Agile Software Dev

Rapid feature delivery using “Fast Follows”

I’ve mentioned previously that I like using “Now”, “Next”, “Later”, “Never” as a way to prioritise the system features we’re delivering.

But we often get in a situation where we want to deliver a “now feature” quickly, but we find something that we need to do on it that we don’t want to want to group with the “next” features. To steal a term startups use and reinterpret it: we call these “Fast Follows”.

“Fast Follow” is a startup strategy that aims to build a company by copying an already proven business model- and executing quickly to “follow” the moves of the predecesor.

Fast follows allow us to quickly ship “now” features into the hands of our customers knowing we have a mechanism to follow quickly with an enhancement or bug fix.

Do you do “fast follows”? What do you call them?

Agile Software Dev

Example of lightweight feature documentation 📃

In response to my article about BDD in 2020 I saw this question on Twitter:

I thought it would be easier to write an answer here and provide an example.

I’m not keen on writing specifications in gherkin (Given/When/Then) as I think it’s too generic and frequently makes the feature specifications too verbose – and takes emphasis away from the critical parts.

Here’s a made-up example of some lightweight feature documentation that would be generated during the development process. The important thing to note is the actual documentation artifact generated isn’t as important as the collaborative process that is involved in generating it. This is often about asking the right questions and adding more examples until there’s nothing that is unclear.

The document isn’t a template – the actual documentation varies based on conversation, problem and context.

Example: Royalty Payment Splits


  • Royalties need to be paid in full on disbursement to artists.
  • A royalty payment can be made to an individual artist, or a group of artists.
  • When making payments to an individual artist they get 100% of royalties (no rounding)
  • When making payments to a group of artists this needs to be split by the percentage splits defined in the system which always add to 100%
  • When splitting a payment across a group of artists and it doesn’t split evenly into cents, the system currently randomly splits the cents between artists to balance out the rounding over time
  • This causes issues for both automated tests which need deterministic behaviour, and artists who are confused why they get slightly different amounts if their royalties are the same.

Scenarios / Examples

ScenarioRoyalties OwedCurrent Royalties Paid New Royalties PaidTesting
Single artist gets 100% of whole payments$100.00$100.00$100.00
Single artist gets 100% of payments including cents$66.67$66.67$66.67
Two artists with 50% each for a payment that can be split evenly $100.00artist 1: $50.00
artist 2: $50.00
Two artists with 50% each for a payment that can’t be split evenly$100.01$50.01 / $50.00 is randomly assigned to artist1/artist2artist 1 $50.01
artist 2
Two artists with 50% each for a payment that can be rounded to ten cents – no rounding$100.30artist 1: $50.15
artist 2: $50.15
artist 1: $50.15
artist 2: $50.15
Three artists with third splits can’t be split$100.00amounts of $33.33, $33.33 and $33.34 randomly assigned to group members artist 1: $33.34
artist 2: $33.33
artist 3:
Three artists with third splits can’t be split – more than a single cent difference$100.00amounts of $33.33, $33.34 and $33.34 randomly assigned to group membersartist 1: $33.34
artist 2: $33.34
artist 3:

Business Rules

  1. Royalties need to be paid in full on disbursement to artists.
  2. A single artist gets a whole payment.
  3. When payments can be split evenly to a group of artists (to the cent) they are split that way.
  4. When payments can’t be split evenly to a group of artists, the payments are split into an even split and the remaining cents are distributed to the members in whole cents.
  5. The first member in the group – based on earliest date/time added to group – gets the higher amount, followed by the second, third etc. based on earliest date/time added.
  6. Payments aren’t rounded to ten cents or five cent amounts, only whole cents


QuestionDecisionMade By
Do we want to round to five or ten cent distributions?No, we’ll always round to the centProduct Owner via Slack #
How do we distribute based on membership of group?We’ll use the date time added to the group (first gets most)Team during kick off meeting


I think trying to force the above information into gherkin (Given/When/Then) statements would make it less readable and provides no added benefit – whilst Given/When/Then encourages consistency sometimes you just need structured thought that is most relevant to your context. The above document isn’t a template – it varies for the problems we’re trying to solve.

