The Grain of Sand in your Shoe

§ March 3, 2014 12:12 by beefarino |

grainI’ve spent the last week slammed with unplanned work for a client.  No lie, it sucked.  In a nutshell, the system was asked to perform at a new scale it was simply not ready to handle.  Having read The Phoenix Project recently, I was especially cognizant of the loss of time caused by us flailing around reactively. 

As happy as I am to say that the system is now coping with the extra load, getting there was hell.  And on inspection the problem was obvious once you saw it at the proper scale.  That is, the problem didn’t become a problem until the load increased.

And that’s how performance problems tend to manifest.  Things are fine at one scale, but broken at another.  It reminds me of this magnet my mom used to keep on the refrigerator that read:

It’s not the mountain that wears you out, it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.

Which is so true: you don’t even notice that grain of sand until you’ve walked miles, cut up the bottom of your foot, and bloodied your shoe.  Then it’s an obvious thing – it’s painful and you can’t ignore it.

Thinking in Scales

Like anything, achieving performance is a balance.  You want the best possible performance for the least cost and effort.

The way I tend to think about scales – whether we’re talking about time, people, requests, whatever – is by powers of growth.  For instance, imagine planning a party for a group of people, and consider the challenges as the guest list grows to:

  • 1 person
  • 10 people
  • 100 people
  • 1000 people
  • 10000 people
  • 100000 people
  • … and so forth

That is, planning a party for 200 people isn’t that much different than planning for 100, but planning for 1000 is WAY harder than planning for 100.

For time scales, I find it helpful to think in the following units:

  • nanoseconds
  • milliseconds
  • seconds
  • minutes
  • hours
  • days
  • weeks
  • months
  • years
  • decades
  • centuries
  • millennia
  • geologic time

For example, during planning meetings you’ll frequently hear me ask “are we talking hours, days, weeks, or months?”

Now in the realm of scaling software, here is the money question:

At what scale is the system be expected to operate?

An application that needs to support 100 operations every second can be designed very differently than an application that needs to support 1000 operations every second.  The logic applies to bugs too: small performance issues that can be ignored at a small scale become debilitating as you scale up your effort. 

Just like that grain of sand in your shoe – it probably won’t be an issue while you’re fetching your mail, but you might want to address it before you head up Grandfather Mountain.

My Get-Things-Done Strategy

§ March 16, 2011 05:42 by beefarino |

Of all the changes I’ve made for self-employment, building up a system for getting and staying organized has had the most impact.  I’m a student of psychology, and I’m well aware of my mental limits for holding information.  I’m also a natural scatterbrain so … oh look a bird...  Anyway, the quicker I can get something out of my head and into a safe place, the more likely it is to get done.  So I’ve globbed several systems into my get-things-done process.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of a tickler file I suggest you watch this short video.  The system is genius, and rather than go into the details I’ll just say that this has saved my hide more times than I care to admit.

Another huge part of my get-things-done routine has been to use a personal wiki as a way to empty my brain and keep track of what I do during the day.  My wiki of choice is tiddlywiki because it requires no server and is highly customizable, and I use Dropbox as a way to share/backup the wiki as I roam the universe.  The pomodoro time management technique keeps me on task during the day, and I’ve integrated a pomodoro timer and task tracker into my wiki’s journal feature:


Finally, I tend to carry a hipster PDA on a lanyard around my neck when I’m away from the keyboard.  Anything that I need to remember, that I think is interesting, or that I’m afraid I may forget gets jotted down on a card.  When I’m back at my desk I process the cards.  If the card indicates something date sensitive, I just drop it into the appropriate of the 43 folders; if the card is a project idea, it goes into the wiki.

Not terribly technical or fancy, but it works like a champ and, most importantly, it’s easy to do and doesn’t get in my way.

Effective Retrospectives

§ November 17, 2008 09:29 by beefarino |

Matt Grommes wrote another thought-provoker today on sprint retrospectives; my comments started wandering and found their way into this post...

The few retrospectives I've facilitated have taught me a few tricks.  Matt is correct when he says that a retrospective can turn into monster vetching session if allowed to do so.  In my opinion there are two keys to avoiding this:

  1. provide a structured way for the team to express their input;
  2. timebox everything. 

I've found the following retrospective structure to be effective in producing actionable feedback....


I show up to facilitate a retrospective armed with the following items:

  • a white board with working markers and an eraser;
  • green, pink, and yellow post-its;
  • pens;
  • a kitchen timer;

Sometimes I bring a yummy treat, but I've had that backfire when the sugar rush ebbs and the team starts to wander mentally.  I also try to schedule the retrospective as the last event in the workday for everybody, but early in the week.  This seems to keep the team at ease, but focused.

First: Establish Trust in the Process

Like confessions extracted under coercion, feedback is worthless when obtained from someone who doesn't feel secure enough to be honest.  Agile processes in general rely heavily on open communication, and I found that my non-agile team displayed a lot of mistrust in the retrospective's goals.  

I begin each retrospective with a technique described in Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great that is aimed at measuring the willingness of the group to communicate.  Each person writes on a post-it a number between one and five inclusive, indicating their willingness to participate in the discussion to follow:

  1. I will not speak;
  2. I will be quiet and let others talk;
  3. Some things I will discuss, some things I will not;
  4. I'll talk about almost anything;
  5. I'll talk about anything.

The anonymous post-its are collected, tallied, and discussed briefly.  Obviously the goal is to have all fives, maybe one or two fours in the mix.  The times I've seen anything else, it's either because a communication problem exists on the team, or the goal of the retrospective is in question (e.g., QA feels like they will be scapegoated for a missed deadline).  

I keep discussion to five minutes, reiterating the retrospective Prime Directive, making sure that everyone knows they are expected to keep the conversation productive, and that the goal is to make the team work together better.

