One-Man Agile

This is a bit of a distraction from the usual fare on my blog (and no jokes that the usual fare on this blog is no posts…). However, I stumbled across the concept of “Agile” development recently, and I believe the concepts of this working methodology are extremely far-reaching (though currently they are only really known about in the world of software programming). And far more interesting than you’d expect anything to be coming out of the IT world. (You can tell I’m non-IT, can’t you?)

Where I heard about it was at the 2010 Tessitura Learning and Community Conference, which was a highly stimulating and enjoyable experience like the 2009 one (my thoughts here). This year I decided to attend a session there titled “Agile in the Arts”. I thought vaguely the session was going to be about the consulting team that was working with Tessitura on their Next Generation project, but instead, I saw speakers from the IT departments of various arts companies that use Tessitura software, and they were all raving about a new system of working they had adopted called “Agile methodology”.

Slide after slide flashed on the screen, going on about Kanban boards, scrums, sprints, standing meetings, pair programming and the sheer joy of whiteboards. I wasn’t sure, at first, what I was seeing, but it was quite clear that computer programmers, in the last 10 years, had invented more rituals than the Roman Catholic Church had come up with in two millennia.

However, as I started to cotton on to what the terms referred to, I started to realise that these “Agile teams”, as they call themselves, had come up with some startling new methods of dealing with common problems we encounter at work. I got really fired up by the whole session, and the next week, I went and paid an exorbitant amount of money to get hold of a book on Agile methodology (there are quite a few out there, but you’ll only really find them lurking in the IT section of a large bookstore).

There are many, many components to the methodologies (and the one in particular that I read up on was a system called Extreme Programming – XP for short), but I want to share with you the basic concept today of the “iteration” and how I’m attempting to implement some agile ideas at work.

(Officially, what I’m doing isn’t considered true Agile, because technically all Agile methodologies are used by teams – there’s not really anything that refers to individuals. But, seriously, this stuff is way too good only to be used by companies with more than one IT staff. In fact, it’s way too good to be only used by IT staff, period.)

In Agile teams, they work in blocks of time – sometimes called “iterations” (in XP), sometimes “sprints” (in another system called Scrum). I’m going to call them “iterations”. Every iteration, the programmers attempt to produce a fully working version of what they’re building. Iteration by iteration, they add features, until it’s all complete.

The opposite of this is the old way of doing things – the waterfall method of planning. Waterfall planning is where you plan everything out beforehand, go away and build it, and then come back and see whether you like it. The problem with this is that you have no idea until the end whether or not the “customer” (the person you’re doing the work for – either an external customer or someone in your company) likes what you’re doing until you’ve actually built the thing. In the Agile world, however, you’d come up with a smaller version of the final product, that had less limited features, see what the customer thought of that part, and if things are going well, go back and build some more.

So, for instance, if a project is 10 weeks long, under normal circumstances at the end of 2 weeks, you might not have anything to see. However, under Agile methodology, you would get to see something fully working by the 2nd week and could decide whether things were progressing.

The benefits are immense. For the customer, you get to have close tabs on what’s being built. If you change your mind or your business needs change, you can get the programmers to switch track really quickly.

But I think Agile’s best invention is the concept of “stories” and “velocity” as a way of ensuring that programmers don’t get overloaded with work. Instead of thinking of their work as a series of IT tasks, programmers are asked to work with their customers to create “stories”. So instead of “build a database to hold customers and sales” the story might be “As a marketing team, we’d like to be able to see how our sales are tracking week by week”.

At the beginning of every iteration, the programmers demo the stories they finished last week, and then prioritise stories for the next week. The best part of this process is that customers are the ones that are encouraged to write the stories (and literally write them – on an index card). The programmers give the stories “points” that estimate how long they will take to complete. Then the customers work out how they want to spend their points for the next iteration. The catch is that the can only spend points up to the “velocity” – the number of story points that the programmers completed last iteration.

What a great idea! This straight away gets rid of the estimation problems that can occur. As someone who has to make estimates on things that are hard to estimate on a regular basis, I can see the benefit of this. I tend to underestimate things, and take on more than I can deliver. Other people might be more cautious and want to overestimate things. But the idea of velocity is that people’s estimates to be consistently under or over on a regular basis. So thus if people tend to underestimate, they’ll soon find that their velocity points drop and they’ll only take on the amount of work they can compete. If people tend to overestimate, they’ll get through more points in an iteration and next time they can take on more. It’s a constantly improving feedback loop.

So I decided that I’d give the following a try at work:

  • Iterations of a week long – from Thursday morning through to Wednesday.
  • Turning people’s requests into stories.
  • Giving those stories points.
  • Using the weekly Tessitura meeting that we have established to work out which stories have priority for the coming week.

To test all this, I tried using the index cards and stories for managing my own workload for a week and a half before we started to give me an idea of my own velocity. I think it will take a month to work out a reliable figure, and how to estimate properly, but it’s been a good discipline and I’m keen to see how it goes.

If all this works, and my workload adjusts to less frantic levels, I’ll maybe come back and let you know how it’s all going.

