Software is never done… Or is it?

The Agile Iconoclast gets things done

The notion of doneness pervades everything we, as humans, set out to achieve. Want to send a manned rocket to Mars? It’ll be done when it’s done. Composing a new symphony? Can’t wait to hear the finished piece. Want to create a payroll system for an automotive company? Better deliver it on time, otherwise they might grow tired of waiting and pull the plug on the whole project.

head shot of Matt Stephens smiling

This notion of doneness exists for a reason. Without it, projects would just spin off indefinitely, and nothing would ever really be accomplished. There’s nothing quite like an impending deadline to focus the mind.

Doneness is a mindset thing: the dogged determination to deliver what the customer wants, and then move on to other things (be it a new project, or the next iteration of the same project). But as soon as you start planning for doneness, all sorts of complications snag up the nice clean concept of “job done”. Did the bug count exceed some arbitrary limit of project quality? Were individual features cut back to allow the project to be delivered on time? Was the latest feature-set delivered late?

Small wonder that, in IT, we have such a hard time with deducing what the customer wants and delivering what’s needed on time, and determining whether or not it was all a success. Software agility is a response to this quagmire of schedule uncertainty. There's much wisdom in the agile world; for example Mike Cohn’s book Agile Estimating and Planning is well worth a read, as it maintains an emphasis on focused delivery. It shows how to run an agile project without losing sight of the concepts of doneness, deadlines, and keeping to a schedule.

However, not all software processes are entirely compatible with deadlines: at least, not with a combination of fixed scope and deadlines. The Extreme Programming ethos, for example, is best summed up by agile guru Robert C. Martin’s posting to the now-defunct OTUG discussion group (October 2000):

“There is a difference between ‘Schedule’ and ‘The Schedule’. In XP, ‘Schedule’ is very important, but ‘The Schedule’ doesn't exist per se.

“The notion of having ‘The Schedule’ is related to the notion that a software project reaches a point where it is ‘Done’. The notion of ‘Doneness’ pervades our thinking and our communications. We say to each other things like ‘When this project is done…’ or ‘When will this project be done…’, etc, etc.

“The reality, of course, is that a software project is never done until it has been terminated. So long as the market is active, the project will continually evolve. Certainly it will reach points where it is releasable; but at each release there will be a whole list of things that need to be done to it.”

We dissected this quote and gave plenty of attention to its ramifications in Extreme Programming Refactored, so I won’t dwell on it here. To be fair to Robert C. Martin and to XP, a fundamental tenet of agile planning is that the dates are fixed but the scope may vary.

That is, the planned features may be dropped or pushed back to a future iteration, or, rarely, new features may be slipped in if there's time; but the actual delivery date for the current iteration will remain unchanged. You can see this not just in XP but in just about any agile process, e.g. timeboxed delivery in DSDM, or monthly sprints in Scrum.

But it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to flip the equation. If the question is “when will feature XYZ be delivered?” then “fixed date, variable scope” is roughly equivalent to “variable date, fixed scope”. Feature XYZ may be delivered in this iteration or it might slip to the next, so the delivery date for a specific feature is variable. It doesn’t answer to deadlines.

The real world is different: it runs on deadlines. For example, the new product must be on the shelves in time for the Christmas shopping season, or the new air traffic control system must go live by the year 8-billion; or the payroll system must be up and running for all employees in time for the new tax year.

In theory (and sometimes even in practice), agile projects are well set up to cope with hard deadlines. Perhaps the payroll system must be ready before year-end so all those P60s can be printed off and stuffed into little envelopes. So the team could at least ensure that the P60 printing-and-envelope-licking feature is ready in time, if not the complete system.

But the danger is that, with the XP mindset of software never being done and the schedule not existing per se, a meandering lack of focus can easily work its way into the project. At this point, the team loses track of the project’s long-term goals. Project managers focus on incremental delivery of features that are more about the project itself than about the real-world problems that they originally set out to solve; and the programmers, like pigs in mud, write unit tests and mock objects that give each other mutual kisses and cuddles.

