PEARL XV : Beyond Scrum : A Scalable Agile Framework with Continuous Integration

PEARL XV : Beyond Scrum :  A Scalable Agile Framework with Continuous Integration using Test Automation and Build for Large Distributed Agile Projects.

scalable agile process

Scrum is the most popular Agile technique, but it doesn’t scale well. And while Scrum improves the effectiveness of individual teams, productivity gains fall off sharply on large projects with many teams.

Yet Agile methods have been used in very large commercial and open source projects to increase productivity, quality and release frequency. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Facebook incorporates code from 600 developers while delivering two releases per day.
  • The Google Android project utilizes thousands of contributors spread across the world.
  • Flickr reached a level of 10 deployments per day.

Can we learn from these companies and projects? What types of techniques and tools did they use to achieve those results?

This section will cover the problems with Scrum, changes in approach to help scalability and methods for supporting distributed teams and continuous delivery.

Problems With Scrum
Scrum techniques have been very successful in improving the effectiveness of individual development teams, employing concepts like self-directed co-located teams, time-boxed sprints, and regular customer feedback from working software. Yet many organizations have run into obstacles when trying to apply Scrum techniques to large projects. For example, no effective techniques have evolved to coordinate the work of multiple Scrum teams and manage dependencies among them. The “Scrum of Scrums” approach of holding meetings with representatives of every team becomes increasingly time-consuming and unwieldy as the number of teams multiply.

In part, this is because some of the assumptions underlying Scrum are too restrictive for large organizations, or clash with business requirements. Many groups refuse to be limited to co-located teams because they are already distributed, they want to take advantage of the global market for development talent, or simply because many of their employees work from home several days a week.

Many groups need to share key personnel such as architects, UI designers, and database specialists across many projects, and cannot assign them to a single team. Other companies need to fix bugs and release new functionality more frequently than the 2-8 week cycles typical of Scrum teams. This is particularly true of those providing web- and cloud-based applications, where customers expect a constant flow of enhancements.

This is not to say that Scrum practices have no place in a large development environment. But it is now clear that many organizations need to go “Beyond Scrum” and find new practices to manage distributed contributors and large, complex projects.

Changes in Approach That Help Scalability
The large commercial and open source projects that have successfully scaled Agile typically depart from conventional Scrum practices in several areas.

No Scrum meetings: Sprint planning meetings, retrospectives and Scrum-of-Scrum meetings are time-consuming, usually require that everyone be in one room, and usually don’t do a very good job of coordinating across teams. That’s why large-scale projects find ways to use online collaboration and planning tools to coordinate work within and across teams, with fewer meetings and conference calls.

“Pull,” “continuous flow,” and “publish what’s ready”: Although Scrum practices are far more agile than the waterfall methods they replaced, they still impose a degree of inflexibility. Once a sprint plan is complete, the features to be delivered are fixed, and so is the time frame to deliver them (usually 2-8 weeks).

Scalable projects typically use pull and continuous flow techniques (especially Kanban), so developers are always working on the highest priority tasks, and new functionality can be released as soon as it is ready.

Code review workflows (long used by open source projects) can be used to select contributions from hundreds of contributors and publish what’s ready. By helping organizations scale to more contributors and release more frequently, code review workflows can become a key building block of Scalable Agile.

Diverse contributors: Classic Scrum practices are designed for co-located teams of 8-10 members. But, in reality, large projects need to incorporate work from individual contributors, shared resources (e.g., architects and DBAs), outsourcing companies, and business partners as well as teams. Collaboration tools and code review workflows are central to meshing the work of these diverse contributors.

A Scalable Agile Process Framework
The question, then, is how can we apply the new approaches as a coherent whole?

Instead of each Scrum team having its own backlog, product management (or product owners) maintain a single project-wide backlog, with tasks sorted in priority order.

At any time, contributors can pull tasks from the top of the backlog into their own “Current Work” list. Ideally they will pull the highest-priority task, but if they do not have the necessary skills or resources they can move down the stack to find another high-priority assignment.

