Thursday, 7 November 2013

Agile Testing Days take-aways #3 - Infrastructure Testing with Jenkins, Puppet and Vagrant

Infrastructure-as-code (IaC) tools, such as Puppet and Chef, have fascinated me since I first became aware of them about three years ago, and I'm very excited that my organisation is now making use of them. Attending this session was thus an easy choice to make. Carlos Sanchez delivered a well balanced talk that was high-level enough for newbies to understand, but still provided enough meat to satisfy those familiar with the concepts. You can read the abstract and grab the slides from his blog.

I had two direct take-aways from his talk, one technical, the other cultural:
  1. Carlos shared how RSpec-puppet can be used to assert that packages are set up correctly - think acceptance-test-driven-development for puppet.
  2. There was a great quote and this picture at the very beginning, which gave the Printing Press as an example of a tool can lead to significant cultural change. The quote was from Patrick Debois: Tools can enable change in behaviour and eventually change culture. This is controversial point, because, in the case of BDD, for example, using tools too early can hinder or even prevent the right kind of culture change. Choosing the right tool at the right time is a difficult decision to make, but one we shouldn't be afraid of.

Following his talk, Carlos and I met up to have a deeper discussion on the following practices.

Environment specific variables and configuration servers

One of the benefits of IaC is that it helps overcome environmental configuration issues, by explicitly codifying each environment's configuration. A few years back, the concept of a configuration server was mooted, which also partly addressed this. The concept involves a central server and configuration repository, from which applications retrieve their configuration (via HTTP, for example), by telling the server where their running. We discussed how IaC solves this, and whether configuration servers are now redundant. Our conclusion was that environment specific variables (e.g. connection strings for QA, Pre-Prod, Live) should be separated from recipes into environment specific files. It's still worth considering the use of a configuration server, quite separate from Puppet/Chef. I think experimentation would be required to establish if this separation was beneficial or not. If any readers have experience of this, I'd love to hear it.

Should engineers develop on local, remote or cloud VM's?

IaC tools can lead to the increased use of Virtual Machines (VM's) throughout the development process, including an individual engineer's dev-environment. This raises the question of what's the best host for VM's used for this particular purpose. Is it better that they be hosted locally (on the engineer's own laptop), remotely on a VM Server, or remotely in the cloud (e.g. AWS). There are many trade-off's to make in deciding this, but our discussion concluded with the instinct that (beefy) local hosts were best.

What's best: immutable images or a clean base + recipes?

Martin Fowler has an excellent article that presents the concept of immutable images (a VM image that needs no configuration), and compares them to deploying binaries that need no further tinkering nor configuration. At first, this seems to go against the IaC concept of having base images that source-controlled recipes fully define the configuration of. When you evaluate this in practice though, a hybrid of the two practices gives the best of both worlds, as using an immutable image significantly speeds up chef execution and deployment. The immutable image should be created, though, by using a clean base image and a source-controlled set of recipes. The image and it's recipes should be updated every couple of weeks, depending on your release cycle.

Who chef's the chef / who puppet's the puppet?

Chef/Puppet recipes include definitions of required applications, where to get them from, and what version to get. So where do you define what version of chef to use (in order to keep it consistent and up-to-date)? Carlos suggested this could be achieved by a mix of running update scripts and using chef recipes themselves.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Agile Testing Days take-aways #2 - Accelerating Agile Testing

This is the second in my series of take-aways from Agile Testing Days.

The ever-enthusiastic Dan North did a high-energy keynote on Accelerating Agile Testing. His slides were as innovative as ever - this time a series of index cards stitched together using Cam Scanner. Check them out at Speaker Deck.

My personal take-aways were:

  • UX is all about the experience a user has when they use the product - e.g. what drives Apple users to stay loyal and queue up overnight. How do we develop our culture so that it thinks as much as Apple does about UX?
  • What we do reveals what we value: values and beliefs drive our capabilities which drives our behaviour. Consultants and coaches typically work at the capabilities level, unless they have permission to help people adjust their values. Working systemically can help make adjustments at the values level.
  • Are we testing in all the right areas, in the right ways? Check the testing capabilities matrix:
Testing capabilities matrix
  • We should be putting most of our testing effort in the upper right quadrant of the impact vs. likelihood matrix. Bear in mind that this matrix has several planes, with each being specific to a context/stakeholder.
Impact vs. likelihood matrix
  • Explore other testing methods, consider opportunity cost (i.e. not everything is worth automating), test deliberately (consider how, where, what, when).

