Happiness and other technical requirements – Change

This post is the second part of a software development story. If you want to catch-up, here is the first part. Please make sure you read the disclaimer first.

Six months after the team hit rock bottom, we are all now standing in a meeting room, having a project retrospective.

These kind of meetings are different from the usual, frequent, Agile retrospectives, because the feedback collected is based on a whole project (or part of a project), spanning months of work.

The setting is relaxed, collaborative and a bit fun. The walls are covered in paper, tracing a timeline – from left to right – of the latest months. We scribbled and attached post-it notes where we believe happy, sad or simply meaningful events happened.

Each of us was also given a number of colourful dots to stick across the same timeline. We could position the dots to mark our morale: the y axis represents happiness, the x-axis represents time.

We are essentially surrounded by a visual representation of what the team experienced and how we experienced it.

And between the dots, a pattern emerges: on the left side the marks are very low and more scattered, but moving to the right they tend to unify, get closer, and – months after months – consistently rise.

For me, it’s just an amazing proof of how things changed and improved.

Six months earlier

I wish I could tell you that my first speech to the team was the the pivotal event that started the change. I wish I could tell you that my carefully prepared bullet points – focused around the idea of working and collaborating together, each of us towards a common goal – was actually a success. But who am I kidding?

There’s nothing more vain than other words and other promises for a team that lost trust.

After reaching our next deadline, finally our Scrum Master managed to negotiate a more relaxed goal, giving us some of the so longed-for time for refactoring.

That opportunity was also a first great collaboration trial, and for me, a first challenge on my coordination and facilitation skills.

And – I guess you already figured it out – we did it. We released the next milestone, together with the refactoring, in perfect time. And we did it together.

After a month and a half we finally got our first concrete result, proving that things were getting better.


I put communication and team morale as my first priority, and by doing that I had to sacrifice other things. I sacrificed, for instance, a strong technical leadership. Even if at that time I was the developer with more knowledge of the project, I realised that listening to the other developers ideas and opinions, and accepting them, and encouraging them, was far more important. I only stepped in when I though really serious mistakes were about to be made, and I left the other ideas and opinions be expressed and applied.

In doing so, a lot of the code changes and secret refactorings that used to happen before came to the surface, and become part of the usual, healthy debate. I had to first give them trust, before they could trust me, and trust each other.

At the same time, we started to get curious about our department (about 100 developers).

And we started to meet with other teams, learning about what they were doing, being inspired and encouraged by some very cool guys.

I know a lot of leaders or managers perceive their role as the gatekeepers of external communications. But, as advised by a good mentor, I took the opposite approach: I tried to give them the freedom and the confidence to go talk to anyone they wanted.

By opening up to other teams, new interesting ideas flourished, both about team dynamics and technical tools.

Testers and developers

As if part of some sort of virtuous cycle – opening external communications brought great ideas on how to improve our internal communication, the best of which was with no doubt BDD (Behaviour Driven Development).

Under the disguise of a new technical tool BDD dramatically changed the relationship between developers and testers.

We changed the ownership of our acceptance tests suite, sharing it between developers and testers, and rewriting it with a BDD framework (JBehave first, then Cucumber – after we fall in love with Ruby).

That wasn’t an easy or harmless step for testers at all: they had to give up some of that ownership, and open up to sharing it with those developers that they were used to see as “opponents”.

I hope my friendship and reassurance helped them doing the transition, but the biggest credit for succeeding goes to their kindness and openness.

We also moved as much as possible of the testing phase at the beginning, to avoid creating a mini-waterfall process.

This is a diagram of how our development workflow was re-designed:

We also learned not to take this process too seriously. So this is actually the latest revised process, based on a real scenario:


User-centric development

I saw in the BDD process an extra, great opportunity. By starting development with the definition of those user-centric acceptance tests, we shifted our focus from code correctness, to feature correctness – from crafting the right code, to delivering the right user experience.

Which meant: less bugs to catch for testers, more interesting and rich technical discussions, but also, narrowing the gap between developers and the business, and unexpectedly, between the business and the end-users of the application.

Ruby Tuesday

Good developers like to learn new things, and learning new things make good developers.

So I had an idea: organise a recurring learning lunch (a.k.a. brown bag lunch) to learn the Ruby programming language. One of the amazing guys we met outside of our team is a really experienced developer – I’d say a Ruby evangelist. I invited him over. I also invited testers, as Ruby is the programming language in which a lot of the best automated testing tools are written (i.e. Cucumber).

In a single shot, our weekly “Ruby Tuesday” became an amazing event to inspire developers, let them collaborate closely with testers on a ground unfamiliar to both (as developers were mostly coming from PHP and testers from Java) and learn some technical tools that would help in our transition to BDD.

I obtained support from management too, both in terms of encouragement and – even better! – free food for the lunches.

The series of lunches was a huge success. In the end, after 5 months, it died from implosion: more and more people joined the club, to the point where finding a meeting room big enough was a quest. A horde of newly hired graduates happily invaded our meetings, forcing us to start again from the basics we already learned. Also, our Ruby mentor left the company for new adventures. And – finally – my team didn’t need it anymore, as we now had a real project to test our  Ruby skills… but this is part of the next post, so you’ll have to wait for that… ; )

An awesome team

More than anything, we became a close-knit team. Our brilliant Scrum Master organised (and encouraged us to organise) nights out. We started to know each other better.

Coffee after daily stand-ups became a ritual (mostly stealing it from another floor: for some reason they had the best coffee machines of the whole building). Not to mention the lunches at the canteen – especially the Chicken Caesar Salads on Monday – a pillar of our team cohesion.

As icing on the cake, we won the first prize for our Hack Day project – a yearly competition, open to the whole business, which saw about 10 teams from all departments hacking, prototyping, and pitching new ideas. And to be perfectly honest, my contributions to that effort were mainly two: subscribing the team to the competition, and accidentally messing up our Git history 30 minutes before the jury’s inspection. Kudos must go to that amazing team, and in particular our young and bright Business Analyst.

A new challenge

Now, going back to our main topic, you may wonder how all of these changes affected the technical side of the project.

We totally rewrote our huge acceptance test suite, finally bringing it down from 9 hours to one acceptable hour (in the end we managed to reach a 15 minutes build time).

Our obsession for Continuous Delivery practices lead us to stream-line our deployment pipeline, cutting manual steps and verbose checklists. Our average release lifetime went from months to weeks, and then days.

No technical debt was added to the project (well, at least as far as I can remember!), and we kept refactoring and improving our code relentlessly (sounds brave). We never released bugs in production more serious than the ones we had released before.

But from the moment we started the aforementioned refactoring, our codebase started to look to us more like legacy code. We realised we had now the capacity to successfully design new patterns and systems, craft great code, deliver new features fast and safely – but all we had on our hands was a project in maintenance and BAU mode.

With impressive political skills our Scrum Master managed to secure for our team a new project (and new fundings), loosely related to our business area.

And this is where I placed my biggest and riskier bet.

As a brand new Technical Lead this opportunity was my first chance to really lead the development of a project from start to finish, to prove I was a good fit for the new role.

And I decided to bet it all on the enthusiasm and passion of our team.

So, this is how a team of PHP developers and Java testers, used to deal with e-commerce web apps (with no experience on mobile) undertook the development of an iPad app, written in JavaScript and HTML5, backed by a Ruby-based server, hosted on an internal Cloud infrastructure so new that no-one else had yet tried, using a Cassandra No-SQL database we never used before…

I don’t know you, but if I were technically responsible for a project like that, I’d tear my hairs out! ; )

The rest of the story, on the next episode… (suspense)


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