Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Let the Experts Make the Decisions

In many traditional organizations, developers end up making business decisions that they have no right making. Maybe they are not able to get timely feedback from a business expert. Maybe they are so 'sure' of the answer they just don't bother asking. Maybe they are so knee deep in technical details they don't realize they are making a business decision. If they make the wrong choice, this can have some pretty nasty consequences for the business in question.

As a result, agile practitioners have a strong focus on putting business decisions in the hands of business people. The business expert (product owner in Scrum lingo, customer in XP lingo):
  • prioritizes features
  • provides feedback on working software on a regular, frequent basis
  • defines acceptance criteria for features
  • remains available to work with developers and answer questions to ensure the features under development are meeting business needs.
These are all excellent practices. They give the business expert the opportunity to steer the project by making all the small business decisions that crop up in the course of development. This is the best way to maximize the business value of the project.

Too much of a good thing

Sometimes, I see an agile team give the business expert too much control. I know, that sounds like heresy. Too much control in the hands of the customer? Is there such a thing? I think there is. Hear me out.

The reason agile practitioners put business decisions in the hands of business people is pretty obvious: they are the experts. They have the deepest understanding of the business needs. They are best able to understand the relevant consequences of the decision. As a result, they are in the best position to make the call.

For some decisions, though, the developers are the ones best able to understand the relevant consequences. I am not talking about most "technical" decisions. If you can easily translate the technical consequences to business consequences, it's not really a technical decision. When that's the case, explain the consequences in business terms, and let the business expert decide.

So what am I talking about?

I'm talking about decisions regarding software development process and practices. Consequences of these decisions are not clear, obvious, and easily comparable. They are subtle and complex. They require experience and expertise to understand. These decisions should not be left in the hands of a novice, and when it comes to software development, chances are your business expert is a novice.

Consider this exchange:

Bob the Developer: "Hi Jim, I wanted to ask you something. I'm working on feature x, and I've noticed that it would really help if we refactored the code we wrote when we implemented feature y. It's kinda becoming a mess."

Jim the Business Expert
(looking confused): "I've heard you guys talk about refactoring before, but I'm not really sure what you mean... do you mean you'll have to go back and fix the code for feature y? I thought we were done with that one."

Bob: "Well, the feature is working fine, but we took some shortcuts in the code. It's making it hard to work in that part of the code now. It's going to be a real problem as we move forward."

Jim: "Hmm. How long will it take?"

Bob: "It'll take about half a day to refactor the existing code and add the new feature."

Jim: "Can you add the new feature without doing this refactoring?"

Bob: "Hmmm. Well, I'd rather not, but I think we could hack it in. Doing it that way would take about an hour."

Jim: "Well... we have a lot of features to work on, and marketing is expecting the first release by June. I think you should do it the quick way. I'd rather not waste a few hours on refactoring if it's not really necessary."

Whether or not to refactor as you develop a new feature is not a decision that should be posed to a business expert. It takes a fair amount of software development experience and expertise to understand the effects of refactoring vs. not refactoring. As developers, we are the experts when it comes to software development process and practices. We should recognize that, and act accordingly.

I like how James Shore puts it:

"If a technical option simply isn't appropriate, don't mention it, or mention your decision in passing as part of the cost of doing business."

Letting the customer steer the project is great, but don't give them the opportunity to steer it into the ground by making inappropriate technical decisions. Stand firm when it comes to responsible development practices. Use your best judgement. Remember, you're the expert.

1 comment:

Pema Hegan said...

Hi Ryan,
I found your profile on LinkedIn and wanted to have a chat about a project I'm working on. If you get a chance please drop me a line at:
pema DOT hegan AT gmail DOT com

Thanks
Pema