Monday, 4 November 2013

Agile Testing Days take-aways #1 - Visualising Quality

Last week I had the privilege of attending Agile Testing Days 2013, where I was a consensus speaker. This post starts a series summarising the main learning points I took away from the awesome conference.

First up is David Evans on Visualising Quality. David provided a very moving key-note that ranged from the Challenger disaster and Napolean's retreat to Lady Gaga and the McGurk effect. He very effectively communicated the care and thought needed when we construct visualisations. Some things I felt helpful to consider or try out were:
  1. - Pour in all of our test case names and see what it looks like.
  2. The value of the information we provide is equal to the value of the decision it informs - provides a good rule for deciding how much effort to put into creating a visualisation.
  3. We're not pilots, so don't build a dashboard that makes it looks like we are - good advice against going overboard with awesome dashboards.
  4. Consider carefully how your information is presented: use a representation appropriate to the decision its informing and ensure that those making the decision understand what the data is saying. David gave many good examples (such as how the US voted during the 2012 elections) of how the choice of axis can distort or enhance the true picture. Each time we create a visualisation of something, we should carefully consider how appropriate the axis are (e.g. what's the best code-metric: LOC, files, test coverage, live usage?).

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Hiring well

How you do hire the best people, in the most efficient way?

This question was the essence of a great conversation I had this evening with a young Agile Manager from a fast growing, Polish start-up. We're both in Bucharest for the grass roots Agile Lean Europe 2013 conference, so this will no doubt be one of many great conversations.

We compared notes and shared ideas. The take away was:

  1. Attract the best talent. Through community involvement over a number of years, his company is way ahead in this area (thankfully they're in Poland, so not direct competition :). Joking apart, this reinforced the importance of developing and promoting your R&D Team as a brand - it pays off in the search for new talent.
  2. Always phone screen first. If using agencies, have them do a pre-call, and get them to collect information to dig into on your own phone screen. Give the agencies a mix of open-ended and specific questions, e.g. "how to you learn?", "what have you learnt most recently?". Design these to give an early indication of height and cultural fit.
  3. Show-me-your-code. If the candidate passes the phone screen, send them a coding exercise to complete. Their solution will give lots of insights, at very low cost.
  4. Always meet face-to-face. If the candidate passes the coding exercise, then either do a Skype call (if remote working will be a significant part of the role) or skip straight to a face-to-face. The goal of the face-to-face is mostly to determine cultural fit. My friend put it this way: "only hire people you'd want to go for a beer with, so go for a beer with them". Our approach in more reserved England is a four-part face-to-face involving a code review and kata with an Engineer, a technical discussion with an Architect/Engineer and Engineering Manager, followed by a "cultural" discussion with a couple more Managers. The CTO often gets involved at this point too. A tour of Engineering is also done.
  5. Use a tool that makes it easier to scale this process out to lots of people (in terms of both candidates and those doing the hiring). What was hilarious was that we both use Trello for this, and both have recently set up Zapier to allow candidates to be added by email (this was ahead of Trello's recent addition of their email-to-card feature).

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A systemic approach to coaching agile teams

Last week I was privileged enough to be part of Johanna Rothman's Coaching for Leaders Masterclass.

Four of us from NewVoiceMedia attended and we had a fantastic time. There was much to learn, take away and apply. For me particularly, I saw significant overlap between coaching principles and systemic practice, which my wife is currently studying.

Our first exercise used origami to explore coaching stances, through a very simple, but effective means.
The origami from our coaching session
We then progressed onto "speed-coaching", in triplets of coach, coachee and observer:
  1. The coach coaches the coachee for seven minutes, whilst the observer, well, observes. 
  2. The observer provides feedback to the coach, for three minutes. 
  3. The three rotate roles and repeat.
The triplet I was part of found this massively useful, with each reaching a SMART action within the time set. The systemic links that then came out for me were circularity, curiosity, reflection and neutrality.

