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The ElectricAccelerator 7.2 “Ship It!” Award

Naturally with the release of ElectricAccelerator 7.2 a few weeks ago it’s time for another Accelerator “Ship It!” award. In keeping with our tradition, I gave each team member a LEGO figure that symbolized the release to me in some way, along with a a custom trading card giving the vital details: version, release date, and key features. Like a baseball card, the back is filled with a team roster and release statistics.

There are some great improvements in Accelerator 7.2 but there’s no particular unifying theme, so it was quite a challenge to choose a suitable minifig. One thing that stood out is that between the time management asked engineering to create a 7.2 release and the time that development was complete was only about three weeks. At the time we were actually in the midst of development on another release entirely, with a different set of new features. The 7.2 release was very much a, “Hey couldn’t you also cut a release right now while you’re at it?” And we did. Maybe it’s not as impressive as those guys that can cut a release every minute of every day, but for a team that usually does releases on a six-month cadence, a 3-week turnaround sounds like continuous delivery to me.

One thing enabled us to turn around the release that quickly: our code is (nearly) always shippable. That’s what led me to the minifig for this release: the sea captain, who’s always ready to “ship out” on short notice. Here’s the trading card that accompanied the figure:

Accelerator 7.2 "Ship It!" Card Front - click for larger version

Accelerator 7.2 “Ship It!” Card Front – click for full-size version

Accelerator 7.2 "Ship It!" Card Back - click for larger version

Accelerator 7.2 “Ship It!” Card Back – click for full-size version

Like the 7.1 card, the back of the 7.2 card incorporates stats for the current release, contextualized by stats for several previous releases:

  • Number of days in development. This is just the number of days since the previous feature release — it is assumed that whatever features are in the new release, we started working on them more-or-less after the last release went out.
  • JIRA issues closed.
  • Total KLOC. This metric gives the total size of the Accelerator code base in thousands of lines of code, as measured with the excellent Count Lines of Code utility by Al Danial. This measurement excludes comments and whitespace.
  • Change in KLOC. This is simply the arithmetic difference between the total KLOC for each release and its predecessor.

As always, my sincere gratitude goes to everybody on the Accelerator team, without whom this release would not have been. Thank you!

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“Playing” with agile

Recently we invited a Scrum coach to Electric Cloud to teach us how to get started with the Scrum model of agile development. On the first day we played a game intended to introduce us to the core elements of Scrum: plan, do, inspect, adapt (or “plan, do, check, act”; or “the Deming cycle”). Without getting into a deeper discussion of Scrum itself, I thought I would share my team’s performance in this fun little game. If you’re familiar with ElectricAccelerator, our game strategy will come as no surprise: it exploits parallel processing and horizontal scalability to improve performance.

The game was simple: we were given a bucket of rubber bouncy balls and instructed to pass balls from person to person, until every member of the team had touched the ball. For each ball that completed the circuit we earned one point; for each drop we were penalized three points. A few rules made the game more interesting. First, it was forbidden for two people to touch a ball at the same time — there had to be “air time” between individuals. Second, we could not pass balls to the person directly to our left or to our right. Finally, there was a time limit (just like a sprint): we had only 2 minutes to pass balls in each round.

At the start of the game, we were given 5 minutes to plan our strategy and make a prediction of how many balls we would pass. Between each round we had 3 minutes more to modify our strategy based on our experience in the previous round and make a new prediction for the next round. If you are familiar with Scrum you’ll recognize the analogy to story points.

In total we had 12 players plus one scribe (me) that was tasked with counting the number of balls passed and dropped.

Round 1 (plan: 0; actual: 29)

Our first planning phase was best described as chaotic. It wasn’t actually clear who was on our team or not, due to some stragglers to the activity. We weren’t sure about the constraints. Everybody had ideas about how best to pass the balls, so everybody was talking at once. It seemed simple, but in fact we had barely gotten everybody in place when the 5 minute prep time elapsed. We did manage to agree on the three key elements of our strategy though:

  • Dropping balls into the cupped hands of the receiver, rather than throwing them, to minimize the risk of dropping balls.
  • Two rings of players, one inner and one outer, facing each other. Balls would be passed in a zig-zag between the rings.
  • Parallel passing. Everybody would be either passing or receiving at all times.

