Failure to plan communications is communicating a plan to miscommunicate

Most project charters include a communication plan, and it generally consists of who to communicate what to. What is often missing is the how, which is why many teams find themselves with endless email chains where the subject stopped reflecting the content a dozen messages down the thread.

Many enterprises offer multiple platforms, such as Slack, Teams, SharePoint, Confluence, Jira, ADO, etc. If there is a choice, determine how the team will most efficiently interact and then pick the tool that has the best features supporting those interactions. If there isn’t a choice (such as when a company may have several tools but a department only has one), be sure to keep some key communication and collaboration practices in mind as you plan its usage.

Taxonomy

Group topics in an intuitive manner. What is intuitive generally versus only for insiders can be different. If the team membership will fluctuate frequently, opt for intuitive for someone who needs to be productive quickly with little help. Long-term teams should evolve the taxonomy over time to foster productivity.

Formatting

We all get busy and skim our in box or project sites looking for what jumps out at us. Consistent formatting can help. Have predefined prefixes such as “ACTION REQUIRED:” or “No Response Necessary:” can help people see what is important and prioritize reading and responding. The range of formats can be very broad, so a full list is not appropriate here.

Read Me

The best of plans do not survive the first release. The taxonomy may fall out of date. Determine the most common entry point to the team collaboration and communication platform and post and pint a Read Me that explain the purpose of the team, the organization of the platform, and who to contact for help by topic.

Channels

Often a project will have multiple channels: The project management tool, the wiki, and IM client, email (sparingly). The team should decide which channel to use for what and gently remind people who use the wrong channel where the appropriate channel is and why.

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© Scott S. Nelson

Agile is not Ready, Fire, Aim

(Disclaimer: this article is not about what Agile is, the term is used only for blatant marketing purposes. Some principles were violated in the writing of this post)

A colleague of mine recently said something to the effect of “the goal of agile is faster delivery”.  This is a common misconception fostered by the improved velocity that agile teams can achieve in the context of enhancing software with new or improved features. The goal of agile is higher quality software, where quality is defined as meeting the intended functionality in a reliable manner. (lots of paraphrasing there, so please don’t flame me about accuracy). Another root of this misconception is that people who do not participate in agile projects (sometimes referred to as chickens) want agile to be about time-to-market (I’m working on a longer rant on that topic alone). Just like some people want agile to eliminate the need for planning and documentation, not be because these things are not critical (apologies for the double negative), but because they are tedious. They are certainly not mindful, because one focuses on the past and the other on the future, and we all want our features right now. Agile without planning and documentation leads to technical debt (something I grumbled about recently, with more to come).

Technical debt is the driver behind this particular rant, as I recently observed the creation of an equivalent jumbo mortgage with an early balloon payment due. In the same recent article linked earlier I mentioned how sometimes a platform migration is driven by a desire to get out of unacknowledged tech debt. In this instance, I witnessed the debt being incurred as a result of the migration. Specifically, the approach was taken to manually migrate data that was in immediate use while configuring the application without documentation in order to get into production as quickly as possible (the root cause of most tech debt). The idea was to migrate the rest of the data later. This migration, like many these days, was from one SaaS to another. The secret to a maintainable and extensible SaaS application is including flex fields in the data model. These are fields that have no pre-defined purpose so that customers can use them for customization and the vendor can avoid the hairball that results from customizing for each customer. The downside to this data model is that if the customer changes default labels and makes heavy use of the flex fields without documenting all of these changes, the data migration effort increases several-fold.

So, here is a real-world example of the impact of technical debt in a compressed timeline that is easy to follow: Short cuts were taken to quickly “realize value” from a new platform, and then to fully taken advantage of the platform subsequent efforts are increased, resulting in a much higher total cost and longer timeline to completion to get that short term win. None of this is the result of bad people or malicious intent, in fact, quite the opposite. It is the result of a “modern” business culture that has evolved to focus on quarterly earnings. It also explains why businesses that really want to innovate either do so before their IPO or go private to get back on track. It’s not because software can’t be done right in a standard corporate structure, but that “Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility”.

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© Scott S. Nelson

(Some) Best Practices in Design

Note: This is far from an exhaustive list, and will be updated occasionally to reflect that.

IT Design

Design First

Always design first. Even if it is an agile project with an aggressive timeline, a clear understanding of what your solution will look like and the steps to get there will make the path easier to get to. Designing first is the opportunity to think through what you will be doing and recognize potential issues in advance. Often when design issues show up late they are dealt with as code flaws rather than design flaws, taking longer to correct and often leaving the design issue in the “fixed” result.

When I can recall the exact wording and attribution I will update this post…meanwhile, not defining an architecture is an architecture. Some refer to it as a Big Ball of Mud. I particularly like Gregor Hohpe’s many takes on this choice. Here is a link to an older-but-still-accurate blog post of his.

Developers need to Design, too

Your design can be as simple as stubbing out all of your classes before developing them. This way, issues that were missed during the design phase are more likely to be discovered earlier, before they become harder to fix.

Test-Driven Development is another approach to catch issues early on.

Insist on Design Review

Have a technical lead or peer review your design. The additional perspective is always helpful, either by validating that your approach is sound or questioning choices and reviewing options found by a fresh set of eyes.

Environment Variables

Environment variables should be maintained in the environment. Placing these variables in components where they must be updated between environments reduces the value of such variables and increases the chance of errors when migrating deployments between environments.

Balance Early Adoption with Out-of-Date

Going first in a presentation is brave. Being first to apply a new technology in an enterprise is always risky, and those risks must be seriously weighed beyond the “cool factor” of being an early adopter. Once you have committed to early adoption, mitigate risk with thorough testing and following any active communities taking the same journey.

Because of the frequent and rapid changes in technology, the familiar approach is not always the safest. Libraries, functions, features and patterns currently in use at your enterprise may be heading toward deprecation and retirement. With vendor products, especially cloud platforms, a newer, better approach could be available that is solid and well-tested (depending on the vendor, YMMV). Always check for newer alternatives before committing to a solution, and weigh the alternatives for fit both from a functional perspective and maintenance implications. And…

Don’t Trust, Verify

Vendor claims are written by the marketing team, not the development or support teams. If a vendor states that Product X provides feature Y, validate that it does and that it does it in a way that supports your design before committing to it.

DevOps

Yes, DevOps is a category unto itself, and it also needs to be considered during the design phase. Retrofitting DevOps practices is often difficult. For greenfield projects, prepare a detailed recommendation on the benefits of DevOps for the application and the steps necessary to implement and maintain. For enhancement projects, review the technology landscape for potential and recommend accordingly.

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© Scott S. Nelson