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Frequent management interruptions for developers – A big lean waste in software development

Why do developers disdain to go to regular meetings? Besides, Why managers consistently call for such a variety of meetings everyday?

As a developer, we understand, how tormenting it is to pick your notebooks and go to the conference room for an extensive management meeting amid an occupied busy day.  Particularly when you are profoundly involved in brain-teaser design and development work and desperately need solitary confinement to squeeze your brain cells to get the technical problem solved.

As a manager, we always believe that developing communication structure within and between teams for tenacious, persistent, continuous communication is of significant importance for developing an incredible product. If you are an ‘Agilist‘, you are committed to required daily stand-up meetings, iteration planning meetings, iteration review meetings,  user story pruning meetings, iteration and milestone retrospection meetings. These meetings are important to close the feedback loop between teams, within teams and for an individual developer at different phases of product development. These feedback loops enable and empower continuous improvements in an iterative and incremental development environment. Agile needs regular feedback loops to drive the time-boxed iterations, get the team in a shared mindset and align product development activities with the product plans and milestones.

In a 2 week iteration, if a developer dedicate 15 minute per day on a daily stand-up meeting, 4 hrs for iteration planning meeting, 4 hrs for iteration review and retrospection, 2 hrs for product backlog pruning, It is 15.6 % of the total time(80 hrs) an individual developer has in a 2 week iteration. Investing 15% of you time in an iteration on effective meetings which enable development activities is not that awful for developers. The problem comes, when developers are frequently interrupted in their core hours, during the time when they are deeply engaged in design and development activity. This interruption can be in  the form of unplanned meetings, interviews, cross-cubical talks, manager’s room chit-chat,  unnecessary on demand sink-ups, management updates, group task reviews, and so on..

Development,  particularly coding is a complex activity. It requires collective, cognitive alignment of numerous elements – mental models of problem definition and the environment, understanding of  requirements and acceptance criteria, conceptualized solution options, approaches, design decisions, risks, assumptions, constraints, experiences, influence, understanding of the evolution and emergence of code and design etc. It is a challenge to bring all these elements in-resonance to discover and code the ideal solution. Interruptions, derails the cognitive processing. Interferences, crashes the cognitive transformation of ideas to working code. It makes developer mind to do a context -switch from one problem to another. Problems which are different. Problems which requires different cadence and mindset. When developer returns to development activity, it require them to re-build the mental structure and state. It can be like starting again.

Now, if you are repetitively doing the same kind development activity for a long time and your mind is hard-wired to repeat, you wont’ psyche getting intruded on, and  your manager will love you for being so effectively accessible to him for on-demand dialogs. But, development brings new insight and learning every time you code. Each coding circumstance is different. You have to be alert, investigating, exploring to get the right code artifacts. Yes, even when you are using Google to cut and paste, your mind need to be active to learn and adapt it to your problem needs.

I ponder, why managers require these frequent sink-up meetings with team members. Particularly, if you are doing agile and committed to iteration deliverables. Why do they need to chit-chat regularly with the developers and discuss what you are doing now. Can’t managers join the daily stand-ups and get the status? Don’t manager trust the team’s sprint commitments, skills, knowledge, ability and capacity to deliver on planned work. Particularly, when they are themselves involved in building the team. Shouldn’t the manager spent more time facilitating the iteration review, iteration planning, retrospection meetings, and work on cross-teams communications, competency and skills development, individual’s objective alignment achieve bigger and broader goals?

The bigger question is – What do managers do in agile development?
This is not the topic of this article. I will answer it in another post.

Management and development work require different cadence to achieve its goal. When you are on developer cadence – designing and coding; the daily cadence cycle is longer. I see, 2-5 average non-stop hours required to achieve development tasks. Interruptions during these development core hours break the rhythm of a developer. This context switching can make developers loose the thread and  blow away the entire day for them.

Developer’s and Manager’s work cadence

When your in Test-Driven-Development mode, a management call to discuss status updates can get us out of the context instantly. Here, we just composed a test to express what we intend to code, Interrupted!  we lose the rhythm, the context and the mental-model of it. It takes time to re-build context, to go through the code again, and understand what we were thinking when we actually coded those tests. Everything requires significant re-investment of time and effort- A rework, a big waste. Not to mention the frustration it brings with it.

If you are working on management tasks, cadence cycle is shorter. Managers can switch between tasks within minutes, multi-tasking is accepted and recognized way of doing day to day management work. Management tasks – email updates, co-ordination meetings, status updates, risk assessment and mitigation planning, work facilitation, task planning, resource and capacity assessment etc. all can be composed in of shorter time activities.

Managers need involvement  and participation of development team members to accomplish their work. Since, in most of the projects, managers are in more authoritative and legitimate positions, their call for unplanned short gatherings tend to drastically affect the developer’s development activity.
Manager’s  tend to disrupt  and upset the development activities several times a day. They are unknown of the fact that this regular interruption is causing a context-switch for developers which takes time to reconcile and is prone to loss of information, ideas, approach, problem modeling and solutions. It will reduce the quality of output, lower the productivity, increase re-work, affect the developer’s motivation and commitment and leave them exhausted.