This diagram shows the positions of the players, as well as which players had a ball at the start of the round:

Scrum game, round 1

As you can see, we had too many balls “in play” when we started, given our strategy — a direct consequence of unclear communication during the planning phase. The surplus balls were dropped almost immediately. Our final score for this round was 29: 1 point for each of 35 balls passed, minus 6 points for 2 balls dropped.

Round 2 (plan: 50; actual: 72)

Round 1 demonstrated that our core strategy was sound, but to improve performance we decided to make a couple tweaks. First, we made certain that we were in agreement about which players would start with balls: only those in the outside ring. Second, we realized we could improve throughput by passing two balls at a time, instead of just one. With our drop-into-cupped-hands strategy this was hardly more risky than one ball at a time. We predicted that we would pass 50 balls, about 60% more than we did in round 1. Here’s the updated diagram showing the starting positions of the players and balls for round 2:

Scrum game, round 2

Our score in round 2 was 72: 72 balls passed, with zero dropped.

Round 3 (plan: 120; actual: 60)

At this point we believed we had everything worked out. We increased the balls-per-pass to three and predicted that this would result in about 120 balls passed. But during the planning phase one of our players abruptly left — to be honest I’m not even sure who it was or why they stepped away. All I know is that suddenly we had only 11 players instead of 12, which left us with 6 on the outer ring but only 5 on the inner ring. We didn’t realize the problem until people started lining up in position near the end of the planning period. With the clock ticking we made an exceptionally poor decision about how to handle the mismatch: one of the inner ring players would serve as receiver for two of the outer ring players. First they would receive from player A, then pass to player B; then immediately receive the balls back from player B before sending them on to player C. Sounds complicated, right? It was. Here’s the updated diagram:

Scrum game, round 3

This proved was disastrous for our performance. At speed, it was (understandably) hard for the player serving double-duty to efficiently execute the elaborate sequence of exchanges. In addition, we were careless when we grabbed the extra balls we needed: although most were consistently round, a few were those oddly shaped rubber rocks which move in unpredictable ways. These misshapen lumps of rubber are just a bit harder to catch than regular balls, and that slowed us down. Our final score in this round was just 57: 60 balls passed, one dropped.

Round 4 (plan: 120; actual: 123)

The obvious problem in round three was the mismatch in the sizes of the inner and outer rings. The solution was obvious too: remove one player from the outer ring to restore equilibrium. There was just one problem. According to the rules of the game, a ball had to be touched by every player in order to count as having been passed. What could we do? We pled our case to the coach, who agreed to let us have one person sit out this round — a demonstration of another fact of agile development: sometimes a team can be made more productive by having fewer people on it. With 5 players on each ring, we again predicted that we would pass 120 balls. Here’s how the layout looked for this round:

Scrum game, round 4

This was our best round yet with a final score of 123: 135 balls passed, with only four drops.

Review

Overall I was really pleased with our performance in this game — granted, the point of the exercise was not actually to see how many balls we could pass around, but to experience the plan-do-inspect-adapt cycle directly. And we certainly did that too. But come on! How can you not be excited by a more than 4x improvement in throughput from round 1 to round 4? I’m not surprised though. After all, speed is the name of the game for ElectricAccelerator. This is what we do. That we got there by applying the same strategies to this game that we use in Accelerator itself — icing on the cake.

Later that night I realized an error in our execution on round 4 though. We chose to even out the rings by dropping one player from the outer ring, when we could just as easily have added a player to the inner ring: me. As scribe, I did not actively participate in the ball passing, only the planning and review. But there was no particular reason I couldn’t have stepped in. That would have increased our throughput by 20% (by increasing the number of balls in play from 15 to 18). I think we could have exceeded 150 balls passed with that configuration. So in the end, the game was a great demonstration of what is probably the most important concept from Scrum: there’s always room for improvement.

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The ElectricAccelerator 6.2 “Ship It!” Award

Obviously with ElectricAccelerator 6.2 out the door, it’s time for a new “Ship It!” award. I picked the mechanic figure for this release because the main thrust of the release was to add some long-desired robustness improvements. Here’s the trading card that accompanied the figure:

Greased Lighting — it’s electrifyin’!

