Q&As from MiTechCon ("That's not *real* scrum")

When I gave my talk, "That's not real scrum: Measuring and managing productivity for development teams" at MiTechCon 2024 in Pontiac, MI, there were a number of great questions, both in-person and from the app. I collected them here, as a supplement to the accessible version of the talk.

Q: What are best practices on implementing agile concepts for enterprise technology teams that are not app dev (e.g., DevOps, Cloud, DBA, etc.)?

A brief summary: 1) Define your client (often not the software's end-user; could be another internal group), and 2) find the way to release iteratively to provide them value. This often requires overcoming entrenched models of request/delivery — similar to how development tends to be viewed as a "service provider" who gets handed a list of features to develop, I would imagine a lot of teams trying to make that transition are viewed as providers and expected to just do what they're told. Working back the request cycle with the appropriate "client" to figure out how to deliver incremental/iterative value is how you can deliver successfully with agile!

Q: How do I convince a client who wants stuff at a certain time to trust the agile process?

There's no inherent conflict between a fixed-cost SOW and scrum process. The tension that tends to exist in these situations is not the cost structure, but rather what is promised to be delivered and when. Problems ensue when you're delivering a fixed set of requirements by a certain date - you can certainly do that work in a somewhat agile fashion and gain some of the benefits, but you're ultimately setting yourself up to experience tension as you get feedback through iterations that might ultimately diverge from the original requirements.

This is the "change order hell" that often comes with client work — agile is by definition flexible in its results, so if we try to prescribe them ahead of time, we're setting ourselves up for headaches. That's not to say it's not worth doing (the process may be beneficial to the people doing the work if the waterfall outcome is prescribed), but note (to yourself and the client) that a waterfall outcome (fixed set of features at a fixed date) brings with it waterfall risk, even if you do the work in an agile fashion.

It is unfortunately very often difficult, but this is part of the "organizational shift" I spoke about. If the sales team does not sell based on agile output, it's very difficult to perform proper agile development in order the reap all its benefits.

Q: We're using Agile well; How do we dissuade skip-level leadership from demanding waterfall delivery dates using agile processes?

This is very similar to the previous answer, with the caveat that it's not on you to convince a level of leadership beyond your own manager of anything. You can and should be providing your manager with the information and advice mentioned in the above answer, but ultimately that convincing has to come from the people they manage, not levels removed. Scrum (and agile, generally) requires buy-in up and down the corporate stack.

Q: What are best practices for ownership of the product backlog?

Best practices are contextual! Ownership of the product backlog is such a tricky question.

In general, I think product backlogs tend to have too many items. I am very much a fan of expiring backlog items — if they haven't been worked on in 30 days (two-ish sprints), they go away (system-enforced!) until the problem they address comes up again.

The product owner is accountable for the priority and what's included or removed from the product backlog.

I kind of think teams should have two separate stores of stories: One is the backlog, specific ideas or stories that are going to be worked on (as above) in the next sprint or two), which is the product owner's responsibility. The second is a brainstorming pool — preferably not even in the same system (because it is NOT the case that you should be just be plucking from the pool and plopping on the backlog). Rather, these are just broad ideas or needs we want to capture so we don't lose sight of them, but from them, specific problems are identified and stories written. This should be curated by the product owner, but allow for easier/broader access to add to it.

Q: Is it ever recommended to have the Scrum Master also be Product Manager?

(I am assuming for the sake of this question that Product Manager = Product Owner. If I am mistaken, apologies!)

I would generally not recommend the product owner and the scrum master be the same person, though I am aware by necessity it sometimes happens. It takes a lot of varied skills to do both of those jobs, and in most cases if it happens successfully it's because there's a separate system in place to compensate in one or both areas. (e.g., there's a separate engineering manager who's picking up a lot of what would generally be SM work, or the product owner is in name only because someone else/external is doing the requirements- gathering/customer interaction). Both positions require a TON of work to perform properly - direct customer interaction, focus groups, metrics analysis and stakeholder interaction are just some of a PM's duties, while the SM should be devoted to the dev team to make sure any blocks get cleared and work continues apace.

But even more than time, there's a philosophical divide that would be difficult to resolve in one person. The SM should be looking at things from a perspective of what's possible now, whereas the PM should have a longer-term view of what should be happening soon. Rare is the individual who can hold both of those things in their head with equal weight; usually one is going to be prioritized over the other, to the detriment of the process overall.

Q: What is the best (highest paying) Scrum certification?

If your pay is directly correlated with the specific certification you have, you are very likely working for the company that provides it. Specific certifications may be more favored in certain industries or verticals, but that's no more than generally indicative of pay than the difference between any two different companies.

More broadly, I view certifications as proof of knowledge that should be useful and transferable regardless of specific situation. Much like Agile, delivering value (and a track record of doing same) is the best route to long-term career success (and hence more money).

Q: Can you use an agile scrum approach without a central staffing resource database?

Yes, with a but! You do not need a formal method of tracking your resourcing, but the scrum master (at the team level) needs to know their resourcing (in terms of how many developers are going to be available to work that sprint) in order to properly plan the sprint. If someone is taking a vacation, you need to either a) pull in fewer stories, b) increase your sprint length, or c) pull in additional resources (if availble to you).

Even at the story level, this matters. If you have a backend ticket and your one BE developer is out, you're not gonna want to put that in the sprint. But it doesn't need to be a formal, centralized database. It could be as simple as everyone noting their PTO during sprint planning.

What's always both heartening and a little bit sad to me is how much the scrum teams want to produce good products, provide value, and it's over-management that holds them back from doing so.