Have you observed the complex behavior of a swarm of ants who have discovered a food source? Disrupt it! What amount of time it takes for the ants to return to the same behavior?

What can be done to bring these two required but distinct behaviors(Managers and Developers) in collective-cadence to achieve the desired shared behavior?

Give some attention to these important points:

  1. Managers should understand and recognize that there are two distinctive types of task schedules in the software development teams  – management tasks and development tasks schedules(which require involved coding and testing).
  2.  Everyone should understand the effect and waste caused by context-switching of development activities.
  3. Managers should learn to avoid frequent interruptions and allocate time for co-ordinated tasks which require involvement of development team members. Like, fixing the meeting timings in the afternoons or sending the meeting request, instead of an on-demand interruption.
  4. Managers should avoid the habit of frequently dropping by the developer’s desk or making calls for on-demand meet-up. Instead, keep a list of required communication and interruption logs and allocate time to do it when the developers are relatively free. Have empathy for developers schedule.
  5. The impact and intensity of waste due to context switching will depend on the type of development(especially coding) work. The more involved and collaborative a development task is, the more will be the waste in context switching.
  6. Developers need to understand the importance of accomplishing the management tasks for the project, and dispense time for it as a team in coordination with managers.
  7.  If the developer feels that interruption and context switching is going to create waste, he should inform the managers and appeal for alternative time to meet. Yes, I understand, many managers will get offended if you request for a change in meeting schedule. They always want it now!  I ask to these managers, isn’t ensuring high productivity, quality and facilitation of uninterrupted development activities your primary goal on the job?
  8. Are you an involved manager? Do you understand and have feel for complex coding exercises? Or Do you think, coding is like any other monotonous task which developer can perform without much attention? Because if you do, then believe me, you are soon going to get the team down. Good developers will leave you to work with better managers.
  9. Listen to your developers, and develop a working schedule for shared activities.
  10. Developer needs to structure their day. Know your schedule, what development tasks you need to accomplish, there complexity and communicate the same to managers.
  11. If developers can’t avoid some interruptions, it is recommended to record their last thoughts before joining the meetings. It will help in resuming the task again.
  12.  Developers can move to meeting rooms when they are working on complex, involved activities which require uninterrupted focus.

Are you a hands-on architect?

What do you do as a designated Architect of the team? Are you still hands-on with implementation design and coding?

Hands-on Software Architect

Do you spend most of your time creating an up-front architecture and design with lots of artifacts(Architecture views, process and flow diagrams, models etc) and posting these architecture and design documents for reviews, updates,  presentation to the management and development teams for feedback and comments? Or Do you like moving quickly to evaluation, validation and experimentation of your design and architecture by quickly implementing the skeleton architecture with the development teams and other stakeholders and following it with validated architecture refactoring and iterative evolution?Do you consider working skeleton-code with running tests as an architecture artifact? These are a few questions which define your architecting mindset and process followed to architect and design.

Software architects find immense satisfaction and pride in developing the architectural artifacts in  isolation with the occasional ceremonial presentation. They find more comfort and security in their isolated ivory towers. Inspired by the real-world infrastructure architecture and architecting process, software architecture has been envisaged as a big up-front process, only for specialist –  ‘An art’, which can be performed by fewer designated individuals. They communicate occasionally with artifacts created in isolation, and leave as soon as possible to enlighten other projects.

Lonely Architect

I see following reasons for this “Architecting-in-Isolation” mindset in architects:

  1. Software architects do not understand the boundaries of software architecture. They tend to do a lot of up-front design with limited feel for  a ‘Just enough architecture’ which can enable quick design and implementation.                                                                                                        
    Undefined boundaries of Software Architecture 
  2. Software architects do not emphasise on continuous validation, evaluation and experimentation of architecture. Architecture does have elements which can be re-factored,  iterated, and developed incrementally with more validated learning and feedback from stakeholders.
  3. Software architecture and design emerge and there are many unknown-unknowns. Architects tend to assume lots of things up-front. They cover it up with known architectural styles, patterns, past experiences and best-practices and ignore the fact that architecture and design will evolve and emerge as it get coded.                                                            
    Unknowns of Software Architecture
  4. The architecting cycle is very long, non iterative and incremental, and executed away from the development process. Architecting process is detached from the development process.


Software Architecture and Development teams in isolation

There are other reasons which keep architects away from the development teams. Like, involvement in other  parallel projects. I will not discuss them here.
One big challenge architects always face is in deciding when to stop up-front architecture and design work, and start enabling design and implementation. Most of the time, architect tend to overload lots of detail in their early architecture artifacts. They attempt to define, every component, every interface, many views and system quality concerns; almost every minute detail that crop-up in their minds at the early phase of the product design. They tend to make lots of assumptions about the design and architecture without validation and verifications. Working away, in-isolation, from other stakeholders, they do not know what is just-enough optimal architecture and design  for development teams to get going with implementation. They do not see the waste they are creating by big up-front design activities and impediments bought to the flow of agile and lean development of working and well-crafted software.

