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Thoughts on Clean Agile from Robert C. Martin

My third book review leads me to the third book in a row from Robert C. Martin. You may think I am a fanboy or such, but its just that as written before all those books and more I got provided from my employer, and somehow I liked the flow of Martin’s books, so I read them one after the other. But fear not, the next book will be from another author.

So “Clean Agile”: Already the title is a bit triggering. I remember a online talk from another big agile representative (forget the name though) who was very clearly discouraging to use “Agile” as a noun for anything, but always use it in its grammatically correct way as an adjective. Thats what I thought about when holding the book in my hand. However, I dont really care for the difference. Grammar is the one side, the other is that agile/agility has been a standing term in the sw industry for a while now, so one may as well use it in its noun form. Nevermind.

The first thing noteworthy is the history lesson about the waterfall process. According to Martin, the 1970 paper from Winston Royce which according to popular belief introduced waterfall and initiated its establishment, was actually arguing against this model. If that is true, a lot of people must have read only the first part of that paper and then went on implementing that part – because it chimed well with the notions of Scientific Management which were cool back then.

Martin is also very explicit about the small vs big team problem. In his opinion the organization of big teams is a solved problem since ages. What was open was the organization of small teams developing software. To scale from there seems to be the easy part for him. In theory, he may be right, but looking at my project which we scaled from 1 to 65 teams in years working on one product, the organism and interactions between teams and the overall organization cannot be reduced that easily. That would assume an organizational maturity on project level and on each single team that is hard to reach under realistic circumstances. I am not saying its not feasible, just that its not that simple. But Martin has shown to simplify a lot to make his points.

Another new information for me was the term “Iron Cross” of project management:

The reason that these techniques fail so spectacularly is that the managers who use them do not understand the fundamental physics of software projects. This physics constrains all projects to obey an unassailable trade-off called the Iron Cross of project management. Good, fast, cheap, done: Pick any three you like. You can’t have the fourth.

Robert C. Martin, Clean Agile, page 15

I agree with this assessment (of course in a theoretic setup you may be able to achieve all four, but in this world this is unlikely). On the following pages, Martin describes quite typical project development in the waterfall world up until the deatch march phase.

Another example of Martin’s provocations is his statements that “The loss of hope is a major goal of Agile.” Sounds crazy, right? What he aims at by using the metrics (like velocity) in a proper way, arbitrary and unrealistic deadlines, which are based on hopes, can be overcome, and gradually more realistic estimates can come out. This is also were he makes this statement:

Some folks think that Agile is about going fast. It’s not. It’s never been about going fast. Agile is about knowing, as early as possible, just how screwed we are.

Robert C. Martin, Clean Agile, page 27

Some pages later, Martin once again talks about the “grand redesign” – the typical “cure” when a software organisation has maneuvered itself into a dead end. He repeats his example from his earlier books, where a Tiger Team to redesign the software from scratch is caugth between having to catch up with the legacy software’s development while generating no income.

On page 50 Martin makes a memorable insight:

Humans make things better with time. Painters improve their paintings, songwriters improve their songs, and homeowners improve their homes. The same should be true for software. The older the software system is, the better it should be.

Robert C. Martin, Clean Agile, page 50

I really liked this statement. Software is in many cases connotated with the stance that old software/code bases are mostly getting worse, seldom better. Of course we all know good cases, mostly Open Source projects going on since decades (Linux Kernel, gcc, Latex, …), but in the proprietary software industry its often different. I cannot count how often old software really got worse over time – no matter if it was disimproved by rushed hacks or not changed at all. Martin is stating the obvious, but in that clarity I never saw that.

Many people have claimed that up-front planning is not part of Agile development. […] Of course the business needs a plan. Of course that plan must include schedule and cost. And, of course that plan should be as accurate and precise as practical. […]

In short, we cannot agree to deliver fixed scopes on hard dates. Either the scopes or the dates must be soft.

Robert C. Martin, Clean Agile, page 57f

I like this statement, because in few sentences Martin clarifies a typical debate around agile approaches. Some nitpickers – often with the aim to show the unsuitability of agile practices for tough industry business – claim that agile is anti plans or discourages plans.

Rising Velocity

If we see a positive slope, it likely does not mean that the team is actually going faster. Rather, it probably means that the project manager is putting pressure on the team to go faster. As that pressure builds, the team will unconsciously shift the value of their estimates to make it appear that they are going faster.

