Process, technology

Building an Agile Team

We’ve recently built our first true Agile development team. It’s been quite a learning experience, but now we’re seeing the results.

At Xcential, we have lots of waterfall process experience. Our backgrounds come from big waterfall companies like Boeing and Xerox. Over the years we’ve worked on very large projects in very traditional ways. In more recent years, we’ve also had a few Agile projects, largely initiated by customers, that have been good training grounds for us — for better or worse.

Like many companies, in recent years we’ve fallen victim to what the U.S. Department of Defense calls Agile BS — when you apply Agile terminology to your existing way of doing business. It’s a way to dilute Agile and turn it into nothing but a series of buzzwords. We’ve had sprints, standups, product owners, backlogs, and all the other bits of Agile — but we haven’t had the mindset that is necessary to make the Agile process work.

To build an Agile Team, we have needed to make a few key changes. First, we had assemble a team of developers who would gel together to become a performing team as fast as possible. Then, in order to overcome the inertia of the old way of doing things, we had to ensure that the team was trained to tackle the challenge in front of them. Finally, we have had to ensure that all the team members felt empowered to rise up and take ownership for their project.

An Agile team must be self-managing. This means that all the team members must feel the responsibility to deliver and have a commitment to do their part. Getting to that point has been a challenge — from getting management to let go and trust the team to getting the team members to step up and trust that their responsibilities are real.

I like to think of managing a team as being a game of chess. In a traditional arrangement, the managers are the back row while the developers and the interchangeable pawns in the front row — to be assigned here, there and everywhere.

In an Agile team, the roles are different. The team is self-managing. There is no front row and back row. Everyone has an important role in the team. This means that everyone should be challenged to step up to a bigger role than they would have had in a traditional team. While some team members are timid at first, having everyone feel empowered to play an important role is a key to the success of Agile.

We still have some challenges. Developers are still bouncing from one project to another. This discontinuity of effort shows as a reluctance to commit to the story points that will ultimately be necessary to complete the project in a timely way. It also distracts from our efforts to form team bonds. It’s hard to consider the team your home team when you’re feeling like a visitor to every team you work on.

Nonetheless, we’re starting to see real results from our prototype Agile team. Continuous integration procedures have been put in place ensuring a “done” product increment at the end of each sprint. For various reasons, delivery of these iterations to customers have not yet started, but this will be rectified at the end of the next sprint. We have peer reviews which are both improving the quality of the product with providing some degree of cross-training. The team’s velocity is improving, albeit at a slow rate. Over the next few sprints we will start integrating more and more with the other projects — and hopefully drawing them all into our new and more efficient way of building software.

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