This process ensures that the highest-priority tasks are addressed first. If an urgent bug fix or a key customer feature request is placed at the top of the backlog it will receive immediate attention, instead of waiting for the next sprint.

Contributors can be individuals, teams, departments, or even entire organizations like an outsourcing firm or a business partner. There is no expectation or requirement that the tasks be done by Scrum teams of 8-10 members. This allows organizations to call on the talents of all kinds of individuals and companies, and in fact conforms to the reality of most large projects today.

Tasks are then managed using Kanban or lean principles. Typically this means that each person is working on one task at a time (i.e., the team has a work-in-process limit of one task for each person on the team).

Kanban principles ensure that once tasks are started they are completed as quickly as possible, which means that they can be released sooner, and also that other tasks which depend on the first task can be started sooner.

When tasks are completed, the contributor pulls in on-demand resources to build and test a release with the new code. This provides immediate feedback to the contributors, and allows them to catch and fix bugs right away. It also makes features available faster, because there is no wait for centralized build and test systems.

Finally, once new code submissions have been tested successfully, they can be pulled through a merge process into a staging area or into a final build. This means that a new version of the software can be assembled and released at any time, with whatever bug fixes and enhancements are available at that moment.

What Does This Accomplish?
How exactly does this Scalable Agile process framework address the shortcomings of Scrum and provide more scalable, responsive development efforts? Here are a few of the advantages:

  • There can be many types of contributors, including (but not limited to) conventional Scrum teams.
  • There is no need to spend time estimating tasks precisely, doing detailed sprint planning, or having long meetings to coordinate assignments across teams. As long as the backlog is maintained in priority order the highest-priority tasks will be addressed first.
  • Once tasks are started they are completed in the least possible time, meaning they can be released faster and dependent tasks can be started sooner.
  • Software quality is better, because test feedback is available as soon as a task is complete. Bugs can be fixed when it is clear what changes caused the problem, and when the code is fresh in the mind of the developer. Also, quality assurance does not become a bottleneck, a situation which often leads organizations to cut corners on testing (leading to yet more quality problems).
  • New versions of the application can be assembled and released at any time according to business demand. With sufficient automation this can be daily or even several times a day.

Scrum is the most popular Agile techniques, but it doesn’t scale well. And while Scrum improves the effectiveness of individual teams, productivity gains fall off sharply on large projects with many teams.

In the earlier section, methods on how to apply agile techniques to distributed teams and large projects was dealt. In the following section,  Tools and techniques for managing distributed teams will be addressed.

Some of the processes and tools needed to manage the Scalable Agile process framework are addressed in the following paragraphs.

The first of these “building blocks” is support for distributed teams. Large development organizations are almost always distributed because they have (1) business units and business partners in multiple locations, (2) “outsourcing” groups in different countries, (3) decided to take advantage of the global market for development talent, (4) remote employees who work from home.

So how can organizations support distributed teams well enough to reduce the need for face-to-face meetings?

Online Agile Planning
Online tools can replace paper-and-pencil planning exercises and physical whiteboards. This allows team members worldwide to create and maintain an overall project backlog, pull tasks to individual teams and contributors, move tasks through the steps in a Kanban process, and view tasks ready to be pulled into a release.

The  an online Agile planning tool is used for managing a central backlog and pulling tasks into “current” task buckets for individual teams, and an online card wall that can replace the physical variety.

online planning tools
Online planning tools can replace paper plans and physical white boards.

Online Collaboration

Development team members can collaborate most easily when they are in the same room, but online tools can provide a close approximation. Such tools include online standup reports, wikis, chat and IM products, and video and teleconferencing systems.

Another type of online tool, an activity stream gives developers real-time visibility into the activities of other team members—activities like code commits, new tickets, comments added to tickets, code reviews and posts on wikis.

activity stream

An activity stream shows commits, comments, and other events.

