Technical Push-Back – When is it Okay? When is it Bad?

Whenever I run a Certified Scrum Product Owner training session, one concept stands out as critical for participants: the relationship of the Product Owner to the technical demands of the work being done by the Scrum team.

The Product Owner is responsible for prioritizing the Product Backlog. This responsibility is, of course, also matched by their authority to do so. When the Product Owner collaborates with the team in the process of prioritization, there may be ways which the team “pushes back”. There are two possible reasons for push-back. One is good, one is bad.

Bad Technical Push-Back

BudapestDSCN3928-smallThe team may look at a product backlog item or a user story and say “O gosh! There’s a lot there to think about! We have to build this fully-architected infrastructure before we can implement that story.” This is old waterfall thinking. It is bad. The team should always be thinking (and doing) YAGNI and KISS. Technical challenges should be solved in the simplest responsible way. Features should be implemented with the simplest technical solution that actually works.

As a Product Owner, one technique that you can use to help teams with this is that when the team asks questions, that you aggressively keep the user story as simple as possible. The questions that are asked may lead to the creation of new stories, or splitting the existing story. Here is an example…

Suppose the story is “As a job seeker I can post my resume to the web site…” If the technical team makes certain assumptions, they may create a complex system that allows resumes to be uploaded in multiple formats with automatic keyword extraction, and even beyond that, they may anticipate that the code needs to be ready for edge cases like WordPerfect format.  The technical team might also assume that the system needs a database schema that includes users, login credentials, one-to-many relationships with resumes, detailed structures about jobs, organizations, positions, dates, educational institutions, etc. The team might insist that creating a login screen in the UI is an essential prerequisite to allowing a user to upload their resume.  And as for business logic, thy might decide that in order to implement all this, they need some sort of standard intermediate XML format that all resumes will be translated into so that searching features are easier to implement in the future.

It’s all CRAP, bloat and gold-plating.

Because that’s not what the Product Owner asked for.  The thing that’s really difficult for a team of techies to get with Scrum is that software is to be built incrementally.  The very first feature built is built in the simplest responsible way without assuming anything about future features.  In other words, build it like it is the last feature you will build, not the first.  In the Agile Manifesto this is described as:

Simplicity, the art of maximizing the amount of work not done, is essential.

The second feature the team builds should only add exactly what the Product Owner asks for.  Again, as if it was going to be the last feature built.  Every single feature (User Story / Product Backlog Item) is treated the same way.  Whenever the team starts to anticipate the business in any of these three ways, the team is wrong:

  1. Building a feature because the team thinks the Product Owner will want it.
  2. Building a feature because the Product Owner has put it later on the Product Backlog.
  3. Building a technical aspect of the system to support either of the first types of anticipation, even if the team doesn’t actually build the feature they are anticipating.

Okay, but what about architecture?  Fire your architects.  No kidding.¹

Good Technical Push-Back

Rube Goldberg Self Operating Napkin

Sometimes stuff gets non-simple: complicated, messy, hard to understand, hard to change.  This happens despite us techies all being super-smart.  Sometimes, in order to implement a new feature, we have to clean up what is already there.  The Product Owner might ask the Scrum Team to build this Product Backlog Item next and the team says something like: “yes, but it will take twice as long as we initially estimated, because we have to clean things up.”  This can be greatly disappointing for the Product Owner.  But, this is actually the kind of push-back a Product Owner wants.  Why?  In order to avoid destroying your business!  (Yup, that serious.)

This is called “Refactoring” at it is one of the critical Agile Engineering practices.  Martin Fowler wrote a great book about this about 15 years ago.  Refactoring is, simply, improving the design of your system without changing it’s business behaviour.  A simple example is changing a set of 3 radio buttons in the UI to a drop-down box with 3 options… so that later, the Product Owner can add 27 more options.  Refactoring at the level of code is often described as removing duplication.  But some types of refactoring are large: replacing a relational database with a NoSQL database, moving from Java to Python for a significant component of your system, doing a full UX re-design on your web application.  All of these are changes to the technical attributes of your system that are driven by an immediate need to add a new feature (or feature set) that is not supported by the current technology.

The Product Owner has asked for a new feature, now, and the team has decided that in order to build it, the existing system needs refactoring.  To be clear: the team is not anticipating that the Product Owner wants some feature in the future; it’s the very next feature that the team needs to build.

This all relates to another two principles from the Agile Manifesto:

Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

and

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

In this case, the responsibilities of the team for technical excellence and creating the best system possible override the short-term (and short-sighted) desire of the business to trade off quality in order to get speed.  That trade-off always bites you in the end!  Why? Because of the cost of fixing quality problems increases exponentially as time passes from when they were introduced.

Young Girl Wiping Face With Napkin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refactoring is not a bad word.

Keep your code clean.

Let your team keep its code clean.

Oh.  And fire your architects.

¹ I used to be a senior architect reporting directly to the CTO of Charles Schwab.  Effectively, I fired myself and launched an incredibly successful enterprise architecture re-write project… with no up-front architecture plan.  Really… fire your architects.  Everything they do is pure waste and overhead.  Someday I’ll write that article :-)

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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner puts known defects at the top of the Product Backlog

The Product Owner has complete authority over the ordering of the Product Backlog. However, it is strongly recommended that the Product Owner put all known defects at the top of the Product Backlog so that the Team fixes them in the very next Sprint. By defects is meant features of functions of the system that have been built by the Team in previous Sprints where those features or functions do not behave according to the expectations of the Product Owner and where such mis-behavior is exposed to users of the system. There may be other quality problems with a system which are not categorized as defects (e.g. duplicated code). This prioritization of defects generally results in extremely high levels of quality in a system and a long-term reduction in costs for the system (total cost of the system) by making future features easier to add, and reducing effort spent on maintenance and support. Failing to put defects on the top of the Product Backlog generally leads to decreasing overall quality and in particular can severely damage the morale of a Scrum Team thus preventing them from getting into a high-performance state.

To learn more about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.

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The Rules of Scrum: Known defects (external quality) generally are ordered at the top of the Product Backlog to be fixed in the next Sprint

One of the key benefits of the using Scrum is that it allows the team to quickly identify defects and obstacles.  Now that the team has made these known, the team has the ability to remove and fix these defects.  What is the value of identifying problems in the product when nothing is done to repair them?  The team will become much faster if it can improve the quality on its own by removing known defects and making the software better.  Then the team will be able to take on more audacious goals instead of being weighed down by quality problems.  Moving known defects to the top of the Product Backlog places quality work as a central goal for the team to achieve which directly improves the product, makes customers and users of the software much happier and invigorates the team to continue to become more effective.  Placing known defects away from the top of the Product Backlog causes morale challenges, acceptance by the team of poor quality work and creates an atmosphere of apathy.  These are likely to cause a failure by the Scrum Team to deliver on its goals.

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Quality is Not Negotiable

Most of the teams and organizations I coach are working on using agile methods to improve their software development approach. Somewhere along the way, someone has realized that there must be a better way… either better than chaos, or better than bureaucracy. Over the years that I have been practicing agile methods, I have come to believe that quality is not negotiable.

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