Movin' Tickets

Recently I was re-reading Joel Spolsky's classic blog post The Joel Test: 12 Steps to Better Code. I hadn't read that post in many years. Although a lot of the advice in that post seems almost quaint now, as many of the practices it encourages are ubiquitous and taken for granted in 2024 (Joel wrote that post in 2000), there is one passage that seems just as fresh as ever to me...

...project managers had been so insistent on keeping to the “schedule” that programmers simply rushed through the coding process, writing extremely bad code, because the bug fixing phase was not a part of the formal schedule. There was no attempt to keep the bug-count down. Quite the opposite. The story goes that one programmer, who had to write the code to calculate the height of a line of text, simply wrote “return 12;” and waited for the bug report to come in about how his function is not always correct. The schedule was merely a checklist of features waiting to be turned into bugs.

One of my frustrations with Scrum, or with many teams who say they are "doing Scrum" is the obsession with the Sprint. Teams develop a short-term mindset, where all things begin and end within a two-week period.

We have some sort of "Board" where all the tickets (or PBIs, or cards, or whatever you call them) are shown in one of several different columns each representing a "status" of the ticket. A ticket starts in the far-left column on the first day of the sprint, and by the last day of the sprint, it must be in the last column. That's how we know we had a "good sprint".

Obviously the tickets on the board are just an abstraction representing work. But it's easy to get obsessed with this abstraction. Instead of making our users' lives easier and adding valuable features to the product they use, we're just moving tickets across a virtual board, sprint after sprint.

I always think it's fascinating to hear the language people use to talk about a team's work. In standup, people will say they plan to "have that ticket moved over" today. The team's manager might talk about how "good the board looks" today. In a retrospective meeting at the end of a sprint, the team might talk positively about how quickly tickets were "moving across the board" during that sprint.

The people on the team actually doing the work know they're doing well when they've moved a ticket from one column to a column to the right of that column. This is what they optimize for: efficient ticket-moving.

The necessary work of software engineering that doesn't have a ticket on the board feels downward pressure. A thorough code review for one ticket takes ticket-moving time away from the reviewer. If there are issues to be corrected, then the ticket being reviewed is stalled in its own rightward journey.

QA people on the team are in a difficult position of doing their quality assurance on tickets that are just to the left of the ticket's final destination--the place we all want it to be.

The whole team is incentivized to make sure all the tickets on the board are in the right-most column on the final day of the sprint. As in Joel's anecdote above, bugs found later merely become new tickets to move from left-to-right in a future sprint. Long-term concerns like sound architecture don't have a place on the board. 

When a team judges its effectiveness based on the movement of virtual tickets from one status to another, it can lose sight of the big picture. Who is ultimately benefiting from these ticket movements? Why are we moving them exactly? Where do they come from?

I think it's important that teams talk about their work, at least occasionally, without mentioning tickets. What are we accomplishing at a higher level? What are our users saying about our work? How is the business that pays our salaries benefiting from our work?

Surely we're not just movin' tickets.


Vision is so important in software development. Without the engineers understanding the overall vision, they can't resolve ambiguity in their daily work without consulting someone who holds the vision.

If the engineers don't understand why they're doing any of these things, then they can't fill in the gaps logically. They can't suggest improvements, improvise, or have confidence that they're moving the organization closer to the vision. Teammates talk past each other. One person has more of the vision than another, but doesn't know that. Misunderstandings are common. The track being laid from each end doesn't meet up in the middle.

Every little bit of vision transmission compounds in value. The decisions we make today form the foundation for work that comes later. A misunderstanding in vision today requires re-work tomorrow, a week from now, a month from now.

One of the things that can get left behind in the just-in-time fashion of Agile sprints is that the team can get lost in the weeds. We have to remember that we're building toward a significant milestone of some kind for the business, not just a random sequence of tasks.

It's difficult when backlog items are being entered by one person or a small group of people separate from the engineers and QAs who will be actually building and testing the stuff. They get queued up and drip-fed every two weeks to the broader team. But often there's no shared context transmitted to the whole team about what broad goal we're doing all these tasks for.

Sprint goals are tricky to set. But if a team can't ever seem to define a clear sprint goal, that's almost certainly a sign that the team is lacking a vision.

People like to make fun of heavyweight methodologies like SAFe, but doing a Program Increment Planning event--although tedious--sure does get everyone on the same page with a shared vision for the next few months of work.