Global Code Management

Global collaboration can be undermined if developers need to share large repositories and large files over long distances and performance is slow.

Some of the technologies that Tool vendor Perforce uses, like proxies and replication, ensure that files are available immediately in remote locations . These solutions ensure that data is available where needed without artificial boundaries that impede sharing and collaboration.

Perforce technologies ensure that distributed team members don’t have to wait to get large repositories and files.

Decentralized Code Management
Developers often want highly decentralized code management so they can create their own local test branches and work independent of centralized corporate resources.

Development managers, however, want to maintain control over and visibility into activities at remote locations.

Git Fusion from Perforce answers both needs. Developers can quickly clone their own repositories and work in private Git repositories on their local systems, with easy code sharing between teams and products.

select directories

Release managers can make selected directories visible to Git users.

Release managers can model an entire product development effort with Perforce streams and branches, apply access controls, and control how much history and which files are cloned into new Git repositories . As changes are accepted, the enterprise release model guides changes to the right places: older releases, customizations, and parallel development efforts.

When developers commit code to the Perforce repository, the Perforce shared versioning service makes the changes visible to everyone and maintains a strong system of record about the source and nature of all changes.

The earlier paragraphs described the challenges of scaling large and distributed Agile teams, and investigated the tools and strategies that resolve them. Once the problem of scaling Agile development has been addressed, however, pressure is then applied next to the people and processes that are tasked with delivering or deploying the resulting product. Agile workflow is only successful once efficiency is attained in all stages of the workflow. This paragraph will cover the second building block of Scalable Agile: Continuous Delivery.

ScrumBan

ScrumBan is a relatively easy first step for Scrum teams that want to move in the direction of Continuous Delivery.

Teams using ScrumBan work within a time-boxed sprint. But unlike conventional Scrum practices, a work-in-process limit is adopted, so team members are focused on finishing one task at a time. At a certain point in the sprint a “triage” process identifies which tasks can be completed within the time box, and drops the others from the sprint plan. At that point there is a “feature freeze,” and the remainder of the sprint is devoted to completing the tasks specified by the triage process.

scrumban

ScrumBan represents a step toward Continuous Delivery because it emphasizes completing a small number of tasks as quickly as possible. Development teams avoid the pitfalls involved in pulling out all the stops to deliver the entire sprint plan, regardless of the cost in terms of quality and delays.

On-Demand Merge and Test by Contributor
The conventional software release process creates a huge bottleneck at the test phase. All teams send their contributions to a central QA team, which creates and tests a “release candidate.”

In traditional release processes, the QA lab becomes a serious bottleneck.

In theory this workflow makes very efficient use of the QA team and test systems, however:

  • It takes a long time to run all of the tests.
  • It is hard to debug and troubleshoot many code changes at once, especially if they may be interacting with each other.
  • Errors uncovered during the integration phase may require costly rework by several contributors.
  • The test lab becomes a huge bottleneck near the end of each sprint, causing stress and leading to sloppy testing practices.
  • Releases are delayed until the entire release candidate has been completely tested and debugged.

But what if each team can build and test based on just its own contributions?

There can be a different approach to testing. In this scenario each team and contributor has access to test resources. QA team members act as advisors and facilitators rather than being charged with managing all of the testing themselves. When a development team finishes a set of changes, the team then pulls a copy of the production version onto the test system. Changes can then be merged into this private production version, built and tested locally.
Each team pulls a product version, merges its changes, and performs its own tests.

team pulls

If testing uncovers problems, these can be solved right away by development, without worrying about interactions with changes from other teams. Multiple teams and contributors can now test and debug contributions independently, and submit them to the central staging area when ready
Teams submit tested contributions when they are ready; releases can be assembled at any time.

The advantages of this approach include:

  • QA is no longer a bottleneck—teams test independently, when they are ready.
  • It is easier to debug and troubleshoot problems, because each group is observing only its own changes to a previously tested production version.
  • Releases can be assembled at any time, constructed from whatever contributions have been tested and submitted.