They spend a day refactoring some code to a neater design pattern. They’ve got a green bar assuring them that everything’s okay. Warm fuzzy feelings all round; eternal sunshine of the spotless geek. And so the project spins away, immersed in its own issues, looking inwards on itself and forgetting to look outwards, until suddenly it’s cancelled and all involved glance up from their keyboards, wide-eyed and blinking.

This isn’t true of all agile projects; just the ones that have become tragically lost within the warm and fuzzy agile message. Of course, many agile projects successfully deliver small, incremental, tightly focused updates to happy customers and end-users.

The difference tends to be that in a successful project, the project manager (or customer/analyst, or architect, or lead developer) is a control fiend, a benevolent dictator, who never loses sight of the project’s original set of goals. With such focus, there’s invariably a fixed notion of doneness; some delivery criteria (even if the details may change); a point where you can look at what’s been accomplished so far and say “there, it’s done.”

Other stories you might like

  • Carnival Cruises torpedoed by US states, agrees to pay $6m after waves of cyber attacks
    Now those are some phishing boats

    Carnival Cruise Lines will cough up more than $6 million to end two separate lawsuits filed by 46 states in the US after sensitive personal information on customers and employees was accessed in a string of cyber attacks.

    A couple of years ago, as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold, the Miami-based biz revealed intruders had not only encrypted some of its data but also downloaded a trove of data – names and addresses, Social Security info, driver's license and passport numbers, and health and payment information for thousands of people in almost every American state.

    It all started to go wrong more than a year earlier, as the cruise line became aware of suspicious activity in May 2019. This apparently wasn't disclosed until March 2020.

    Continue reading
  • India extends deadline for compliance with infosec logging rules by 90 days
    Helpfully announced extension on deadline day

    India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and the local Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) have extended the deadline for compliance with the Cyber Security Directions introduced on April 28, which were due to take effect yesterday.

    The Directions require verbose logging of users' activities on VPNs and clouds, reporting of infosec incidents within six hours of detection - even for trivial things like unusual port scanning - exclusive use of Indian network time protocol servers, and many other burdensome requirements. The Directions were purported to improve the security of local organisations, and to give CERT-In information it could use to assess threats to India. Yet the Directions allowed incident reports to be sent by fax – good ol' fax – to CERT-In, which offered no evidence it operates or would build infrastructure capable of ingesting or analyzing the millions of incident reports it would be sent by compliant organizations.

    The Directions were roundly criticized by tech lobby groups that pointed out requirements such as compelling clouds to store logs of customers' activities was futile, since clouds don't log what goes on inside resources rented by their customers. VPN providers quit India and moved their servers offshore, citing the impossibility of storing user logs when their entire business model rests on not logging user activities. VPN operators going offshore means India's government is therefore less able to influence such outfits.

    Continue reading
  • Hangouts hangs up: Google chat app shuts this year
    How many messaging services does this web giant need? It's gotta be over 9,000

    Google is winding down its messaging app Hangouts before it officially shuts in November, the web giant announced on Monday.

    Users of the mobile app will see a pop-up asking them to move their conversations onto Google Chat, which is yet another one of its online services. It can be accessed via Gmail as well as its own standalone application. Next month, conversations in the web version of Hangouts will be ported over to Chat in Gmail. 

    Continue reading
  • 5G C-band rollout at US airports slowed over radio altimeter safety fears
    Well, they did say from July, now they really mean from July 2023

    America's aviation watchdog has said the rollout of 5G C-band coverage near US airports won't fully start until next year, delaying some travelers' access to better cellular broadband at crowded terminals.

    Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement this month that its discussions with wireless carriers "have identified a path that will continue to enable aviation and 5G C-band wireless to safely co-exist."

