Agile Chronicles #5: Acceptance Criteria & Punting

The Agile Chronicles is a set of articles documenting my experiences using an Agile process (Scrum) in software development on my current Flex project.

  1. Part 1 – Stressful
  2. Part 2 – Code Refactoring
  3. Part 3 – Branch Workflow
  4. Part 4 – POC, Strategy, and Design Challenges
  5. Part 5 – Acceptance Criteria & Punting
  6. Part 6 – Tools, Extra Merge Day, and Postponed Transitions
  7. Part 7 – Bugs, Unit Testing, and Throughput
  8. Part 8 – Demo, Burnout, and Feature Juggling
  9. Part 9 – Scope Creep
  10. Part 10 – Conclusions

This entry is about defining what the acceptance criteria for user stories are so you can confirm you really did complete them during the UAT at the end of the sprint. It’s also about determining when you should abort a task that is taking too much time.

Acceptance Criteria – Is the User Story Really Done?

Each of our 2 week sprints include a set of user stories each developer must complete by the end of the sprint. We naturally overload our selves to ensure we have an added sense of urgency, additional user stories to tackle of we encounter a major roadblock to completing a particular story, and to clearly articulate what is priority in a bigger picture.

On the 2nd Friday, we do our UAT (User Acceptance Testing). The way we do it is go through the latest build from SVN’s trunk, and collectively try to do each of the user stories. Like, “User story #32 says, ‘The user can type in their user name and password, and if they are a registered user, they will be taken to the main screen'”. If this happens, that user story is complete, we get confirmation from the client as such, and move to the next.

It’s not always that black and white, though. Some user stories, even if still simple, have certain acceptance criteria associated with them. The first, and only, acceptance criteria we used in the beginning was what I just described; clearly written user stories that are easily testable. As the application grows in complexity, and certain things are assumed to go along with the user story, we’ve had to add some acceptance criteria to certain user stories. For example, even though in Sprint #1 I did in fact get the login working, none of the fonts were correct, and the alignment on some of the graphics were off. This was obvious to all, including me. Did this mean that I still completed the user story? Yes. “Yes” according to who? The client.

Therefore, user story acceptance criteria seems client driven. Some clients, those not like the kind agencies have, are more functionality oriented and they don’t notice subtle design inconsistencies all the time like Verdana vs. Helvetica LT 57 Condensed. Others are more about design, and less about functionality. Some are both. Our particular client is more on the functionality side of the fence because we are working with them to complete functionality; it’s not just us working alone.

That said, it still seems like each user story has it’s own unique acceptance criteria. This isn’t always easy to do, either. You really need to announce the assumptions because if you don’t, one thing you can count on is the following Friday’s UAT pointing them out; either they were assumed, and are in there, or weren’t, and aren’t. Sometimes you don’t know what those assumptions are, and thus, yet again one of the validations of using iterative development in short sprints; getting the functionality done quickly and in front of the client so they can see those assumptions. Regardless, this is something our project manager and client have been doing every Monday, both during and after, our planning session. Adding more implied functionality to a user story implies it could be more challenging, thus more work involved, and thus worth more points. This in turn affects how many user stories should be tackled per sprint.

Punt – You’re in a downward spiral, pull up!

You ever attempt to code something really hard, and not quite get there? Or worse, you keep getting close, yet every step feels like you’re only getting farther away as you start running out of ideas… or you have less time to implement your new ideas? This is what I call the downward spiral, akin to an airplane which stalled from going too high too quickly, and now is in a downward spiral. It can happen to those who compensate for lack of intelligence with willpower (me) and those who are smart, get in the zone, and never come out.

I did that this sprint, badly. I had a really challenging component, a sub-task in a user story, and greatly underestimated my ability to pull it off. As the days wore on, my determination only increased. Two times I had a “flashback” to my Flash days, and thought about ways of faking it as well as having a plan B. Upon taking 10 minutes to test my Plan B three days in, I realized my Plan B wasn’t going to work either. I then started to do the math, and figure out how many days I had left in the Sprint, and how many user stories I had left to complete in those days. I was over what I should of been. In short, I was screwed.

There is an old investment lesson called “cutting your losses”. It’s about recognizing that your investment in a particular company or mutual fund is bad. The company could be blatantly going downhill, and you can’t sell short for whatever reason (selling a hammer to someone, and then buying it back for less than you sold it for). So, the only option is to pull your money out before you lose more money. It’s the right business decision to do. The analogy is an alligator has bitten your arm. You can run, and lose your arm, or attempt to kick it, and hope it opens its mouth long enough for you to pull your arm out. This is usually destined to be bad because you could then lose your leg… or worse. Same with bad investments. If they are bad, pull your money out. The only thing you have to show for it is the money you saved.

Same with aborting coding a component you won’t complete in a reasonable time frame.  By stopping your aren’t giving up.  People like me take it very personally, and perceive it as giving up.  Jesse Warden doesn’t give up.  I really have to change my mindset that, given enough time, I could complete it.  However, there are more important things left to be done, so I put it “on hold”.  Whatever bs you tell yourself to pull up out of the downward spiral will do.

This is what I call punting. Punting is a play that you do in American football. If you’re on offense, your goal is to carry the ball into the opponents end zone. If you don’t get far enough after your allotted 4 downs, you’re going to be in trouble if the opponent gets the ball, and is closer to your end zone than you their’s. So, you punt; kick the ball as far as you can down towards their end zone, yet not on it, in the hopes you make them travel as far as possible back to your end zone. If for whatever reason, your team cannot take the ball to the opponents end zone by 3rd down, on the 4th, you need to make the decision: Do you go for it or do you not take the risk and end up screwing yourself if you don’t make it, and punt instead?

In American Football, this can be a very complicated decision. In Agile software, not so much. Do the math; how many days / hours do you have to play with to hit the rest of your user stories? Is it worth it to you to work 12 hour days just in case your risk doesn’t pay off? It is it worth it to work 12 hour days EVEN IF you end up failing?

I did the math too late this time, but won’t make that same mistake again. That’s what I’ll keep telling myself as I work this Saturday on Thanksgiving weekend, and next week as I work 12 hour days.

One Reply to “Agile Chronicles #5: Acceptance Criteria & Punting”

Comments are closed.