These capabilities are not easy or cheap to implement. They require a considerable investment in automated build and test environments, which for distributed teams must be provided in the cloud. They also require that code merge and management be a fast and easy part of any developer’s daily work. A simple and easy-to-automate merge framework like Perforce Streams  provides merge notifications, merge pathway guidance, and intuitive tools.

In a complicated project consisting of several components, Perforce’s visibility over any part of the project also helps development teams share and reuse code. These teams can quickly adapt to a changing project structure, even if they are working in distributed repositories via Git Fusion. A merge in this environment would never require a complicated action that spans several independent repositories.

These capabilities are an indispensable aspect of Scalable Agile, because they allow very large numbers of teams to contribute to a project without overwhelming build and test resources.

Code Review Workflow
Another major challenge for Continuous Delivery is how to merge a growing number of contributions into production releases. How can you organize the flow of contributions from many sources? How can you decide when to assemble the next release? How do you avoid creating a bottleneck at the point where the contributions come together?

One very useful method is a code review workflow similar to those used in open source projects. In these projects hundreds of contributors might submit code and thousands might test it. Typically a core group of “maintainers” reviews submissions and selects the ones that will be included in the next release.

A code review workflow can be utilized in commercial environments as well. for example, the Assembla ticketing tool includes a merge request feature that allows contributors to submit code changes for review. Designated reviewers can review the submissions, hold online discussions about them, vote for or against accepting them, and make immediate decisions to accept or reject them

This code review workflow lets organizations manage the code review process and delegate the decision making for accepting contributions and assembling releases, which prevents these activities from becoming bottlenecks.

A code review workflow allows designated reviewers to vote on which contributions to include in the next release.

Streams for Managing Multiple Versions
Another common challenge among large projects is maintaining multiple releases and managing custom versions for individual customers.

Software vendors, for example, usually need to support several releases of an application at once. Bug fixes might need to be applied to many (but not all) of the supported releases. Enhancements to the current release might be retrofitted to the previous release and added to the upcoming release under development. Similarly, a service provider or enterprise IT department might be maintaining customized versions of an application for different customers or different business units within the enterprise.

perforce streams

It is much easier to navigate these complex scenarios with a tool like Perforce Streams. Perforce Streams not only helps development managers visualize the relationships between releases and versions, it guides release managers on where and when to apply bug fixes and feature enhancements when they are ready to be merged

Perforce Streams provide adaptable workflow for teams and promote efficiencies such as code re-use, automated merging, fast context switching, efficient workspace updates, and inherited workspace and branch views. An innovative addition to the Perforce branching and merging toolset, streams eliminate overhead, simplify common processes, and increase agility and scalability. In projects with a large volume of data, the time and performance savings are considerable.

Perforce Streams helps deploy bug fixes and enhancement across multiple releases and custom versions.

The typical perception of Agile development methodologies is that their benefits and promise are reserved for small, co-located teams. However, in the above sections we have seen how many, if not all, of the traditional Agile practices can be improved to the benefit of not only large teams, but large distributed teams as well. Ironically, this scalability has been achieved by employing the very processes and tools that the Agile Manifesto preaches against. However, while the tools enable scalability, they never require the sacrifice of developers’ freedoms or their ability to interact.

In these final paragraphs , tools will again be the focus for providing the solution for scaling one of the essential requirements of any Agile workflow: Continuous Integration with build and test automation. All the ideas addressed in the above paragraphs  will be reviewed along with detail on  how they fit together to make Agile scalable.

All of the examples provided can be implemented using software from Perforce, Assembla, Git and Jenkins.

