Sunday, 27 January 2013

Lean Startup

For years I wondered how do we know, if what we are building is the right thing. In the development world we realised the need for BDD as we needed a way to rationalise our requirements and allow the development team to know where to begin, however no methodology assures you that your backlog is prioritised in the right order.

Don't get me wrong the Lean Startup is not a silver bullet to the problem mention above. It is just that it got me thinking about validating what we build.

"Lean Startup" is an approach for launching businesses and products, that relies on validated learning, scientific experimentation, and iterative product releases to shorten product development cycles, measure progress, and gain valuable customer feedback.

That translates to me rather than guessing or letting emotion get in the way that we can build great products.

Minimum Viable Product

The idea behind an MVP is to build just enough to validate that we are heading in the right direction. Some examples of MVP could be:

If Apple can launch a smartphone without Find or Cut-and-Paste, what can you cut out of your product requirements?”

Well since we just want to validate we should reuse as much of what other people have built. From a code perspective this means it does not have to be perfect, however quality should not be thrown out.

Continuous Delivery

The book talks about Continuous Deployment, however I do believe that the better phrase should be Continuous Delivery.

As described here:

While continuous deployment implies continuous delivery the converse is not true. Continuous delivery is about putting the release schedule in the hands of the business, not in the hands of IT. Implementing continuous delivery means making sure your software is always production ready throughout its entire lifecycle – that any build could potentially be released to users at the touch of a button using a fully automated process in a matter of seconds or minutes.

The point of the matter is that we want to get our MVP out there as soon as possible. So from a software point of view we really need to get our release cycle automated. I was never really a fan of all these platforms that you just check in the code and it is deployed on a live environment, this is because you really need to understand how software is released. However to validate the MVP it is really a great platform, so my thoughts are slowly changing.

Split Testing

Split testing or A/B Testing as it is sometimes called is a way to have two versions of the application and validate which version is better. The way that I have seen split testing being performed is that we have an existing product and we split it with the new product that we are building.

However this got me thinking, shouldn’t we really be doing split testing of a MVP in the same product?

So how would one go about doing some split testing in an existing product. These are just some of my thoughts that I look forward to validating.

  1. To build these MVP's we need a way to create feature branches easily. These feature branches should not be long lived. The best tool for this is git. The beauty of this is that if we realise our feature is crap we can just revert the feature.
  2. The MVP needs to be build with a feature flag. This feature needs to be turned on for a specific group of people. This can be done in numerous ways, e.g. If it is a web application your load balancer could introduce a HTTP header into the application which would turn on the feature.
  3. Lastly we need a way to gage if the MVP is worth it. One needs to choose metrics that matter.
Actionable Metrics

The only metrics that I've been exposed to is what are called vanity metrics.

These are as an example: one million downloads, 10 million registered users, 200 million tweets per day.

These metrics show growth however they don't really tell you the inside story. It is important to realise that we need to keep the actionable metrics closer to the user.

Actionable metrics can lead to informed business decisions and subsequent action.

So how does this relate to the MVP? Well sometimes we just want to get a sense if the feature is worth it, so just getting an idea of whether people actually interact with it maybe enough.


A pivot is a “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.”

This basically tells us that at times we will have the wrong idea and will need to change our direction. The key to be able to pivot and abandon an MVP is to have easy way to revert the code and release it quickly.


This book really made me think about how to develop a product without incurring much waste and as a team be sure that we are building the right features.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Launching Australia's Biggest News Site

For years I had witnessed that the engineering practices have not been up to par with what the rest of the industry was doing. As a development team we weren't focusing on quality and every thing that we did was very manual. This caused me great discomfort so I began preaching on the values of agile and the practices from extreme programming that I have had success with in the past. For a while I felt it was going nowhere until certain key people were hired that made that journey easier (you know who you are).

The journey began early 2011 as we were faced with a difficult decision. We had built an internal CMS that has met our needs for the last 10 or so years. However as with many software solutions, the years have not been kind to it. This solution was basically built with one purpose, to build web sites. However we were facing the dilemma of multiple devices. Development was done through a text area and the code was not version controlled. We unfortunately hit a brick wall with it's capabilities. The question arose do we rebuild it or do we look at paid product?

Previous attempts to rebuild the CMS had pretty much answered that question, so we decided to start searching for a product. We needed a product that was extensible and was built using .NET so we thought the best product for us would be Sitecore.

To be successful from an engineering point of view, we wanted to accomplish the following:
  1. Build a new website using a new CMS product.
  2. Introduce quality into the product using TDD and BDD
  3. Implement DevOps
This was a very ambitious goal and a massive transformation.

We already were using Scrum within other projects, however we all agreed that this was not Scrum, more like mini waterfall. We were building things in sprints and releasing months later (due to technical and process issues). So we began to plan our first iteration.

Sprint Zero

People often underestimate the importance of sprint zero. We were one of these people. Don't get me wrong it's not like we just jumped into it. Our sprint zero looked like this:
  1. Get a backlog of features that we needed to build.
  2. Set up a continuous integration environment along with version control.
  3. Set up a source code structure.
What was the most important step we left out? We had not tackled the problem of releasing our software. The issue that we had was that we really didn't know where our solution would end up and we also knew that a feature would not be complete any time soon, so we left it. The lesson for me was, it is important to set up a process that will deploy software. As code that is sitting in version control is wasted.