Loaded with metrics and analysis goodness!

As promised this iteration of the award includes some metrics comparing this release to previous releases:

  • Number of days in development. We spent 112 days working on the 6.2 release; the range of all feature releases is 80 days on the low end to 249 days at the high end.
  • JIRA issues closed. We closed out 92 issues with this release, including both defects and enhancement requests. The fewest we’ve done was 9 issues; the most was 740 issues.
  • Composition of issues. Of the 92 issues, about 55% were classified as “defects”, and the remaining 45% were “features” of varying magnitude.

Again, a big “Thank You!” goes out to the ElectricAccelerator team! I’m really excited to be working with such a talented group, and I can’t wait to show the world what we’re doing next!

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6 reasons your development team should be using instant messaging

The ElectricAccelerator development team sits at desks less than 30 feet apart, but despite our close proximity, we don’t often speak to one another. To an outside observer this may seem to be a sign of disfunction in the team — after all, developers have to communicate to work effectively. Some people think we’re obviously not communicating, but the truth is that we’re not obviously communicating! That’s because we use instant messaging for most of our communications, including status updates, technical collaboration and even code reviews, rather than face-to-face conversations. I believe this has made my team more connected and more productive. Here are six reasons why instant messaging trumps face-to-face conversations for software teams.

1. Logging

The key advantage of instant messaging is that all conversations are logged automatically. As a result I’ve got records of every conversation with every member of my team for the past two years. That’s proven invaluable on a few occasions, to provide additional context for decisions made weeks or months earlier. Obviously this is not a replacement for other types of project documentation, but it is a fantastic supplement.

2. Non-intrusive

The second most important advantage of instant messaging is that it’s relatively non-intrusive, at least compared to a face-to-face conversation. We all know how important it is to get into and preserve a state of flow when programming. Spoken conversations, by social convention, command your immediate attention — effectively an interrupt of the highest order. When somebody comes to my desk to ask me something in person, they are implicitly saying, “What I have to say to you is more important than anything else you might be doing right now.” Sometimes that’s true, but many times it’s not. And yet every time somebody initiates a face-to-face conversation with me, it destroys whatever flow I might have developed.

In contrast, instant messaging allows me to defer a response until I reach a good breaking point, so people can ask questions without interrupting me.

3. Non-disruptive

Our office has an open floor plan, which means that instead of individual offices or cubicles, we have a single big room. This layout worked very well when the company had only 6 people, who were all working on the same project. Now the company employs over 100 people, with two separate development teams working on completely different products, so the open layout doesn’t work quite so well. Conversations between other people can be very distracting when you’re heads down on a tricky technical problem. By using instant messaging instead of face-to-face conversations, we significantly reduce the distraction for our collegues.

4. Simultaneous conversations

Carrying on multiple face-to-face conversations on disparate topics is practically impossible, but doing the same via instant messenger is simple. Every IM client I’ve seen displays the last several messages of each active conversation, so you have context when a new message arrives. That signficiantly reduces the mental burden associated with each conversation, so it becomes possible to sustain several simultaneously. I often have five conversations “active” during the work day, and sometimes even more.

5. Consistency

Unlike face-to-face conversations, IM works well regardless of the relative locations of the conversants. That means that it doesn’t matter if my colleague is in the office with me, or working from home, or working from a customer site, or halfway around the world. I can use the same tool to communicate with them, which in turn means I don’t have to change the way I work to accomodate changes in the way they are working.

6. Versatility

One final advantage of instant messaging compared to face-to-face conversation is the versatility of the medium. I can trivially share a code fragment with somebody via IM, or a link to an online resource. Try doing that in a face-to-face conversation: “Yeah, you should check out the STL reference docs, at aich tee tee pee colon slash slash double you double you double you dot …”.

Instant messaging: give it a try

If you’re not already using instant messaging in your development team, give it a try. There are multiple free IM services out there, and there are good free IM clients on every platform, including smart phones, so you’ve really got nothing to lose — but you might gain a more efficient, productive team. It worked for us.

