Product Owner: all about the what

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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I feel compelled to write this blog because I keep coming across the wrong type of Product Owner. I feel bad about writing this blog because a) I’ve made these points before in other forums so I’m repeating myself, and b) at the end of the day you, your team, and your organization, is free to define and use any title you like for any role you like, you are free to define any given role as you like.

So let me set out my model of a Product Owner and then at least there is a model to compare any other definition with.

Our old friend the Triangle of Constraints can help here – also know as “The Iron Triangle” and pictured above (I like to call it the FRT triangle). Now notice the version I use is slightly different from the more common model:

  • Rather than “cost” I label one side of the triangle “People”. I could label it resources but in software development resources are overwhelmingly people and the knowledge they bring. People deserve respect, calling them “resources” makes them sound like paperclips.
  • For software development costs are function of how many people you have and how long you have them for: costs = people x time. OK, there are some other “resources” to add to costs, e.g. buying laptops, renting time in the cloud, and so on but these are often themselves a function of the number of people you have. Such costs are a small increment on top of the wage bill.

Now the number of people you have is fixed in the short term, or to be more accurate: it is upward fixed. People can get ill or resign at anytime but adding people takes time. So in the short run one can consider that dimension fixed.

Time is also fixed. There is usually a business deadline, or rather a business benefit which is time elastic so you have a date to aim for. And on agile teams there are sprint deadlines (two-weeks, two-weeks, two weeks). So a large part time is fixed.

The final side of the triangle is labelled features or functionality, but might be labelled “requirements”, “the what” or “what are we building” – I like to think of it as the demand side.

With me so far? – so far that should be uncontroversial.

Now the traditional Project Manager role, and to a lesser degree the newer Delivery Manager role, tend to regard the third side – the what side – as fixed. There is a thing to be delivered. It is a known thing. It has been decided on and the manager’s job is to get it delivered.

To this end Project Managers are trained to regard the “thing to be built” as a given, preferably fixed, thing. Their training centres on the other sides: cost and time. They are trained both in rationing these commodities and allocating them in an efficient way. When things go wrong these managers ask for more time (which means more money because the same people need paying) or more people (which both costs more and makes things worse because of Brook’s Law).

So to summarise: traditional Project Managers focus on “when” and the input variables: people/resources and money.

Can you guess what I’m going to say next?

Product Owners – plus Product Managers and Business Analysts – focus on the “what”. What do we need to build next? What has the most benefit? What should we be building for the future?

For Product Owners the time and people are fixed. (This is most obvious in an agile environment but is actually true everywhere sooner or later.)

The thing being built is negotiable, the desired outcome may be achieved by different routes, different technologies and different solutions – the different time and cost will be a consideration but outcome is the primary focus.

In other words: Product Owners are all about the what.

In order to operate in the what-space product owners need authority and legitimacy to flex what they are building. When they don’t have that they are reduced to backlog administrators simply ordering the backlog and feeding it to technical teams. That turns the role into a type of Project or Delivery Manager.

So if you need to tell a real Product Owner from all the other misinterpretations of the role ask:

  • Does the product owner focus on what?
  • Can the product owner discuss different solutions and approaches to achieve an outcome?
  • Is the PO flexible about the backlog? (as opposed to slavishly trying to deliver it all)

Real product owners can answer Yes to all three.

(Notice I’m deliberately being careful in what I say about “Delivery Managers.” This role is still emerging and as such its wrong to generalise about it too much. In so much as a Delivery Manager brings management skills, communication and organization to an effort it can be a positive role. When a Delivery Manager is relabelling of the Project Manager role it can be damaging.)

Now that said, the fact that some organizations choose to define the “Product Owner” role as a role closer to “Project Manager” or “Delivery Manager” rather than a role closer to “Product Manager”, “Business Analyst” or (heaven forbid) business owner causes a lot of confusion.

Perhaps I’m wrong here, perhaps the “Product Owner” is a type of “delivery manager” but I think the majority of writers, thinkers and practitioners agree with me.

Even if you disagree with me I hope we can agree on one thing: because there are different interpretations and implementations of the role there is room for confusion; and that confusion makes it harder to fill the role and harder to be seen as a successful Product Owner.


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New book: The Art of Agile Product Ownership

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Retrospective cards, product Owners and #NoProjects

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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A quick follow up on my last two blog post.

First, Team Retrospective cards – above – are now available for sale:

Both sites accept other credit cards so don’t worry if you have another currency and we can post anywhere – if you get stuck get in touch and we’ll find a way that works.

Second, as discussed in my last blog – Mission Impossible: the Product Owner – I delivered a presentation on that subject at the Oredev conference in Malmo last week. The slides are available for download: Mission Impossible: the Product Owner.

In retrospect I think the presentation should have had a big question mark (“?”) in the title. In many ways I’m asking “Is the Product Owner role impossible to fill well?”. I had some really good discussions on this topic after I gave the presentation and I will blog more about the role soon. In the meantime check out my new book if you want more of my thinking, The Art of Agile Product Ownership.

Finally, while I was at Oredev I gave another presentation: Evolution: from #NoProjects to Continuous Digital (also available for download). This presentation itself was an evolution. So I’ve christened this version the “2020 edition” to distinguish it from the earlier version. I am attempting to do two things here:

One, be clear that the #NoProjects argument has itself moved forward. When #NoProjects began in 2013 the argument was very much “The project model is not a good fit for software development.” Now, as we approach 2020, the argument has moved on: business (and just about everything else) is digital, in a digital world advancement means technology (software) change. Therefore rather than following a start-stop-start-stop project model are organizations need to structure themselves for continuous digital technology enhancement.