This is simple inflation. The points are a currency, and the team is devaluing them under external pressure. Come back to thatteam next year, and they’ll be getting millions of points done per iteration. The lesson here is that velocity is a measurement not an objective. It’s control theory 101: don’t put pressure on the thing you are measuring. […]

One way to avoid inflation is to constantly compare story estimates back to the original Golden Story, the standard against which other stories will be measured. Remember that Login was our original Golden Story, and it was estimated as 3. If a new story such as Fix Spelling Error in Menu Item has an estimate of 10, you know that some inflationary force is at work.

Robert C. Martin, Clean Agile, page 81

This is a very important observation and I can confirm it from practice. As a project manager I am monitoring team’s velocity charts. However, I am not doing this to enforce rising velocity charts, but to identify trends in underachievements (commitment vs achievements). Speaking about the average mature team, I think the best to aim for is a stable sprint velocity over longer duration of times, leading to a sustainable pace (Martin writes more on that on page 103). The last paragraph above gives a nice approach how to determine velocity inflation.

Working overtime is not a way to show your dedication to your employer. What it shows is that you are a bad planner, that you agree to deadlines to which you shouldn’t agree, that you make promises you shouldn’t make, that you are a manipulable laborer and not a professional.

This is not to say that all overtime is bad, nor that you should never work overtime. There are extenuating circumstances for which the only option is to work overtime. But they should be extremely rare. And you must be very aware that the cost of that overtime will likely be greater than the time you save on the schedule.

Robert C. Martin, Clean Agile, page 103

I really like this quote, it fits to my “natural instincts”. My work and contributions are most sustainable when I can work more or less normal hours. That means I can rest, stay sane and – more relevant to my employer – reflect on what is going on at work. As a team and project manager my day at work is usually crammed with meetings, mails and nagging people. Very rarely I have time to think deeply about what goes on. Hence, the best ideas I have after work, during weekends and vacations. I usually make sure to take notes about those ideas, so I can followup during working times.

On pages 106f Martin shares another interesting anecdote about the “developer hierarchy” at a printer company. The baseline is, that the printer software developers enjoyed a lot of praise for their direct contributions to the company’s main business. However, that led to elitism and closing up of their code. Other software developer working in indirect matters did receive lower trust and couldnt contribute that much. I think this is something to observe also around my work. The ones directly developing fancy features which make it on magazines and news pages feel much more appreciated than the ones working in the machine room, keeping the whole machinery running. I think the boundaries between those groups must be as permissive as possible.

The point is that Continuous Integration only works if you integrate continuously.

Robert C. Martin, Clean Agile, page 108

Simple but powerful words. I cannot believe how often CI is preached and promised, while it boils down to integration of a full team’s work once a sprint or even less.

The continuous build should never break. A broken build is a Stop the Presses event. I want sirens going off. I want a big red light spinning in the CEO’s office. A broken build is a Big Effing Deal. I want all the programmers to stop what they are doing and rally around the build to get it passing again. The mantra of the team must be The Build Never Breaks.

The Cost of Cheating

There have been teams who, under the pressure of a deadline, have allowed the continuous build to remain in a failed state. This is a suicidal move. What happens is that everyone gets tired of the continuous barrage of failure emails from the continuous build server, so they remove the failing tests with the promise that they’ll go back and fix them “later.”

Robert C. Martin, Clean Agile, page 109

Not much more to say, except that this is hard in traditional environments to achieve, and very easy to loose once gained. Just recently I got the chance to focus more, which I really appreciate.

The belief that quality and discipline increase speed is a courageous belief because it will constantly be challenged by powerful but naive folks who are in a hurry.

Robert C. Martin, Clean Agile, page 134

I love that quote because it is just true. And I admit that sometimes I am one of those naive folks. However I work to be it less every day.

Towards the end of the book, Martin lays out the new movement of Software Craftmanship. I frankly didnt hear about it before, but I like the ideas about it.

As aspiring Software Craftsmen we are raising the bar of professional software development by practicing it and helping others learn the craft. Through this work we have come to value:

Not only working software, but also well-crafted software

Not only responding to change, but also steadily adding value

Not only individuals and interactions, but also a community of professionals

Not only customer collaboration, but also productive partnerships

That is, in pursuit of the items on the left we have found the items on the right to be indispensable.

https://manifesto.softwarecraftsmanship.org/

Many will recall the format following the Agile Manifesto. However I see it a very valuable extension from the perspective of developers.

Let me end here. Probably long enough text for anyone ever to read here 🙂

Eine Antwort auf „Thoughts on Clean Agile from Robert C. Martin“

hi Jakob, really nice blog, I appreciate. btw., here is uncle Bob\’s video presentation / promotion of the book too Uncle Bob C. Martin: Clean Agile, Back to Basics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JihsBOBbdI

p.s. I tried to send this message few times, I got a message that WordPress considered my email as a spam and dangerous email regards, Zoran

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