User Story or QA Story

"What do our QA people do at the beginning of a sprint before the developers have coded any user stories for them to test?"

- Every aspiring Agile team with QA people

Honestly, I'm not sure I've ever worked on an Agile team that did not struggle with this conundrum of keeping QA people busy early in a sprint.

I'm a fan of the maxim: "If you can lean, you can clean"—there's always something valuable to do on a software project at any given time. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head, but I'm sure a curious mind could come up with many others:

  • Automate the testing of user stories that were tested manually in previous sprints
  • Conduct exploratory testing not directly related to a particular user story
  • Training

In case none of these ideas are adequate, there's also the common advice from Agile literature that smaller user stories are better. This idea of smaller user stories is appealing to people who are struggling to keep their QAs busy, because the thinking is that smaller stories take less time for the developers to code, and therefore the QAs don't have to wait as long to begin their testing. Makes sense, right?

So well-meaning teams take an axe to their user stories in an effort to make them smaller by any means necessary. Give QA something—anything!—to test.

Work proceeds like:

  1. Write a specification of something.
  2. Write code that meets that specification.
  3. As quickly as possible let a QA person check if the specification has been accurately met.
  4. Forget whether the behavior specified solves any problem for a real user.

By following this path, it's amazingly common to see the goal of "keeping QA busy" become the central organizing principle of a software project. And before we know it, maximum utilization becomes the goal of our sprint, rather than delivering value to users at the end of our sprint.

After a while, it starts to look like QA is our user, not the actual user anymore. We're delivering stories for QA now, not the actual people who need our software.

Snap out of it! There is no user but the user. Value is only realized when the user has it.

It's like acquiring staggering piles of Monopoly money. That pile looks really pretty, but let's not kid ourselves about the "value" of what we've achieved.

We don't work for managers and we don't work for QAs. We work for our users.

Selling Technical Debt

I tend to see technical debt discussed in a hand-wavy, fuzzy way, in which it's taken for granted that everyone knows exactly what it means, and why it's obviously bad. I'd like to put the onus on software developers to quantify the impacts of technical debt and what the business impacts are of paying it off.

"It's going to be easier to make changes later."

How would we prove that it's "hard" now? Is the average number of files changed per pull request higher than it should be? How would we prove that it's gotten "easier" later? What will the average number of files changed in a pull request be after changes are "easier"?

"We can move faster."

How would we prove that we're "slow" now? How would we prove that we've gotten "faster"? Will the number of story points completed per sprint go up? Is that a valid way of measuring efficiency or productivity?

If you're thinking to yourself, jeez, it's really hard to quantify these things, it's going to be equally as hard to convince someone non-technical to fund our work on technical debt. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that as long as we're unable or unwilling to quantify technical debt, then we can't really complain about the business not wanting to pay us to work on it.

We developers tend to grumble that "business people" don't understand code quality, but we have to be honest and admit that in equal measure we probably don't understand "the business" either.

As Martin Fowler points out…

Sadly, software developers usually don't do a good job of explaining this situation. Countless times I've talked to development teams who say "they (management) won't let us write good quality code because it takes too long". Developers often justify attention to quality by justifying through the need for proper professionalism. But this moralistic argument implies that this quality comes at a cost - dooming their argument. The annoying thing is that the resulting crufty code both makes developers' lives harder, and costs the customer money. When thinking about internal quality, I stress that we should only approach it as an economic argument. High internal quality reduces the cost of future features, meaning that putting the time into writing good code actually reduces cost.

We, of course, know that code quality has real impact on users, but it's on us to dispense with emotional appeals and instead make the connection clear to economic outcomes.

User Story or Manager Story

A pet peeve of mine is when people say "user story" as a generic term for any discrete chunk of work the team needs to accomplish.

And I don't mean this in a procedural sense, like you forgot to write the requirements in the classic "story" format like:

As a [type of user], I want [some functionality], so that [some benefit].

There's something very revealing about how teams write their requirements. Some teams have a product backlog filled with "user stories" written like this:

When you click on the "Edit Account" button, show a modal dialog with the title "Account Editor".

The modal contains:

- A dark green button in the lower right corner with the label "Save Account"

- Next to the "Save Account" button there should be a light green button "Close"

- A field with the label "Account Number" is pre-filled with the account number

… 

At the surface level, you can see that obviously this work item is not written in the typical user story format. So you could say, hey, we should write the requirements more like this:

As an administrator, I want to edit an account, so that the account is up to date when information changes.

That's better…maybe…but the real issue is not the format in which the requirement was written. The way a requirement was written can often indicate who we're hoping to please when the requirement is met.

When we approach software development as a series of user stories, we're seeking to please a user with each chunk of work that we deliver.

All too often software development proceeds more like a series of manager stories, in which we are pleasing someone in the team's management chain with each chunk of work delivered.

Some software organizations are set up like a feature factory, in which a management function beyond the development team decides ahead of time which things to build and the specifications of their design, and then parcels these chunks out to the development team on a sprint cadence. 

Feature Factory diagram via John Cutler

The optimum state of a software organization is one in which every person involved in the creation of the software understands the user's brain. Instead of thinking "what would my manager want me to build", think "what would our users want me to build".

Certainly many organizations get along fine as feature factories, but the real magic of the modern Agile philosophy is that we all take a user-centric approach to our work.

We call a chunk of work "done" when we all understand how it pleases a user's need, not just that our boss(es) told us to do it.

A user story is not just a format for writing a software requirement, it's the atom of a user-centric software organization.