We started off with Scrum and implemented the following routine:
  1. Two week sprints
  2. Two hour planning meeting at the beginning using planning poker
  3. Sprint Review Meeting
  4. Sprint Retrospective
Our estimation was done using T-Shirt sizes and converted to points to track. We tracked our progress using burn-up charts. This approach measures the estimated value of points left vs actual points being delivered. To me this gives a false sense of progress. I think a better way to measure is how many stories you are doing in an iteration vs how many stories are left.

Our board was modelled around the Lean approach of mapping the value stream. We were also using LeanKit to measure Lead and Cycle Time. We later dropped LeanKit to use Jira with Greenhopper, however this turned to be more complicated that just using LeanKit. I enjoyed measuring these times as I found that having a conversation around statistics at your retrospective gives you a great way to talk about continuous improvement.

So what was the end result? Well we started using more of a lean approach using Scrumban. We had weekly sprints and we didn't have long planning meetings. We would try to raise issues as they appeared and put it on the board to remind us to tackle it and we would still have retrospectives every few weeks.

Story Writing/Use Cases

We were all big fans of User Stories Applied. So we started to write stories in the following format

As a <role>, I want <goal/desire> so that <benefit>

During the story writing session we realised that the last part of the story was often left out and Mike Cohn says that it is optional. I started to disagree, if you can't explain the reason is it really worth it? I think this format would have been better

In order to <receive benefit> as a <role>, I want <goal/desire>

This format puts the benefit first which I think it is important. We all know that a story is a promise for a conversation, however this was not always the case and conversations were left out.

The acceptance criteria was captured using gherkin language. Unfortunately this was easier said than done, as it was new and people in general find it hard to describe the system. Due to this the development team started writing the acceptance criteria. Unfortunately to me this felt completely wrong. The reason is as follows:
  1. Usually the rest of the team would not review the criteria (product owner, scrum master)
  2. The language would turn into developer speak, which means the rest of the team would not get it.
If the development team is going to write the specs I find it easier to follow your trusted way of testing as the overhead of the gherkin language is not worth it. One needs to remember that BDD is a collaborative approach.


As I mentioned above we held quality very high as a practice so we decided to have the following levels of testing:
  1. Unit Testing
  2. Integration Testing
  3. Acceptance Testing
We had some challenges with the testing:
  1. Unit testing is hard to achieve using Sitecore. So we had to create a thin abstraction around it.
  2. All of Sitecore is driven around configuration file (roughly 4000 lines). We had to customise the config file to be able to do integration testing. This proved that we weren't really testing the same system. Due to this we had to create a matrix of the parts that we could test and the parts that we should avoid, which is not ideal.
  3. Due to these complications we started writing more acceptance tests as Sitecore needed a full HTTP context to be present.
  4. Acceptance tests were sometimes written to hit an API and sometimes to hit the UI. This proved to be complicated as we now had tests that looked like integration tests so the line was blurred.
These challenges proved costly to us. The biggest cost is that to be able to release a change the build takes over an hour and some of our tests are flaky.

The lesson here is to always pay attention to the testing pyramid.


This area of our journey proved to be the most difficult. The reason I say this is that culture needs to change for DevOps to be successful.

We are all big fans of Continuous Delivery so we wanted to make sure that we made this a reality. The biggest challenge that we faced was actually having somewhere to deploy our application to. Long story short we fought with some hosting providers and decided that to really embrace continuous delivery we needed to go to the cloud.

Here is a summary of the tools that we used to make DevOps a reality:
  1. Continuos Integration started with Bamboo, however this moved to Team City
  2. All the scripting was done using PowerShell. The reason for this is that our application is based on .NET and being deployed on windows. In hindsight writing PowerShell is easy, however maintaining a large codebase with tests and specs is very primitive. Looking forward we would use Ruby.
  3. We implemented our own package manager that is based on nuget. The package manager code is based of the following code. Moving forward I would consider to use Puppet
  4. All of our instances are prepared using Puppet and the initial infrastructure is set up using CloudFormation.
As mentioned previously our biggest challenge was to bring the two teams together. Some of the things that I found were as follows:
  1. Not everyone in operations believes they should be doing infrastructure as code.
  2. Not everyone in the development team cares about infrastructure as code and understanding infrastructure.
Due to the above reasons it is tempting for organisations to create a DevOps team. I don't agree with this as it is important for the organisation to come up with their definition of DevOps. If you know you don't have the right fit then go ahead and find it!


We had a great journey and have learnt so much about Agile, Continuous Delivery and DevOps. It wasn't always a smooth ride however we were able to pull it off and have lots of things that we can improve. Some areas that we want to concentrate on are:
  1. Design for failure.
  2. Implement Minimum viable product to justify the build of a feature.
  3. Implement a self healing system.
  4. Puppetise all of our infrastructure.