Agile Software Dev

BDD in 2020

It’s 2020: can we officially declare Behaviour Driven Development (BDD) dead?

How did we get here?

“There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”

Raymond Chandler, Long Goodbye

BDD’s lure was the promised land of collaboration between business and technology defining expected behaviour as executable specifications (automated tests). These automated tests defined our software development processes: outside-in software development, behaviour driven development, acceptance driven test development and specifications by example.

BDD’s trap was a bunch of Cucumber specifications written after the fact that create another layer to automate tests in a browser, hidden away in source code which are seldom, if ever, seen by the business, and either too comprehensive, flaky and expensive, or narrowly focused but lacking in enough detail for a complete executable specification of a system.

Sure BDD tests can drive things besides the browser, but the overhead and complexity of maintaining these outweighs the benefits they serve, especially when there is still a need for more expensive integration/e2e tests anyway.

So what actually works in 2020?

I’ve found this process seems to work really well for modern software development in 2020:

  1. Every new piece of work has a kick-off discussion with the product owner, the tester and the developer(s)
  2. The tester usually facilitates this meeting and aims to produce written lightweight documentation during the discussion containing the following information: background info, scenarios, business rules, examples (edge cases), questions and decisions.
  3. This documentation is enough for development work to begin, and the tester to plan how they’ll test it.
  4. The documentation is updated as work progresses: questions arise and decisions are made (and documented).
  5. The developer(s) is/are responsible for making sure there is automated test coverage for these business rules at the cheapest level of testing, these are typically automated unit and/or automated integration tests. These aren’t written in business readable language, they’re test code alongside production code.
  6. The developer also needs to ensure any existing automated end-to-end (e2e) tests are updated for the work that is happening – CI builds highlight these impacts/failures.
  7. When the feature, or a working part of the feature, is ready for testing the developer and tester do a quick handover/walkthrough making sure what was done is what was discussed.
  8. The tester uses the lightweight documentation as a basis for their testing, but adds extra rigour in testing edge cases/unknowns, other impacted areas, different browsers, performance, and devices and anything else they think could be risky.
  9. Bugs that are found and determined by the product owner to be crucial are fixed immediately, some bugs become “fast follows” which are the next thing to ship. Some bugs aren’t fixed.
  10. The tester gives a walkthrough to the product owner and sometimes UX designer to make sure what’s been done is acceptable – if the feature is new/risky it’s launched to a subset of customers and can be disabled at a flick of a toggle.
  11. When an entirely new feature is added to the system and it’s important enough to warrant an (expensive) automated e2e test – the tester works on adding that in amongst their other work. This isn’t a blocker to release and provides a safety blanket for future changes. This isn’t a comprehensive specification of the system – it’s an e2e automated test that covers a business critical flow over multiple moving parts and again doesn’t need to be business readable.
  12. The specifications/documentation lives on in a wiki page and can be referred back to when testing future changes to this feature, or when support tickets or bugs are found in production.

BDD isn’t working for us, what can I do now?

  1. Make sure you commit to having kick-offs and encourage robust discussion creating lightweight documentation as you go – remove uncertainty and create clarity by making and documenting questions and decisions.
  2. Keep your lightweight specifications up to date as you go – don’t worry about making them executable – let people write automated tests in the way that is the most efficient for them.
  3. Only use automated e2e tests to cover key user flows in the most efficient way – don’t use these to create/maintain comprehensive living documentation.

Also See:

Agile Software Dev Project Management

The importance of a decision log 🎋

It’s no secret that I love writing and love documenting things. This is where I’m a bit different to a lot of people I work with who prefer writing code to documentation.

I have a lot of project management responsibilities as part of my current role, and I’m a big fan of “fixed time/variable scope” as a way to get rapidly get important things done. This works in that we can say to our product owner how long do you want to spend on a feature, which then enables us as a development team to do everything we can to get as many things done in that time.