Circularity and curiosity

Part of the coach's role is to frame the problem or goal, provide context and explore options. In each case, we saw this being done through ever tightening circles of questions, answers and reflecting back, until the root of the problem or actual goal was established. The tightening of the circle was often achieved by the coach asking curious questions. This process to me fitted well with the principles of circularity and curiosity used by a systemic practitioner to explore a client's situation.


It was my first experience of being observed as a coach, and not only did the observer provide great insights into improving my coaching technique, they also provided additional input to the coaching session itself. In fact, many observers in the room found it hard not to be drawn into helping with the coaching. This combination reminded me of the systemic concept of a reflecting team, who observe a therapist and client, then provide additional insights to both.


As the group shared their experiences of speed-coaching, the question came up of whether a coach must be an expert in the coachee's problem domain. Furthermore, what would the impact be if they were a negative expert (i.e. bad at the problem domain)? We concluded that there was a middle sweet spot, but the most important strength was in coaching itself. If the coach did have an opinion on the problem domain, then the concept of neutrality becomes very relevant. In systemic practice, the therapist endeavours to be concious of how their own background might be influencing the session. It's important that they don't inflict their own views or solutions on the client, but rather guide the client in discovering next steps or possible outcomes. This is achieved by practising neutrality.

What's next?

Johanna's fantastic workshop was a great encouragement to me and reinforced many of the good things we're doing at NVM. It's also made me keen to explore further how systemic practice could be applied to agile teams, so watch this space, I'll be posting more on this topic!

Friday, 19 April 2013

Geeks, growing great teams and faith

I've recently finished reading Team Geek and would highly recommend it to any member of a Software Development Team (in fact, any member of any team, but more on that later).

The book's authors (Brian W Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman) do a fantastic job of illustrating how Humility, Respect and Trust are key values within an effective team. The book is a very easy read. Each short, bite-sized chapter includes coal-face stories from the authors' work with Google and the open source community.

Despite being a short book (167 pages), it covers a wide range of topics, whilst maintaining a style and language that is "geek-friendly". Developers often struggle to engage with fluffy concepts such as feelings, emotions and motivation, but this book communicates accessible advice exceptionally well, on all these topics.

The challenge for me now is how to apply it to the teams I lead, thinking specifically of what tweaks I need to make personally, and also encourage others to make. An interesting aspect of the application of this book is that, as the authors state in the Epilogue, it's principles don't just apply to software teams, but to any community.

Whilst reading this book, I was also listening to a podcast series on the Shema, from Mars Hill. These focused on the application of love (to God, and people), via heart, mind and strength. The book and the podcasts had much in common, with each reinforcing the other. Time will tell how well I apply them both.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Our first public coding dojo

Tuesday evening saw NewVoiceMedia host its first public Coding Dojo, under the auspices of the Guildford Meetup Group.
Dojo literally translates from Japanese as “place of the way” (Wikipedia). It’s a place where students hone their skills in a given art. The art, in our case, is writing maintainable code. Dojo’s normally use katas to develop the skill: kata being the deliberate, repetitive practice of the technique, to improve one’s expertise in that area.
We were led by the excellent Chris Pitts who did a fantastic job of guiding the six students (four from NVM) through the FizzBuzz puzzle:
Output the numbers 1-100, but for numbers divisible by 3, output Fizz, and numbers divisible by 5, output Buzz. For numbers divisible by 3 and 5, output FizzBuzz.
This appears at first to be a very simple puzzle, which can be solved in under five minutes by an expert. Chris provided a great extension to this puzzle (applying the Single Responsibility and Open Closed Principles) that stretched even the most seasoned programmers present. All in all, it was a very fun and educational evening. The pizza and coffee was pretty good too!
We look forward to the next one!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Fixing a broken tablet touch-screen

This post has been two months in the making, but it's finally ready to publish. Yesterday I finally completed the replacement of my daughters cracked touch-screen.

