Agile Best Practices: SVP of Engineering Jeff Nielsen on Iteration Planning

Most software development teams work in such a way that the majority of the requirements planning falls onto the product manager and disrupts the cohesion of the team itself. 3Pillar Global’s SVP of Engineering, Jeff Nielsen, discusses how to structure iteration planning meetings so as to avoid useless requirements work.

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Have you ever experienced the magic of just-in-time requirements work? Most people haven’t. And in fact, this is one of the biggest problems with the traditional approach to software development—that a lot of requirements work that gets done ends up being waste. As Mary Poppendieck has said, “If you have a lot of requirements churn, then you are specifying too early.” This is a huge problem.

And it’s a problem that even agile teams run into. I see teams all the time where the BA or the product manager feels like they have to work one or two or three weeks ahead of the team, writing down a whole bunch of detailed requirements so that the team can be ready to start an iteration. And it doesn’t have to be that way. If we are using the user story construct properly, then most of the detailed requirements work for a user story can be done within the actual iteration. When that happens is in the iteration planning meeting, which is what we are going to talk about for a few minutes here.

Picture this vision of an iteration planning meeting. You’ve got the whole team there in a conference room—testers, developers, managers, analysts—with a big whiteboard. You’ve brought in six or so stakeholders, customers, and/or representatives from the business. And you’ve got a set of user stories that, based on your high-level affinity estimation, you believe will fit into the current iteration. Then you go through each of these user stories one by one and talk about what will we actually build over the next several days to implement this user story: what are the acceptance criteria for this user story, what’s the happy path through the scenario, what are some exception cases, what are some bizarre things that we haven’t thought of yet that we need to account for as we build this?

And as everyone is taking notes, you end up with a pretty good sketch of the acceptance criteria for each of these user stories. And with all those minds focused on that single story—on what we are actually going to build over the next couple of days—you can get a lot of good requirements thinking done in a very short time (maybe 10, 15, at most 20 minutes per user story).

That is an effective iteration planning meeting, where everybody walks out with a shared understanding of what we’re going to see 9 days later in the iteration review for each of those user stories. And I promise you that is the best time to do that detailed requirements work. That’s why I call it the magic of just in time requirements.

Jeff Nielsen

Jeff Nielsen

SVP of Engineering

Jeff Nielsen is 3Pillar’s SVP of Engineering. In this role, he oversees the delivery of technology services to all 3Pillar clients. Jeff is responsible for all development processes in the company and manages numerous global client-based engineering teams.

Prior to 3Pillar, Jeff was the CTO and SVP of Delivery at the Santeon Group, where he ran their global software development initiatives and their agile coaching practice. At Santeon he provided executive-level coaching to federal agencies and Fortune 100 commercial clients making large-scale transitions to agile. As Head of Engineering at TrapWire for three years, he oversaw more than 50 production releases of the company’s flagship SaaS product. Jeff was also Vice President/Chief Scientist at Digital Focus, pioneering their use of agile methods in early 2001. Jeff has worked with a number of organizations – from startups to multibillion-dollar firms – over the course of more than a decade to help them improve their software development processes.

Jeff holds M.S. and M.A.Ed. degrees in Computer Science and Instructional Technology from Virginia Tech and a Bachelors in Music from BYU.

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