There’s two things I have found that are crucial to succeeding in this approach:

  1. Documenting and maintaining a list of up-to-date things that need doing that is constantly refined and re-prioritized based on discoveries; and
  2. Documenting decisions as they take place in some form of “decision log”

A decision log isn’t for blame. The reason a decision log is crucial is it allows us to decide, document and move on. This enables velocity since we don’t ruminate on decisions. It’s also good during conversations where you feel “déjà vu” as we often forget what we’ve decided previously, and it’s easy to refer to our log and say “we’ve already talked about this and we decided this for that reason”.

I like the simplest decision log that will possibly work for your context. Ours is a Confluence page with a table in reverse chronological order (so the newest decisions are at the top):

QuestionDecisionMade By / WhereDate
Do we want to limit the max records?We should limit it to 50. That’s a sensible limit and we can adjust based on feedback.Product owner during Slack Conversation (link)28 April 2020
An example decision log

This doesn’t mean we can’t change our mind, flexibility is crucial, we just need another decision log entry to show we changed our minds 😊

How do you make and document decisions? Are you a fan of fixed time/variable scope?

Agile Software Dev Software Software Testing

Moving towards a quarterly team story wall

One of the key facets of effective software delivery is continuous improvement to team practices.

The reason I believe physical team walls are so effective in continuous team improvement is that they both reflect good team practices, and drive good team practices. That is, our wall both displays how we’re working, and improves how we work.

If your team is improving how you’re doing things then chances are your wall will look different to how it looked six months ago.

In September I shared how we were using our story wall to display dependencies between tasks for more complex pieces of work.

Our team wall as at September 2019

We’ve since made some improvements to the wall that has continued to improve our effectiveness as a team.

We work in quarterly planning cycles, fortnightly sprints towards our goals, and frequent software releases (once or twice a day typically).

The nice thing about our quarterly planning cycles is that we can neatly fit six sprints within a quarter (12 weeks).

Since the wall represents what we’re doing, and we have this quarterly focus, we thought it would be a good idea to represent the full quarter on our wall. This means our wall currently looks something like:

Quarterly wall

If you zoomed into a single sprint it looks like:

Zoomed into one sprint

Some of the important aspects of the design include:

  1. We put colour coded epics across the top of our board that roughly show when we plan to start each epic. These may not always start at the beginning of a sprint as each epic doesn’t always fit within a sprint and we don’t wait for a new sprint to start a new epic.
  2. Task card colours match the epic to which they belong, except for white cards which are tasks unrelated to an epic – for example tech debt, or a production fix.
  3. Each task card is exactly three columns wide – this is because we try to keep our cycle time, that is the time it takes to pick up a task and merge/release it, to about 3 work days, and each column is one work day. If we find a task is taking much longer than 3 work days it’s a good indication it hasn’t been broken down enough, if it’s much quicker than that we may be creating unnecessary overhead. The benefit of this is more consistent planning, and also effort tracking as we can see at a glance roughly how much effort an epic was by seeing the coloured tickets.
  4. Tasks have a FE/BE label, a JIRA reference, a person who is working on it and one or two stickers representing status.
  5. We continued our status dots – blue for in progress, a smaller yellow sticker to indicate in review, blue and yellow makes a green sticker which is complete. We also use red for blocked tasks, and have added a new sticker which is a purple/pink colour which a black star which indicates this is a tech debt related task.
  6. We move the pink ribbon along each day so it shows us visually where we are at in the sprint/quarter.
  7. We have rows for both team leave, and milestones such as when we enabled a new feature, and also public holidays and team events.
  8. We continue to have our sprint goals and action items displayed clearly at the top of the wall so we can refer back to these during our daily stand up meeting during the sprint to check in on how we’re going.
  9. One extra thing we’ve recently started doing which isn’t represented in the diagram above is when a sprint is complete we shift the cards to the bottom of the wall (in the same columns) so we have a clear future focus, whilst still having a historical view.