Buying a tablet from China makes them affordable, but few people in the UK are willing or able to fix them (other than Hardware Heroes, apparently), so hence I took on the challenge. Here's my steps:

  1. Disassemble the tablet to reach the touch screen. The photo sequence on G+ shows the steps. You need to take care to keep earthing yourself, and not damage any of the components with the screwdriver, knife or soldering iron.
  2. Once I'd successfully removed the broken screen, I ordered a new one from the tablet supplier (Ployer, in China). They agreed to ship it for £20.
  3. Reassemble the tablet following by reversing the steps.
  4. Power on and pray. The result was one very happy daughter.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Building simple, usable interfaces, architectures and products

I've recently finished reading a fantastic book: Simple and Usable. It's best read as a physical book, due to the stylish, magazine layout of text and full-page pictures. It's easy to read, but thought provoking. Concrete steps describe how to improve a user interface. These steps are easy to understand, but will no doubt require discipline to apply correctly.

Although each page offers a tasty morsel to digest, one page (76), entitled Solutions, not processes, jumped out at me. It asked the question: is there another way to solve this problem? I had recently read the very same words, in this architecture check-list, and they were then echoed again by Michael Dubakov's insightful article on Product Owners as a SPOF.

So often we rush to produce a solution, without considering the alternatives. Our team is currently trying to scale out and speed up in a big way, so we're focussing hard on optimising cycle-time. Despite the diversity of these articles, they all provide a clear reminder to not rush the creative process that leads to the best solutions. Don't rush it, but still optimise it - that's the challenge.

If you're a skilled User Interface Specialist that would like to be part of this challenge, please get in touch - we'd love you to join our team!

Friday, 25 January 2013

Going faster, growing faster

The team I help lead has a lot of work to do. In fact, a massive amount of work to do.

So what are we doing about it (given that we're already very agile)?

Three things:
  1. Go faster, by focussing the teams on stabilising and reducing cycle-time.
  2. Go faster, by focussing the teams on applying the 5-why's to problems that slow us down.
  3. Grow faster, by hiring more Software Engineers, both permanent and, as of today, contract. So if you're interested, please get in touch!
The challenge is the balancing act: I'm well aware of the mythical man month, so will be focussing on ensuring that growing faster doesn't result in us actually going slower!

Watch this space for an update on how it goes!

Monday, 14 January 2013

A tale of two retrospectives

One of my responsibilities as a Scrum Master is to facilitate our team's fortnightly retrospective. I like to experiment quite a lot with most things, and retrospectives are no exception. Our last two sessions used different formats that I thought may be of interest to others.

As a caveat, many of my ideas (and this very blog post) was inspired by a recent article from the lovely people at +TargetProcess , on different retrospective styles (of course!).


This is a twist on a traditional format that focusses three reflective questions around some shared goals:
Create fast, secure, scalable features that our clients will rave about.
Continuously improve our ability to get things done and get things right.
Share your passion for your work internally and externally.
Be (mostly) awesome.

These goals apply to every Software Engineer at New Voice Media and so we should also embody them as a team (we're hiring, by the way, Developers, a Product Owner, Op's Engineers and more - contact me if you're interested).

I printed the goals out, with emphasis on the key words, and stuck this up on the whiteboard. With this as our visual focus, we then considered three questions:

In order to achieve these goals, what should our team:
Do more of?
Do less of?
Keep doing?

The team spent 5 minutes writing ideas on stickies which were colour coded by section. Once everyone had posted their stickies on the board, we discussed each one and then starred the ones requiring significant action.

This format was great as it provided a concrete, visual focus for guiding our reflections, as the picture below shows.
Retrospective output

Looking forward - preparing for change

If your team is about to experience significant change, then a retrospective is a useful setting for sowing seeds and facilitating preparation.

Our Development Team will increase in size by 25% over the course of January (did you miss that we're hiring), and we're likely to add another 25% over the remainder of Q1, some of whom will be in a separate location. For our last retrospective of the year, I therefore made this our focus. We discussed the short and longer term changes that the team would be experiencing (cultural, as well as numerical) and shared thoughts on how this would impact us.

Applying the retrospective label to this approach may be a stretch, but I felt that it was necessary to improve the team's readiness for change. I'll let you know how well we actually responded to the growth in a few months!

Retrospective retrospective

In summary, it's important to experiment with the retrospective format and hopefully the two I've shared will help you do that. To improve our improving (which is what retrospectives are all about), it's important that we regularly apply the adjust part of the plan-do-check-adjust cycle to the retrospective itself.