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LEGO “Ship It!” Awards

Scriptics Connect 1.1 "Ship It!" Award

What am I supposed to do with this?


When we wrapped up the ElectricAccelerator 6.0 release recently, I wanted to give my teammates something to commemorate the release. Traditionally these are called “Ship It!” awards, and they often take the form of a Lucite plaque or trophy, or even a physical copy of the product (on DVD or CD, for example) locked inside an acrylic block. I’ve gotten a couple of those over the years, and honestly I think they’re kind of a waste. The last one I got went on a shelf to collect dust for a few years before being relocated to the trash heap, which is a shame because those things are expensive. Really expensive. I can’t even imagine the cost of the monster awards that Microsoft gives out.

So I don’t really like the usual embodiment of the “Ship It” award, but I do really like the underlying idea. After all, shipping a software release is a significant accomplishment, the culmination of months or even years of effort by a team of smart individuals. And unlike many other human endeavors, there’s nothing tangible when you’re finished — no bridge spanning the bay nor tower reaching to the heavens. Having something to commemorate the accomplishment seems fitting, and it’s another small way that I can show my appreciation for everybody’s contributions.

The Ideal “Ship It!” Award

To me, the ideal “Ship It!” award has the following attributes:

  • Themeable: I wanted something I could customize for each release, while maintaining consistency across releases. I plan to make this a tradition.
  • Inexpensive: I wanted something I could bankroll myself, so I could retain complete creative control.
  • Compact: I wanted something that wouldn’t take up much space, so it would be portable and easy to display.
  • Geek appeal: I wanted something that my teammates would think is cool. Chunks of Lucite just don’t cut it.

LEGO “Ship It!” Awards

LEGO race car driver minifig

The winner!


After a few days of idle brainstorming and bouncing ideas off my manager and co-conspirator, I had what seemed like a great idea: LEGO minifigs. I could get a bunch of a specific LEGO minifig and give one to each person on the team. It fit all my criteria. There have been over 4,000 different minifigs released since 1978, according to The Cult of LEGO. In the last two years alone LEGO has release five minifig packs, each with 16 completely new figures, so I can count on having a unique character for every feature release for the next several years. Minifigs are cheap, too — the majority can be bought for as little as a couple dollars each on Amazon or ebay. They’re obviously small. And of course, minifigs are dripping with geek appeal. What techie doesn’t like LEGO?

There was just one small problem. Minifigs are a little bit too small. There’s nowhere to put the information that would identify what it represented — the product name, release version and date, and so on. A couple more days of brainstorming gave me the solution: custom baseball cards. There are several companies that will print custom baseball cards. These outfits are obviously intended for children’s sports teams, but they will happily print cards with whatever graphic you want. You just have to create images of the front and back of your card and upload to their website. And like the minifigs themselves, the cards are inexpensive, at about $1 per card.

The ElectricAccelerator 6.0 “Ship It!” Award

For the ElectricAccelerator 6.0 “Ship It!” Award, I chose the race car driver shown above (because Accelerator is all about performance, of course!). I bought the minifigs on ebay. I spent a couple hours designing the card, then ordered them from CustomSportsProducts.com. The front shows the minifig, the product name, version, and release date, and the major new features; the back lists the names of everybody on the team. Total cost for awards for the entire team was about $40 for materials — about the cost of just one traditional Lucite-based “Ship It” award.

I was a little nervous when I presented the awards to my team a couple weeks ago, but as it turns out I needn’t have been! The reception was overwhelmingly positive. Although I hadn’t explicitly planned it this way, the minifigs actually arrived unassembled, in individual pouches. Immediately upon getting theirs, each person dumped out the pieces and started assembly — it was practically instinctive! Several people commented out loud that the award was “Awesome!” or “Really cool,” and, of course, “Kinda nerdy, but cool!” With that kind of reaction, you can bet that I’m already planning for the next release.

And finally, here’s a picture of the ElectricAccelerator 6.0 “Ship It!” Award, as it is proudly displayed on my desk:

ElectricAccelerator 6.0 "Ship It!" Award

Who doesn't love LEGO?

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