We’ve found continually improving our wall represents how our practices have improved and will continue to make improvements as we go. I have no idea how it will look in six months time.

How have you adapted a typical agile wall for your team? How different does it look today than six months ago?

Agile Software Dev

Experimenting with our Agile Story Wall

After three and a half years of working by myself at home, it feels truly great to be working in a co-located cross-functional team again. My squad consists of four developers and myself, and I had forgotten how much I love being a paradev. I wear many hats every day in my job, which I love, and one of these hats is managing our iterations of work: our fortnightly sprints.

We follow lightweight agile software development practices but in the spirit of this our squad is empowered to experiment and adjust our techniques to delivery good quality software quickly.

We aim to work on items of work in small chunks and have these features being used by our customers as quickly as possible by releasing software at least daily to production.

Typically we’ve been using a simple physical agile story wall which is good when you’re working on small and fairly independent chunks of functionality, but we’ve found not all work fits into this style of working.

We recently had an initiative that involved lots of small tasks, but there were a lot inter-dependencies between the tasks – as we need to do data creation, migration, back end services migration and new front end development. Our standard agile story wall which looked like this was very bad at showing us what was dependent on what:

Agile Story Wall

As a team we decided to experiment with using our agile story wall to map the dependencies we have between work and also to show when we’re able to release the various pieces of functionality. The two week sprints were less relevant as we release as soon as we can. We still have some pieces of independent work (eg. bug fixes and tech debt) which we kept tracking using the standard Kanban style columns under our main board:

Dependency Wall v1.jpg

This gave us instant benefits: the dependencies were not only very clear but elastic. We used a whiteboard marker to draw lines between tasks which meant as we discovered new or unnecessary dependencies we could quickly remove or re-arrange these lines. But we also quickly realized that in mapping our dependencies out this way we lost one key attribute of our information radiator: we couldn’t see the status of our pieces of work at quick glance which the standard status based wall gave us. Since we’re using a physical wall we can quickly adapt so we added some sticky dots to indicate status of individual cards: blue for in progress, a smaller yellow dot is in-review, and green for done since blue + yellow = green (I’m happy to take the credit for that). We also added red for blocked when we discovered we had our first blocked piece of work, and a legend in case the colours weren’t immediately obvious:

Dependency Wall v2Once our 4 week initiative was over we found the dependency wall was so useful we’ve decided to continue using it for the main focus of each sprint, and continue using the standard status based columns for less critical things. We’ll continue to refine and iterate.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Having an old-fashioned physical agile story wall is powerful is a lot of ways, and one of the most powerful things about it is how easy it is to modify and adapt your wall to whatever suits you best at the time: we couldn’t have achieved what we did if we were using a digital board like JIRA or Trello.
  2. Standard agile story walls are good for showing status of work, but are very weak at showing interdepencies between stories and tasks – the major software solutions suffer from this.
  3. A software team being agile isn’t about just doing sprint planning, standups, a story wall and retrospectives from a textbook. It’s about delivering software rapidly in the best possible way for your team and your context – and continually experimenting and adjusting your ways of working is crucial to this.
Agile Software Dev Ask Me Anything

AMA: Iterative vs Incremental Development

Mario asks:

I have a question to ask your post on iterative vs. Incremental Software Development:

In the incremental approach, the few features implemented in all of their requirements can be changed after user feedback? Or, does this only happen with the iterative approach?

My response:

Thanks for your question Mario. This can, and should, happen with both approaches, but I’d say the incremental approach is actually more likely to get customer/user feedback as it’s a more polished, albeit smaller, user experience, and therefore more likely to land in front of users. The painting analogy isn’t the best as the requirements and level of ‘done’ are pretty clear, but the general rule is to seek feedback as soon as possible, and both approaches are designed to do just that.

Agile Software Dev

Avoiding LGTM PR Cultures


Making a code change when using a distributed version control system (DVCS) like Git is usually done by packaging a change on a branch as a “pull request” (PR) which indicates the author would like the project to “pull” the change into it.