Film Review: Tomorrow, When The War Began

In case you hadn’t gathered from reading my earlier book review of Tomorrow, When The War Began, I think it should be (if it’s not already) regarded as one of the great Australian novels of our time. I don’t think the same will be said of this film, which is not to say, however, that it’s not without its own pleasures. There is a scene (not in the book) where one character is reading Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (itself regarded as one of the great Australian novels of all time) and another character says, “How’s the book?” “It’s better than the movie,” is the reply. “They always are.” This exchange of dialogue fairly nicely sums up the film experience of Tomorrow.

Right from the time I first heard about this film, I knew that the biggest hurdle it would have to leap is the Boys’ Own Trap. The book is nicely plotted with plenty of relentless action sequences, chases and peril – so quite rightly it would make a good film. In fact, why it’s taken 15 years is absolutely beyond me. The problem is, how do you stop such a story becoming just an action movie?

What made Tomorrow When The War Began rise above the ranks of ordinary teenage action literature was author John Marsden’s careful ear for realistic dialogue, and the beautifully drawn characterisation of the story’s narrator, Ellie. Within two pages of the novel, he established a use of language that is immediately understandable by teenager. Ellie’s storytelling is both simple enough to seem realistic (no highbrow arthouse dialogue here) and yet profound and serious enough to carry great weight. It’s a masterpiece of character writing.

It is through Ellie’s eyes that the invasion of her hometown, Wirrawee, is seen. So when there is action, Ellie always describes this with the terror, anguish and tough decisions that such a thing would carry. And for me, the beauty of the first book was the setup. As the teenagers plan their camping holiday, there’s a sense of fun and enthusiasm that is conveyed. Things are still innocent, and it takes the reader back to that sense of freedom that you used to have hanging around with your mates. By setting this up as something we can all relate to, when the war part starts (which is something most of us can’t relate to), we are drawn in and can imagine it.

Well, I hate to say it – but that all went out the window. Director Stuart Beattie is responsible for the script and – especially for the first 10 minutes – it’s a clunker. To make it worse, the cast are, on the whole, fairly mediocre. (They remind me a bit of the Australian equivalent of the Harry Potter cast – though those guys are getting pretty good at their game now.) Also, the story has been updated from the early 90s to the present day. This is not as bad as you might think, but the first image is Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) talking to a video camera screen, and then a bit later, she’s pulling a mobile phone out of her pocket and looking at an SMS from her friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood).

I could cope with this, but as soon as Ellie and Corrie get together, it’s to talk about Corrie having sex with her boyfriend the night before. Never mind that Marsden takes sex much more seriously than that – it’s just a trashy introduction to the characters. Come on, Stuart – this is how Americans introduce characters! And it gets worse from there on. Fi, the prim and proper one, is a vacuous blonde (I feel a bit sorry for actress Phoebe Tonkin).

The one that most incensed me was the character of Robyn. Actress Ashleigh Cummings is probably the most convincing of the girls, but her character’s religious beliefs are treated as a total joke in her introductory scene, a lame exchange with her over-the-top puritanical father. While John Marsden would hardly be considered a friend of Christians, at least in the book, Robyn’s faith was always portrayed seriously, not through some post-modern “let’s have a joke” lens.

So I was rather glad when all of this ended, and the proper storyline began. The kids go camping, and while they’re away, a foreign country invades. Once our heroes arrive back in Wirrawee, things really start to heat up, and this is where Beattie’s direction really comes into play. He’s clearly comfortable directing an action sequence and it shows. From this point on, the film is relentlessly suspenseful with very little let-up. Combine that with Event Cinemas in George Street, who like to turn their subwoofers up to 11, and there was no falling asleep in this one.

Once I’d accepted that the story wasn’t going to live up to Marsden’s novel (and some people may not be able to), I quite enjoyed this film. I’ve always complained to anyone who would listen that it annoys me that we don’t make big dumb crowd-pleasing action films in Australia. Why is it that Americans get to enjoy seeing their capital cities blown up and shot apart, with simple good guy/bad guy stories? For a long while, Australia has seemed only capable of making serious arthouse drama on a small scale or ocker comedies.

But Tomorrow puts paid to all that. The setting is distinctly Australian (gorgeous Blue Mountans photography and I’m not sure what they used for the fictional small town of Wirrawee) but the action is all the Hollywood stuff we love. Car chases, shoot outs, churning ostinato soundtrack and more explosions than I’ve seen in a long, long while. It was AWESOME to behold. And, oddly enough, as the movie went on, even the character interactions became a bit less wooden. Or maybe I was just glad of a break between subwoofer bursts. I’m not sure.

Look, this is probably going to get snubbed at the AFI awards, but this is a true crowd-pleasing Aussie film. With better scripting and casting (and the sucky thing is we’re probably stuck with this cast for all the sequels – but hey, I’m an optimist – they might improve), it could have been something better. But I’ll stop the whingeing. This is the big Australian action film I’ve been waiting on for a long while, and if you’re a fan of big action films, you’ll have fun with it. Or if you’re a 16-year-old boy, this movie was written with you in mind.

4 out of 5.