I met a colleague, Noel Wurst, at the Agile Development conference. He's now working for Tricentis and he asked me to do an interview for their website content. Of course, I agreed.

I thought I'd share my replies to his questions. And I want to thank Noel for asking me. It was an honor to contribute...

Here are the interview questions that Noel asked and my replies:

1. Continuous feedback: I hear a lot of people talking about needing to shorten feedback loops, automate reporting, and development, test, and release cycles that deliver continuous feedback. And I agree. CF is highly valuable. But sometimes I wonder if, once people put those things in place, can they immediately act or respond to that feedback? How important is being able to do that, and not just collect or note that feedback, but adjust on the fly to make new decisions, pivots, and responses continuously as well?

I think this is a really important point, Noel. And it’s not simply related to continuous feedback, but also to the continuous improvement cycle. For example, feedback on adjustments that are raised in team, project, or organizational retrospectives. To your point, our lean-age should be towards doing something about our discoveries, in taking action.

It’s one of the reasons I talk about “stop the line” as a mindset.

If we were part of an assembly line that was building Toyota Corollas and we noticed that current cars were being delivered without rear doors, we would pull the cord and stop the line.

Then what would we do?

I would hope that we would fix the cars. In fact, the sooner we stopped the line, the fewer doors we would have to repair (less rework, less time impact).

But are we done? No!

We have to examine root cause in our process and figure out what is creating the issue. Then we need to…Fix It! Only then are we done with the event and can start the line again.

This somewhat contrived story focuses on:

  • Early detection

  • Immediate action – stopping what you’re doing

  • Immediate repair

  • Thoughtful root cause analysis

  • Finally, repairing the “process” so that faults don’t continue

  • Then, restarting the line

I’d like to reframe the question to more so focus on continuous improvement, with a preference for fast feedback, fast understanding, and fast adjustments.

I hope that makes sense.

2. How do you define “mature” agile teams? What qualities do they have that other teams may not?

I guess, first of all, they behave like a team. They have shared goals and share the work to get results. So, skills are not an impediment to collaborating and working together. Activities like pairing on work are commonplace.

They also hold each other accountable. Accountable for quality deliverables, accountable to each other’s commitments, and accountable to deliver results. You can see this in their work, but very clearly in their retrospectives. Where hard conversations are surfaced when necessary.

They also have the courage to challenge outward and upward. For example, if they feel leadership isn’t giving them the landscape to succeed, then they’ll push back on distrust, over-commitment of work, and lack of support resources.

They’re in it together. No individual or function is thrown under the bus. They succeed and fail as a team. In fact, they defend each other. They help each other. And they work hard to maximize their global strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

And finally, they get shit done. My friend Josh Anderson spoke about his 3-part hiring requirements for high-performance agile teams during his presentation. His criteria are:

  • Smart – Quick Learner

  • Team Player

  • GSD – Get Shit Done

And he was focused on candidates who could exhibit all three characteristics (the intersection of the Venn diagram).

I think that’s another way of effectively thinking about a “mature” or a “high-performance” agile team. But please don’t get stuck on those terms or goals.

I also want the team to have fun together. To discover the joy in doing great work that drives great customer value.

3. You mentioned in your session the need for agile leaders—and other leaders—to have “an increased understanding and respect for software testers” and that “they be recognized as first-class citizens.” How did it get this bad for testers? How did we get to a point where “leaders” would feel and treat them this way but might need to be reminded to do that?

I’ve been involved in software development for nearly 40 years Noel. And yes, that number frightens me from a variety of perspectives.

I think testers have had a second-class citizen rap that entire time. Developers have always been perceived as a value center and testers as a commodity and cost center.

I think a big part of it is many technology leaders come from a software developer background, so they more easily understand the value proposition of development. I’ve actually had the opportunity to lead both development and testing organizations over the years. I also sent myself to many classes so that I could understand the profession and craft of software testing more deeply.

Given that, I think I achieved a much more balanced view towards the value of each. Many leaders lack that broader perspective.

In fact, I think they trivialize the notion of testing. For example, in agile contexts, they think it simply surrounds “checking” user story functionality on a sprint-by-sprint basis. But it is SO much more than that. Or at least it should be. When you minimize it to simple functional checking, it becomes a commodity that anyone can perform. Or at least that’s the perception.

They also don’t think of the quality practices that testers can drive. As I discuss them in question #5, below.

4. You also described the need for leaders to “understand the power of basing decisions off of the objective evidence of working software.” Working is obviously a little like “done,” meaning, difficult to define. How important is it to learn how other stakeholders define “working,” and then, once you know, does everyone need to define it the same way, or is there room for some variation there?

I don’t think defining it should be the focus, Noel. I stand by my comment. What I’m trying to say is that we (software teams and projects) often work on many things to build our software. Some of those things include:

  1. Architecture and design documentation

  2. UX design

  3. Requirements – from traditional to user stories

  4. Project plans, Development plans, Test plans

  5. A wide-variety of checklist and process elements

  6. Status reports, metrics capture, tracking

  7. Various sorts of tooling infrastructure

  8. Test cases and test execution

  9. Internal documentation and customer documentation

ALL of which do not directly deliver value to our customers or stakeholders. In other words, they don’t pay us for the above elements. Sure, all of them are necessary to some degree. But they’re not directly in the value stream.

So, I think the point is not the definition of working software, but the delivery of working software. So that we can determine our direction not from documentation or plans or talking, but from the very thing that we’re building to deliver customer value.

It’s tangible. It reflects the value we’re delivering. The customer can touch it, feel it, interact with it, and give us feedback as to whether it meets their needs and solves their problems. 

Working software is the ultimate goal and measure of – are we there yet? And, are we done?

5. You’ve talked about in mature teams, “testing is not their only quality practice”—I think that would, at least initially, surprise people. What, outside of testing helps build quality in, and, secondly, does doing whatever that is relieve some of the burden placed on testers?

Actually, to be clear, testing is not a quality practice. It is a verification process.

Quality practices are different. They focus on pre-verification activity. For example, the “3-Amigos” is a common practice within agile teams. It’s where developers, testers, and the product owner all work together to vet user stories all along their lifecycle. It’s a collaboration metaphor where each perspective weighs-in on the story definition.

Design reviews, code reviews, and pairing are also hallmarks of quality activities within agile teams. As is working with the customer/stakeholder and product owner to ensure we understand the problem we’re trying to solve.

Sometimes folks refer to some of this as shifting left in testing. That is, the testers focus on ensuring that we’re building the right thing and building it right, before verifying it.

Think about it. In many ways, testing is too late to catch defects. Even within the tight feedback loops of agile teams. I’d much rather testers spend some of their time in “up front” activity to ensure we’ve got the recipe right before they focus on tasting things.

And yes, if we get the shift left balance right, then the testing is more of a by-rote or safety net activity. And it loses its typical repetitive test-fix-test again nature.

Or that’s the hope when focusing on building quality in vs. testing quality in.

Wrapping Up

Noel, I want to thank you and Tricentis for being interested in my thoughts. I hope I’ve answered your questions.

It was indeed a pleasure.

Stay agile my friend!