Most of us are not working on the Manhattan Project--the end goal should not be obscured from the individuals making the parts. In fact, the end goal should be so clear to everyone that any person on the team could describe it clearly in their own words.

A Standup Free of Should, Probably, and Hopefully

It's interesting to listen to the word choices that people use in the daily standup.

"I should be done with that today."

"I'll probably be done with that today."

"Hopefully I'll be done today."

"I'll try to wrap that up today."

I like to take a mental note of the "shoulds", "probablies", and "hopefullies", and see if the next day that work was truly finished.

There are serial offenders on every team. If a should one morning comes back with another should the next morning, you're really worried.

Why do people feel the need to give these hopeful yet indefinite pseudo-pronouncements about their progress? Is it natural optimism, a people-pleaser temperament, willful deceit?

More importantly, what is the temperature in the room where people feel more inclined to give optimistic projections over more realistic ones? Hopeful wishes over definitive statements?

It could be...

  • The person does not have a good understanding of the goal of their assigned work, so they don't have a good idea of what it will look like to be "done" with it.
  • They're operating within an environment where people routinely make weak promises and exaggerations of progress, so that seems like a normal thing to do.
  • They're operating in a chaotic environment, where it's hard to predict how much focused time they'll get on any given task on a given day.
  • They know they're not being given enough time or resources to complete work in a politically acceptable timeframe, but it's also not politically acceptable to just say that, so their best option is a hopeful statement about the timeframe in which they intend to deliver it.

But, hey, sometimes people are just inexperienced in the kind of task they've been assigned, and so they can't see the road ahead of them and the milestones along the way. That will absolutely make it hard for them to predict when they'll reach the finish line. Fair enough!

But...I think the "should", "probably", and "hopefully" indicate something else than inexperience. They indicate a foresight about the task ahead and a suspicion that they don't feel comfortable stating.

What is making it hard for people to tell the truth in this environment? We need optimists in software, but too many unchallenged "shoulds", "probablies", and "hopefullies" in the room is a sign of trouble.

How Many Spikes Is Too Many?

Spike is fun to say. Spike! For the unfamiliar, the spike is a concept from Agile methodologies that means a time-boxed backlog item where the end result is learning, rather than delivered software.

Mike Cohn from Mountain Goat Software offers this example:

As an example of a spike, suppose a team is trying to decide between competing design approaches. The product owner may decide to use a spike to invest another 40 (or 4 or 400) hours into the investigation. Or the development team may be making a build vs. buy decision involving a new component. Their Scrum Master might suggest that a good first step toward making that decision would be a spike into the different options available for purchase, their features, and their costs.

Because spikes are time-boxed, the investment is fixed. After the predetermined number of hours, a decision is made. But that decision may be to invest more hours in gaining more knowledge.

I've worked on teams where the process was spike-heavy. We'd commonly have backlog items within most sprints that were dedicated to learning about a topic that we knew would be important for future work. We had features we wanted to get into the software, but we didn't have a good idea of how we were going to accomplish that work on a technical level. For teams that put a big emphasis on accurate estimation and minimal to no carry-over of items at the end of sprints, they want to know that a technical foundation for work is understood before its implementation is "promised" within a particular sprint.

I've also worked on a team where spikes were basically not part of the process at all. Backlog items were oriented around features the product owner wanted in the software, but they wouldn't allot an item into a sprint without a "technical approach" filled out on the item first. The "technical approaches" were usually written ahead of time by team leads or architects that did not have "on the board" responsibilities within sprints and would work on these things ahead of the rest of the team, as time allowed. Sometimes senior engineers would also work on technical approaches for future sprints if they finished their assigned items for a sprint with time to spare.

One of the downsides of a spike-heavy process is that you're reducing the amount of "business value" delivered at the end of a sprint. If your entire sprint was consumed by spikes, I don't think the business would be very happy. On the flipside, learning has to happen somewhere. Whether you call it a spike, refinement, technical approaches, or anything else, the learning must happen.

I wouldn't necessarily say that the spike is an anti-pattern, but if it feels they're being leaned on too heavily, it might be time to stop and ask why they're necessary. Is it because we're shifting decision making to the engineers about requirements that a business analyst or product owner should be making? Are we not dedicating enough time to refinement? Is the product owner spread too thin? Is the development team stacked with junior engineers or lacking in engineers that are experienced with the technology at hand?

Learning has to happen somewhere—that's the nature of software engineering. But an over-reliance on spikes for decision making can indicate deeper organizational issues.