Second: Discuss Good Things

Next I pass out the green post-its and pens, and ask everyone to write down as many things as they can think of that worked well during the sprint.  I ask them to include team and personal efforts,  new or existing processes, anything they can think of that made a positive contribution to the effort.  I use the timer to box the task to 5 minutes.  

I collect the anonymous post-its and start going through them one at a time, collating as necessary.  I read each Good Thing aloud and open the floor for discussion.  I try my best to categorize them on the whiteboard as we go, so the team can see common trends.  For example, several post-its may comment on positive effects realized in documentation and QA from adding a bit of structure to the developer's subversion commit notes.

This part of the retrospective is generally pretty easy.  There isn't a lot of gray area in terms of choosing to maintain a practice that has a positive effect on the team. In addition, I find that discussing the positives first helps the team open up more during the next task...

Third: Collect and Categorize Bad Things

I pass out the pink post-its, set the timer for 5 minutes, and have the team jot down anything they felt impeded their work.  I emphasize "anything" - I would rather someone write down 10 also-rans and 2 gems than to spend the entire time deliberating on what to write at all.  

Against the advice of most retrospective experts, I ask the team *not* to exclude personal remarks about other team members; however, I do remind them that the remarks should be constructive, and that the retrospective is not a performance review.  For example, I would consider this appropriate:

Jim would benefit from writing more unit tests, having regular peer reviews, and mentoring.

but this inappropriate:

Jim's code sucks and never works.

As usual, I collect the post-its anonymously (I like to use a coffee can with a slit in the lid, BTW), during which time I draw two columns on the whiteboard: "Under Our Control" and "Out of Our Control".  I read each Bad Thing aloud and ask the team a single question:

Do we have control over this?

Their answer is usually unanimous, and it dictates which column the post-it falls on the white board.  There is no discussion of the Bad Thing at the point - the purpose of this task is only to isolate whether the Bad Thing is something team can fix themselves. 

Finally: Discuss Solutions and Take Action

Once the team can see what they can control and what they can't, the discussion can begin.  I spend a few minutes on the "Out of Our Control" items, but only to alleviate fears and to keep the discussion solution-focused and positive; I then remove those items from the board.

Moving on to the remaining post-its classified as "Under Team Control," I align them down the left side of the board in no particular order and draw racing lanes across the board for each.  I then ask the team which Bad Thing they believe had the most negative impact on their work, and we start the discussion there.

This is the part where I find the role of facilitator to be most important. It is very easy for the team to drift off-topic, or for to get bogged down in complicated solutions to simple problems.  I find it helps to focus discussion by reiterating one simple question:

What can we do today to prevent the Bad Thing from happening tomorrow?

Most of the time the team will produce a viable solution.  If the team can't gel on a fix, I pass out the yellow post-its, we storm out fixes for a few minutes, collate them in the racing lane, and then discuss.  The point is to keep the conversation on-target and constantly moving forward.  Once the team settles on a solution, I jot down the actionable items in the racing lane.

I repeat this process for each Bad Thing, allowing the team to choose the ordering, spending at most 10 minutes on each one.  If we get through them all in the retrospective's timebox, I'll open the floor to general discussion; however, my experience is that there is little else to discuss at that point if I've done my job.

Offline: Summarize and Reiterate the Solutions

Once the retrospective is over, I write up a short summary.  I list all the Good Things, and all the Bad Things and their proposed solutions.  I send this out to everyone involved, both pigs and chickens.  I also keep a copy handy to remind myself and others of the specific commitments we made as a team to better ourselves.

So there you have it Matt.  In my limited experience, what I find makes an effective retrospective is lots of structure to focus the team on one thing at a time and curb the naturally vetching tendencies.


§ September 29, 2008 15:19 by beefarino |

I've been following a very interesting series of posts (starting here) from Matt Grommes detailing his experiences managing his first agile project; today he posted a sort of team retrospective.  Having cataloged my own successes and failures during by brief attempt at agile project management, I was eager to see how Matt's experiences compared to my own.  I was surprised to see that the problems he lists are either identical or orthogonal to mine (I was expecting one or the other, but not both).  For instance, Matt found as I did that keeping the backlog tasks and estimates accurate became an issue as the sprint wore on, and that failing to discuss and estimate the product backlog caused significant problems.  But while Matt's team concludes they did too much planning up-front and not enough later, but I think we had too little forethought and too much ad hoc cram-it-in work later.

In any event, Matt seems to have at least one very good thing going for him: his team is committed to improving themselves.  I hate to admit it, but we've reverted to the neverending ground-and-pound routine we've been maintaining for almost four years now.  We calling it "scrum," but I know it's not scrum and it's not agile because these things give it away:

  • we rarely estimate anything, we just beat on features and bugs until they're completed;
  • we almost always miss deadlines, which are fairly arbitrary anyway due to the lack of estimations;
  • we don't have much "team spirit" - or perhaps I'm simply excluded from it.  Instead specific indivuals are recognized as the owners of various parts of the system, and it's a bit of a political battle to be involved outside of your sandbox;
  • we generally have four or five projects ongoing, with team focus split between several of them at any given time;
  • we don't iterate or increment, we go dark for weeks, develop like madmen, and throw it over the wall to QA when we're done;
  • we don't retrospect projects anymore, we move immediately to the next project without discussing what worked or didn't work so things get better over time.

I find it odd that we would shun the beneficial aspects of scrum and agile - the transparency of our work, clarity of tasks, the focus on communication, the postponement of details, the sharing of labor, the confidence of cycles, the leverage of teamwork, the push to improve the team - while at the same time embracing a commitment to work full throttle to meet a deadline.

Well, good luck with it Matt, and keeps those posts coming - seems to me like y'all are off to a good start.