In this segment of To Be Continuous, Edith Harbaugh and Paul Biggar talk about shipping velocity and it’s affect on team structure.
Edith is CEO and cofounder of LaunchDarkly, a continuous delivery tool of “feature flags as a service.” LaunchDarkly powers software teams to quickly launch, measure and control their features.
Paul is the CEO and founder of CircleCI, a continuous integration and deployment platform that automates development workflows and IT operations, allowing developers to ship quality software significantly faster.
Paul: Okay, so one of the things we wanted to talk about this week was the idea of shipping velocity and how it’s affected by team structure, sort of miscellaneous factors that aren’t part of continuous delivery.
Edith: Yeah, I mean, can you explain a little bit more about what you mean by velocity first?
Paul: Sure, so velocity is a sort of nebulous term that they use a lot in product management and that sort of thing to indicate how quickly, or the sort of through-push with which engineers and product teams are able to put through code.
One thing that isn’t particularly clear, and there’s this amazing blog post by a guy called Phil Calcado who worked at SoundCloud, and he talked about the idea that even though that they had a very high velocity, they weren’t able to ship features very, very quickly, so often it would take 60 days to ship a feature even though no one got blocked.
The idea of shipping quickly, is a combination of velocity and latency, and it depends on your kind of business goals, whether you need to ship correctly or you just need to keep the through-put up.
Edith: Well, do you think part of the issue with SoundCloud might have been that they were trying to do too large features? I mean, that’s somebody’s first reaction when they hear it takes 60 days.
Paul: So in the blog post what he said is first someone would spec out something, and then they’d put onto the next person’s queue, and that would be maybe a designer who’d drop wire frames, and then the wire frames would end up on an engineer’s queue to implement it, and in between someone doing work and someone else doing work, there would be, sometimes, you know, 10 or 11 days of just waiting for it to get to the front of that person’s backlog.
So it wasn’t so much, you know, are you biting off more than you can chew, it’s just the process wasn’t particularly set up to be able to ship things very quickly.
When he got in there, the first thing he did is he said, “Oh, you’re not doing continuous delivery,” or “You aren’t doing continuous deployment,” so he turned on continuous deployment and got that set up, and it was a 66-day process before he finished, and when he got continuous deployment set up it was a 65-day process.
Edith: So all that work to save a single day.
Paul: Right. Well, it was more about, the discussion was about how it wasn’t really about, continuous delivery. It wasn’t really about the time that people were spending on certain things, the vast majority of it was the time that was spent waiting on it.
Edith: Yeah, that takes me back a lot to the whole idea of just in time manufacturing and lean.
The whole idea of lean was to reduce waste, and one area of waste is time.
Like if you have people on a factory line who are waiting for the next part, or you know, stuff queuing up, then you’re being very wasteful.
Paul: I think this is how people, I think that that’s the thing that the backlog is intended to fix, that you’re never waiting for things because there’s always something in the backlog that needs to get done.
But what isn’t considered as part of that is something is sitting in the backlog, for five days, 10 days, two weeks or whatever waiting for someone to address it, then the speed with which you can get a feature out increases dramatically, or decreases dramatically, I guess.
Edith: Well, that’s the whole idea behind the Toyota factory line is that they, the just in time delivery meant that there was always a part right then, not before and not after.
Paul: Right, okay. But right when they’re ready. But you couldn’t say, “I need a car now.” I think it’s not really optimized around the idea of how quickly something goes from one end to the other.
It’s more optimized around how quick, or how much, how little waste that you can have in the system itself, which means, in this case, how much developer, engineer, or designer engineer and project manager time is being spent doing nothing.
And I think you can certainly reduce that time to very, very low without necessarily optimizing the speed that which it takes to assemble a car, which is something that you need, really, to get to market quickly, and that sort of thing.
Edith: Yeah, and it’s a trade off. You know, I went to a talk that the former CTO of Yammer gave, Adam Pisoni, and he talked about how on projects they always had an extra engineer. Like if they thought a project would take four engineers, they would actually put five on it.
Paul: Right, right.
Edith: For precisely that reason, that they never wanted anybody to be sitting around blocked. So they would rather take the cost of an extra engineer, just so there was always somebody to do the next task.
Paul: Right. And so there’s an interesting thing about how teams are structured in that. In the Yammer example, they have teams, and teams do a project, or do a particular feature, and I presume that they’re cross-functional, there’s a couple of designers, couple of engineers, whatever.
A different way to structure it is to have teams that are aligned on a particular, by what they do, and you have the engineers who are sitting at the front of the front-end queue, or who work on the front-end rather than work on a particular project which has components of front-end and back-end.
And you end up with a very different structure, or it’s obviously a very different structure, but you end up with a different ability to ship, depending on how you’re, depending on what you’re trying to do, and what’s the most important thing for your organization, also how your organization is staffed.
So the backlog works very well if you’re short-staffed in any particular area, and so you spend a lot of time prioritizing so that the people, maybe you’re short on design time, so that the design time is spent really, really well, but it doesn’t necessarily allow you to turn around a feature from start to finish and get it out to your customers incredibly quickly.
Edith: Yeah, and that’s a decision that different organizations make. Some organizations say, “We’d rather have 100% utilization, even if it means our features take longer.”
Paul: Right. My feeling is that most organizations don’t actually make that decision consciously.
Edith: It’s implicit.
Paul: Right. Oh. So, what do you mean by that?
Edith: Oh, well so I worked at a lot of big enterprises, and my saying was always,
The lack of a decision sometimes is a decision.
Like, we’re not going hire an extra designer to unblock a lot of people, so therefore our feature’s are always just gonna be gated by that.
Paul: So when you say it’s implicit, you mean that, I guess you kinda mean the same thing as I do, that people aren’t really thinking about the advantages or the disadvantages of the structure of particular teams.
Edith: Yeah, that people are just kinda, they say, “Oh, everybody looks busy, and why does a feature take 65 days?”
Edith: Oh, he’s so great.
Paul: So in the talk he talked about that at Heroku they have product teams that are around specific areas. And the product teams have two engineers and a PM, and maybe a designer and that’s kind of roughly it.
Teams have like two to five people, and they’re focused on a particular area, so they do the prioritization within their areas, they do the support and the ops within their specific features, and then they’re able to trade-off, or they’re very, very close to the problem.
They have then project managers who are working to protect them from other areas, or bleeding into other areas, but also working to solve their particular problems, rather than necessarily one backlog for the entire, maybe the entire platform or the entire web, or something along those lines.
Edith: So basically, little small start-ups within a bigger company.
Paul: Yes, and I think actually that’s how they structured it at the start. I remember them saying that there was a, they would actually have presentations to the board, and that each of the teams was structured, the project manager was like a CEO, and they actually like gave presentations to the board, and I think that didn’t necessarily last very long, but I think that was the initial idea behind it.
Edith: Yeah, we did something very similar at TripIt. We had a, you know, we would have a new project we wanted to do. We were trying to do TripIt offers, and we had a project team just for that, and that’s what they did.
And the idea was that they could focus. I’ve also heard of people who do stuff completely different. Like I talked to a guy who ran an agile shop and every project had to be a week long, and nobody had any ownership whatsoever.
So he set it at, and not even like ownership in the way we would think of it. He said our front-end people were back-end, people were mobile, also.
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