. The IT manager is in charge and decides which backlogs gets a time slot in the forthcoming sprints. Every ProductOwner writes the IT manager an Email prior to our Pre-Sprint plannings and argue his or her case for having time in the forthcoming sprints. Some backlogs get time and some don’t. The very important thing here is that there is only one single person who decides – call it dictatorship but it’s the easiest for all parties involved.

At the meeting we collect the necessary data needed to prioritize. These data inclue all requests from ProductOwner, the content of our Team Backlog (the team’s list of technical debt issues prioritized by business value and estimated just like a normal backlog) and the contents of all Must-Haves on every backlog aggregated into a single Excel spreadsheet. We base our discussion on the data before us and the IT manager decides on a release plan for the next 3-4 months.

An example: Backlog A gets perhaps 50% of the next sprint. Backlog B and C gets 25% each in the next sprint. Backlog D gets 100% in the sprint after the next one. This release plan of course isn’t carved in stone – nothing is until Sprint Planning 1 where the team commits to a list of stories for the upcoming sprint. The release plan is being published on a blog which every ProductOwner subscribes to – and if a ProductOwner disagrees with our IT managers decisions after reading the updated releaseplan because he thinks there is more business value in getting his backlog stories implemented - he is required to go to our IT manager and argue his case and make a new request. A month later we meet again to another round of Pre-sprint planning and the current release plan is discussed, requests are taken into consideration and an updated releaseplan is published on our blog.

The advantages by having a long-term goal are numerous:

  • Visibilty is evident. The entire business knows what’s going on and who get’s precious timeslots next.
  • The team knows in advance which backlogs to estimate stories from. No more estimation meetings on backlogs which never make it to Sprint Planning.
  • Our many ProductOwners have a single person to go to in order to get stories implemented by the team.

The main advantage is that it is clear to everybody who’s in charge. This person must be empowered to prioritize between multiple requests and wishes. This person must not be an active participant in the process of implementing stories – no ProductOwner, ScrumMaster or Team member should attend this role. Our IT manager is the right choice in our organization. It depends heavily on the culture and organization structure which person is the right for this job.

We’ve tried this approach for the first time at our last Pre-sprint planning because we needed to get a clear picture of which backlogs we could focus on during the summer because our vacations are very wide spread this year. If nobody disagrees with it - well – we call in for estimation meetings on the backlogs we know are in the pipeline and will be much better prepared for Sprint Planning 1 than we’ve ever been even with the limited ressources available to us during vacation season    :o)

onsdag den 13. maj 2009

Excel can’t count?

I’m currently working on a data-extraction gig – basicly we have 4 different data providers to persist information about attendees to a summit in July with some 25.000 participants – and I’m currently in the process of creating a small, shortlived console app which generates an Excel-file with information about each participants so we are able to print out identitcal badges used to identify participants at the gates during the summit.

I encountered one of the scariest things I’ve seen in months while working today on the application. First things first: One of the datastores for participants is an Excel spreadsheet – one line per guest that is. Easy enough, I found some code using the OleDB Jet-engine:

string connectionString = string.Format("Provider=Microsoft.Jet.OLEDB.4.0;Data Source={0};Extended Properties=\"Excel 8.0;HDR=YES;\"", _xlsFile);
DbProviderFactory factory = DbProviderFactories.GetFactory("System.Data.OleDb");
using (DbConnection connection = factory.CreateConnection())
connection.ConnectionString = connectionString;

using (DbCommand command = connection.CreateCommand())
command.CommandText = "SELECT * FROM [Ark1$]";

using (DbDataReader dr = command.ExecuteReader())
while (dr.Read())

//do stuff


During an ongoing testphase (yes, we actually DO this agile stuff here) I noticed that one of the columns in my output spreadsheed didn’t match the expected values. Quite an error actually because one of the things people at the summit do care a lot about is that the food they’d paid deerly for in advance ends up as a crossed checkbox in the right place on their ID-card. Otherwise they will not be allowed access to the dining area… You can imagine what people think of the IT-guy in charge if things like this doesn’t work like a charm.

So I started debugging. First I suspected that I simply counted wrong when extracting values – namely the output from these columns


As far as I’m concerned M is the 12. letter and N is the 13. However – debugging this stuff showed me the following output for the first and second row:


and row #2:


The birth date matches (as with names and other stuff) but notice the the 13. and 14. column which doesn’t match at all with the data in the spreadsheet… For one every cell has a value so how can row #2 suddenly be empty in the debugger???

I suspected I was working on another file than the one I thought – triplechecking that by inserting my own name and seeing it come up in the debugger proved that theory wrong.

I’ll personally buy the first person to explain this mystery a beer for an bulletproof explanation (other than my own which of course includes a major malfunction in Excel 2003 / .NET / OleDB / pick your own). What’s going on here? I’m not even close to being overworked (don’t tell my boss) and the code is simple… I tried converting the source spreadsheet to CSV to check the values in a plain textfile and they are what they should be according to the source spreadsheet so that’s the approach I’m taking now. Instead of parsing the Excel directly I’m converting it to CSV and using that as my datasource instead. Not very elegant but it makes me feel a lot safer.