This was, and is, a key part of open source projects as it allows outside contributors to contribute to a project in a controlled way, however many internal software development teams also work in this fashion as there are many benefits of this approach over committing directly to a shared branch or trunk.

I’ve seen the pull request approach have a positive impact on software quality since pull requests facilitate discussion through peer reviews and allow running of automated tests against every commit and change that is proposed to be merged into the default branch.

taken lgtm.jpg

What is a LGTM PR culture?

I’ve also seen some negative behaviours emerge when moving to pull request based development which I’ll call a LGTM PR culture.

LGTM is a common acronym found in peer reviews of pull requests which means “Looks Good To Me”, and I’ve seen teams let unsuitable changes through with LGTM comments without doing solid peer reviews and testing.

How do you know if you have a LGTM PR culture?

One way to “test” your peer review process is by creating PRs and leaving a subtle bug or something not quite right that you know about in the PR. When it gets reviewed do you get a LGTM? I did this recently and whilst the PR didn’t even do what it was meant to do I received a LGTM 😕


How can you move away from a LGTM PR culture?

It’s tempting to just tell everyone to do better peer reviews but it’s not that easy!

I’ve found there’s some steps that an author of a pull request can do to facilitate better pull request reviews and lead towards a better culture.

1. Make pull requests as small as possible:

The smaller the pull request the more likely you’ll get specific and broad feedback on it – and you can then iterate on that feedback. A 500 line change is daunting to review and will lead to more LGTMs. For larger refactorings where there’ll be lots of lines changed, you can start with a small focussed change and get lots of review and discussion, and once the refactoring is established with a smaller example you can easily apply that feedback to a broader impact PR that won’t need as much feedback as you’ve established the new pattern previously.

2. Review your own pull request

Review your own work. This works best if you do something else then come back to it with a fresh mind. Anything you’re unsure about or doesn’t look right leave it as a comment on your own PR to encourage other reviewers to look closely at those areas also.

3. Include clear instructions for reviewing and testing your pull request

A list of test steps is good as well as asking for what type of feedback you’d like – you can explicitly ask reviewers something like “please leave a comment after your review listing what you tested and what areas of the code you reviewed.” This discourages shortcuts and LGTMs.

4. Test your peer review process – see above.


Developing software using pull requests can mean much higher quality code and less technical debt due to the feedback on peer reviews that accompany pull requests. As an author you can take steps to ensuring pull requests are easy to review and encourage a culture of effective peer reviews.

Agile Software Dev Ask Me Anything Software

AMA: Time Estimation

Paul asks…

What is your stance on time estimation (involved people, granularity/level of detail, benefit)?

My response…

I’d like to start by stating that I’m by no means an expert on this topic; so please take what you will from what I write.

Time and effort estimation for any software development activity is very difficult to do so often we get our estimates very wrong. I believe this is because we try to do up-front time and effort estimation without fully understanding the domain or the extent of the problem we’re solving; we still have many unknown-unknowns.

We can still do detailed/granular planning, but we should try to delay the detailed estimation of these until we have more information.

What I prefer is detailed planning  up front, which involves breaking large lofty goals down into small goals. These small goals are broken down further into the smallest possible manageable unit of work that delivers something, however small that something is. It’s important to break things down to this level as this enables continuous delivery, and flexibility in scope as a project progresses.

Once these small units of work are detailed, before trying to estimate these, I think there’s validity in starting work and delivering some of these units of work. This will mean it’s possible to more accurately estimate the remaining work based upon real delivery experience.

As soon as you begin working on each unit you should get a feel for the size and effort that is required for each unit, and over a period of time (say a fortnight) you can start to work out how many of these units you can achieve (your velocity).

If you’ve got the detailed plan of how many units total you’d like to achieve, it is probably at this point where you realise that what you wanted to achieve is going to take too long or cost too much. This realisation means you need to prioritise all remaining work, and focus on what is high priority.

I’ve never seen a project finish with the same intentions as when it started, so as you progress you will find some items get completely de-prioritised (no longer in scope), some things become higher priority so they get delivered sooner, and some completely new ideas/pieces of functionality may be decided upon and included in your plan.