    5G C-band operates between 3.7-3.98GHz, near the 4.2-4.4GHz band used by radio altimeters that are jolly useful for landing planes in limited visibility. There is or was a fear that these cellular signals, such as from cell towers close to airports, could bleed into the frequencies used by aircraft and cause radio altimeters to display an incorrect reading. C-band technology, which promises faster mobile broadband, was supposed to roll out nationwide on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile US's networks, but some deployments have been paused near airports due to these concerns. 

    Continue reading
  • IBM settles age discrimination case that sought top execs' emails
    Just days after being ordered to provide messages, Big Blue opts out of public trial

    Less than a week after IBM was ordered in an age discrimination lawsuit to produce internal emails in which its former CEO and former SVP of human resources discuss reducing the number of older workers, the IT giant chose to settle the case for an undisclosed sum rather than proceed to trial next month.

    The order, issued on June 9, in Schenfeld v. IBM, describes Exhibit 10, which "contains emails that discuss the effort taken by IBM to increase the number of 'millennial' employees."

    Plaintiff Eugene Schenfeld, who worked as an IBM research scientist when current CEO Arvind Krishna ran IBM's research group, sued IBM for age discrimination in November, 2018. His claim is one of many that followed a March 2018 report by ProPublica and Mother Jones about a concerted effort to de-age IBM and a 2020 finding by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that IBM executives had directed managers to get rid of older workers to make room for younger ones.

    Continue reading
  • FTC urged to probe Apple, Google for enabling ‘intense system of surveillance’
    Ad tracking poses a privacy and security risk in post-Roe America, lawmakers warn

    Democrat lawmakers want the FTC to investigate Apple and Google's online ad trackers, which they say amount to unfair and deceptive business practices and pose a privacy and security risk to people using the tech giants' mobile devices.

    US Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and House Representative Sara Jacobs (D-CA) requested on Friday that the watchdog launch a probe into Apple and Google, hours before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, clearing the way for individual states to ban access to abortions. 

    In the days leading up to the court's action, some of these same lawmakers had also introduced data privacy bills, including a proposal that would make it illegal for data brokers to sell sensitive location and health information of individuals' medical treatment.

    Continue reading
  • Behold this drone-dropping rifle with two-mile range
    Confuses rather than destroys unmanned aerials to better bring back intel, says Ukrainian designer

    What's said to be a Ukrainian-made long-range anti-drone rifle is one of the latest weapons to emerge from Russia's ongoing invasion of its neighbor.

    The Antidron KVS G-6 is manufactured by Kvertus Technology, in the western Ukraine region of Ivano-Frankivsk, whose capital of the same name has twice been subjected to Russian bombings during the war. Like other drone-dropping equipment, we're told it uses radio signals to interrupt control, remotely disabling them, and it reportedly has an impressive 3.5 km (2.17 miles) range.

    "We are not damaging the drone. With communication lost, it just loses coordination and doesn't know where to go. The drone lands where it is jammed, or can be carried away by the wind because it's uncontrollable,"  Kvertus' director of technology Yaroslav Filimonov said. Because the downed drones are unharmed, they give Ukrainian soldiers recovering them a wealth of potential intelligence, he added.  

    Continue reading
  • TSMC may surpass Intel in quarterly revenue for first time
    Fab frenemies: x86 giant set to give Taiwanese chipmaker more money as it revitalizes foundry business

    In yet another sign of how fortunes have changed in the semiconductor industry, Taiwanese foundry giant TSMC is expected to surpass Intel in quarterly revenue for the first time.

    Wall Street analysts estimate TSMC will grow second-quarter revenue 43 percent quarter-over-quarter to $18.1 billion. Intel, on the other hand, is expected to see sales decline 2 percent sequentially to $17.98 billion in the same period, according to estimates collected by Yahoo Finance.

    The potential for TSMC to surpass Intel in quarterly revenue is indicative of how demand has grown for contract chip manufacturing, fueled by companies like Qualcomm, Nvidia, AMD, and Apple who design their own chips and outsource manufacturing to foundries like TSMC.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022