Methods for Providing On-Demand Infrastructure

In a large project, the trickiest and costliest problems are found only when individuals put together all the pieces. It pays to find and fix these integration problems as early and often as possible.
Continuous Integration is a set of best practices in software development that supports project integration on a rapid, repeated basis . They are:

  •  Maintain a code repository
  •  Automate the build
  •  Make the build self-testing
  •  Everyone commits to the mainline every day
  •  Every commit (to the mainline) should be built
  •  Keep the build fast
  •  Test in a clone of the production environment
  •  Make it easy to get the latest deliverables
  •  Everyone can see the results of the latest build
  •  Automate deployment

The goal of is to perform a project-wide integration as often as possible. Striving to achieve this shapes your infrastructure, development practices, and attitudes.
Attitude is important. The entire team must commit to achieving successful integration at all stages of the project. For instance, a development task is not considered to be “done” until the feature appears in the integration build and is proven to work there. That shared commitment should make developers uneasy when they risk divergence by working in isolation for any lengthy period, e.g. when they are using an old build as a stable development base, or when they commit their changes their only infrequently. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of frequent integration. It really does reduce project risk.

Continuous Integration Tools in the Cloud
Organizations clearly need to invest in automated build and test processes if they want to scale up and deliver features faster and release more frequently. This investment can be expensive, but manual methods are obviously not scalable. Also, automated build and test processes tend to produce much higher software quality.

And if teams and contributors are highly distributed? Then the build and test tools must be accessible online, in the cloud.

Automated test tools like Jenkins can be integrated into the code review and merge workflows described earlier paragraphs. Whenever a contribution is accepted, a new version can be built and a series of automated tests can be run against it. Tools like Jenkins will then provide developers and the QA staff with detailed information on test results. Results from the test tool can even be used to vote to accept or reject contributions, as part of the code review workflow.

Automated test tools can provide detailed information on test results, and even vote to accept or reject contributions.

jenkins ci

Managing the impact of on-demand continuous integration is a logistical challenge for the version management service. Perforce addresses this challenge by providing flexible configurations of proxies and replicas to meet a variety of build demands.

supporting ci

In the earlier paragraphs,  some of the shortcomings of Scrum, such as lack of techniques to coordinate teams, assumptions about co-located teams and fixed release cycles that are unrealistic for many organizations, and a tendency to spend too much time in planning and coordination meetings was covered.

Continuous, iterative development is supported for different workflow methodology employed. With Perforce,  can:

  • Build and confirm your work from a private workspace before submitting your code
  • Execute automated builds and tests on specific branches upon check-in
  • Improve the quality of software and delivery time to market
  • Popular continuous integration tools, like Electric Commander from Electric Cloud, Parabuild from Viewtier, and Anthill Pro from UrbanCode, all support their own integrations with Perforce.

 A Scalable Agile process framework featuring the following was outlined:

  • A single prioritized backlog for all teams, so high-priority tasks always receive immediate attention.
  • Kanban processes with WIP limits, so teams don’t have to spend a lot of time in release planning, and to ensure that individual tasks are completed as quickly as possible.
  • On-demand resources, so each team can build and test its own contributions quickly and avoid making the QA lab a bottleneck.
  • A code review process that allows designated reviewers to accept or reject a large number of code submissions.
  • A “take what’s ready” approach to releases, so organizations could provide new functionality as frequently as required by customer needs and expectations.

The processes and tools that could facilitate Scalable Agile was discussed. These include online Agile planning tools, online collaboration, global code management, decentralized code management, ScrumBan processes, tools for on-demand merging and testing by contributors, code review workflows, stream-based tools for managing multiple releases and custom versions, and continuous integration tools provided in the cloud.

While the journey to Scalable Agile may be a long one, each of the steps down the path provides immediate benefits. The growing development groups consider:

  • Implementing ScrumBan, to start moving toward lean methods.
  • Deploying online planning and collaboration tools, to improve the effectiveness of distributed teams and contributors.
  • Deploying advanced code management platforms, to support distributed development and manage multiple releases and versions.
  • Begin investing in Continuous Integration and on-demand build and test systems.
  • Adjust the dial on continuous delivery gradually, to allow time for all your teams to adjust.
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