Architects needs to embrace lean and agile architecture and architecting process. They need to get their architecture artifacts consumed as soon as possible in the design and implementation iterations. They need to understand, that working code, which can validate their architecture decisions quickly and help them to evaluate design options is more effective than big architecture document created over weeks of isolated research. Now, I am not saying architecture should not be documented.  Documentation can always be done incrementally and iteratively. Just lay down enough details, avoid long component diagrams, class details, pages,of flow and sequence diagrams, data models and deployment scenarios etc. Keep it simple, short, quickly communicable and consumable.

Even if it takes to write only just few draft pages, few wire-frames, hand sketches and board diagrams, Do it!. It has to be lean. Avoid all forms of waste which do not add value up-front.  Design, in short iterations, communicate continuously,  work closely with your developers and code for the skeleton architecture and cover it with the unit and acceptance tests. Take it to other stakeholders – product owners, Dev-ops, QA etc for reviews and feedback. Continuously re-factor and iterate over architecture and design. “Validated learning” about the architecture obtained through incremental architecture development and continuous validation is more effective than big up-front architecture and design activity which do not add much value and is very difficult to validate.

Now, experts will debate on how much you can actually re-factor software architecture. Well off-course, not to the extent that you can re-factor code, but yes, there are elements of architecture which needs to be  iterated and re-factored. Like, components and service interfaces  can be understood only after understanding the component usage and interaction patterns, service and resource relationships and dependencies. Interface design needs continuous refactoring. If you try to identify and design all your interfaces up-front, by making all architecture decisions at the start, just imagine the mess.

Functional models, Data models, thread models, development models, process and deployment models all evolve as you learn more about the system and its architecture and design. Sooner you get the working software, better you can evaluate and validate your architecture and design.
Which means architects need to be hands -on. They should be working closely with the development team to ensure that architecture and design is quickly and correctly translated into working code. 

Try this to successfully achieve incremental and iterative architecture. Based on the known use-cases and user stories,  list down some known high-level components, their relationships, important interfaces, some notes on desired  threading models, sketches of data models, few non-functional concerns and constraints like failure scenarios, required performance with measurable numbers etc. Enable some early-communication and brainstorming discussions with the development team.
Even before you document details, sit down with the team to code the skeleton architecture components and elements with the acceptance tests for the required user stories.  Define and name the system components and their interacting behaviour and interfaces. Define both the construction and interaction behaviour of the components. Functions are implemented with with no real code but well named classes and behaviours and covered with tests. Use ubiquitous domain language to define the components, classes and function names. Run the tests to ensure that component wiring is complete and correct with right interfaces as per the use cases. Ensure tests are developed and become the specifications of the desired behaviour.

The important thing for an architect is to know how much time she allocates for herself  to get involved in day-to day implementation and design activities as early as possible and  see the architecture getting codified.  This is the only way to know how well the architecture is realized in design and code.
I believe, coding is a  designing-activity and lots of design actually happens when we code. Can you see your architecture and design in code?

Try to answer the following questions for yourself:

  • How much detail is enough to create and communicate architecture?
  • Where do we think that the architecture is just enough for design and implementation  to take over?
  • Do you know about the risks associated with each element of architecture? Based on these risks how early you get these things designed and implemented? How much time you allocate to risky architecture component’s implementation?
  •  Do you continuously validate your architecture? And how?
  •  How much are you involved with the development team and how often do you receive the feedback on the architecture and design issues?
  • Do you see architecture and design getting evolved as you code and implement? And how?
  • What is your architecture documentation process? is it on-time up-front process?
  • Are you still coding? Do you allocate time to get involved in implementation and coding? Coding exercise will help you to understand the architecture and design decisions better.

12 Critical problems with product development

12 Critical problems with product development orthodoxy

1) Failure to correctly qualtify economics
2) Blindness to Queues
3) Worship of Efficiency
4) Hostility to Variability
5) Worship of Conformance
6) Institutionalization of Large batch sizes
7) Underutilization of Cadence
8) Managing timelines instead of Queues
9) Absence of WIP constraints
10) Inflexibility
11) Noneconimic flow control
12) Centralized control

Excerpt from Donald Reinertsen’s  book – Principles of Product Development Flow
Good book to understand  why and how lean and agile principles solve product development problems

International Conference on Agile and Lean Software Methods

International conference on Agile and Lean Software methods concluded on 19th Feb. Overall a great experience.
Scott Ambler’s talk where very informative. There was a good focus on Lean and Agile applied to highly regulated environment. Agile coaching experiences where discussed and Lighting talks and discussion where very helpful. I had a great time.