Since you understand what you’ve been able to deliver you can then have sensible conversations about what is feasible given the resources available.

Agile Software Dev Leadership Software

Futurespectives are fun

Since my team (and every team at Automattic) is 100% distributed, it’s important that we meet in person a few times a year (somewhere in the world) to hang out, co-work, eat and plan together: we call these team meetups.

Two weeks ago I spent the week in La Jolla in beautiful Southern California working with my team. Each team member was asked to suggest activities/projects to work on for the meetup and I suggested we do a futurespective.

Most people are familiar with a retrospective as they’re very common in agile software development, but I’ve found futurespectives to be much less common.

A futurespective is an activity where a team can work together to create a shared vision for the future.

There’s not a huge amount of information online about how to facilitate a futurespective, so I went with this structure:

  1. Prime directive (5 mins)
  2. Check-in: clear the air (5 mins)
  3. Explain the purpose of the excercise: what we are aiming to get out of this (5 mins)
  4. Move to the future: Imagine a nirvana state (20 mins)
  5. Coming back: Success factors that got us there (20 mins)
  6. Now: what can we do to start achieving those success factors (20 mins)

Prime Directive

I found this prime directive online, and whilst it sounds a little cheesy, it set the tone for the excercise which is about working together for a better future together:

‘Hope and confidence come from proper involvement and a willingness to predict the unpredictable. We will fully engage on this opportunity to unite around an inclusive vision, and join hands in constructing a shared future.’ – Paulo Caroli and TC Caetano

Check in

There’s no point working on a team excercise to plan for the future if there’s something in the air, so it’s worthwhile just checking in on the team and how everyone is feeling about the current state of things.

Explaining the Purpose of the Excercise

The prime directive is a good start for this, but it’s worth explaining that the team will be brainstorming and working together to achieve a list of action items at the end of the excercise that will directly impact our future.

Move to the Future: Imagine a Nirvana State (20 mins)

This is where you start by setting the scene 12-18 months in the future where a particular milestone has been successfully achieved – this might be finishing a big project you’re working on, or having launched a new product etc. This is the nirvana state. Ask a question that you would like answered by this excercise: for example: ‘what does testing and quality look like on this day?’

Get each person to spend 10 mins writing sticky notes about the state of your particular question, what it is like, but not delving into how it is like this.

An example might be: ‘everyone is confident in every launch’ or ‘everyone knows what the right thing to work on is’.

As each person is finished we put these sticky notes on a wall and logically group them, and then vote on which are most important (each person is given typically three votes and marks three notes or groups with a sharpie).

Coming back: Success factors that got us there (20 mins)

From the first excercise you should have a list of three or four most end-states, and now we use these to brainstorm for about 10 minutes the success factors (hows) that got us to these end-states.

For example, a success factor for ‘everyone is confident in every launch’ could be ‘unit tests are super easy to write/run all the time (fast)’.

Once people have had time to write these up, we logically group them under our three or four headings on the wall so we can see these clearly.

Now: what can we do to start achieving those success factors (20 mins)

Our final activity is working out what we can do now to lead to these success factors which will get us to our end-goals. At this point you can either brainstorm again, or as a team start discussing what we can do.

If you need some structure you could use “Start Doing/Stop Doing/Keep Doing” to prompt for ideas, otherwise any format you want.

The goal here is after 20 mins have a list of action items that you can easily assign to someone knowing that these will lead to success factors and your end goals you’ve come up with as a team.

An example would be ‘ensure that 100% bugs are logged in one tool (GitHub)’ which can be assigned to someone.

Ensure someone is tasked with taking photos and writing up the findings, at least the action items and circulating these around.


The Futurespective we ran as a team was very useful as it had enough structure that enabled us to get through a lot of thought in a short amount of time. We did this on the first morning of our meetup and having this structured activity set the tone for the week as we could refer back to what we’d discussed in future activities during the week.

I thoroughly recommend this as a team planning tool.