Two, building on that argument I try to talk more about how our companies need to update their thinking. Specifically what does the new management model needs to look like?

More on all these subjects in my usual depth soon.

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Mission Impossible: the Product Owner

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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Is the product owner role impossible to fill well?

Do we set product owners up to fail?

Have you ever worked with a really excellent product owner? Someone you would be eager to work with again?

The lack of really outstanding product owners isn’t the fault of the individuals. I think product owners are asked to do a difficult job and are not supported the way they should be. Worse still, in many organizations the role of product owners is misunderstood, they are seen as a type of delivery manager when in fact they are a type of product owner.

There questions have been on my mind for a while, next month I’m giving a new presentation I’m Oredev in Malmo – and which coincides perfectly with the publication of my new book The Art of Agile Product Ownership (funny that). So by way of preview…

I’ve long argued that product owners need four things in order to do the job well: skills, authority, legitimacy and time. Lets look at each in turn:

1. Skills: the kind of thing a product owner learns on a Certified Scrum Product Owner course are table stakes. Yes POs need to be able to write user stories, split stories, write acceptance criteria, understand agile and scrum, work with teams, plan a little and so on. While necessary such skills are not sufficient.

The bigger question is:

How does a product owner know what they need to know in order to do these things?
How do they know what customers want?
How do they know what will make a difference?

Product owners need more skills. Some POs deliver products which must sell in the market to customers who have a choice. Such POs need to be able to identify customers, segment customers and markets, interview customers, analyse data, understand markets, monitor competitors and much more. In short they need the skills of a product manager.

Other POs work with internal customers who don’t have a choice over what product they use, here the PO needs other skills: stakeholder identification and management, business and process analysis, user observation and interviewing, they need to be aware of company politics and able to manage up. In other words, they need the skills of a business analyst.

And all POs need knowledge of their product domain. Many POs are POs because they are in fact subject matter experts.

That is a lot of skills for any one person. How many product owners have the right skills mix? And if they don’t, how many of them get the training they need?

2. Authority: Product owners need at least the authority to walk in to a planning meeting and state the work they would like done in the next two weeks. They need the authority to set this work without being contradicted by some other person, they need the authority to visit customers and get their expenses paid without having to provide a lengthy explation every time.

3. Legitimacy: Product owners need to be seen as the right person to set the priorities. The right person to visit customers, the right person to agree plans and write roadmaps. They need to be seen as the right person by the organisation, by peers and, most importantly, by the development team.

Authority and legitimacy are closely related but they are not the same thing. While the product owner needs both the lack of either results in the same problem: people don’t take their work seriously and other people try to set the agenda on what to build.

Unfortunately Scrum contains a seldom noticed problem here: product owners are team members, they are peers; the team are self organising and are responsible for delivering the product. (There is an egalitarian ethos even if this is only Implicit.)

But Scrum sets the PO as the one, and only one, who can tell he team what to do.

There is a contradiction.

4. Time: Product owners need time to do their work – which is a lot, just read that skills list and think about what the PO should be doing. And don’t forget the PO is a human being who needs to sleep for seven or eight hours a night, may well have a family and a home to go to.

When does the product owner get to do all of this?

Leave aside the question of where you find such people, or whether our companies pay them enough and ask yourself: do product owners get the support they need from their companies and teams?

So often the PO ends up in conflict with the company about what will be built and when it will be delivered, and they end up in conflict with their team about… well much the same issues every planning meeting.

Think about it: do we ask too much from our product owners?

Do we set up product owners to fail?

I’d love to hear your opinions, comment on this post or drop me a note or leave a comment.

I’m going to leave you hanging here today. In the Oredev presentation I’ll try and suggest some solutions – and there are some in the Art of Product Ownership. (Last year I described one in The Product Owner refactored: the SPO/TPO model.)


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Complexity is a source of income in open source ecosystems

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

I am someone who regularly uses R, and my interest in programming languages means that on a semi-regular basis spend time reading blog posts about the language. Over the last year, or so, I had noticed several patterns of behavior, and after reading a recent blog post things started to make sense (the blog post gets a lot of things wrong, but more of that later).

What are the patterns that have caught my attention?

Some background: Hadley Wickham is the guy behind some very useful R packages. Hadley was an academic, and is now the chief scientist at RStudio, the company behind the R language specific IDE of the same name. As Hadley’s thinking about how to manipulate data has evolved, he has created new packages, and has been very prolific. The term Hadley-verse was coined to describe an approach to data manipulation and program structuring, based around use of packages written by the man.

For the last nine-months I have noticed that the term Tidyverse is being used more regularly to describe what had been the Hadley-verse. And???

Another thing that has become very noticeable, over the last six-months, is the extent to which a wide range of packages now have dependencies on packages in the HadleyTidyverse. And???

A recent post by Norman Matloff complains about the Tidyverse’s complexity (and about the consistency between its packages; which I had always thought was a good design principle), and how RStudio’s promotion of the Tidyverse could result in it becoming the dominant R world view. Matloff has an academic world view and misses what is going on.

RStudio, the company, need to sell their services (their IDE is clunky and will be wiped out if a top of the range product, such as Jetbrains, adds support for R). If R were simple to use, companies would have less need to hire external experts. A widely used complicated library of packages is a god-send for a company looking to sell R services.

I don’t think Hadley Wickam intentionally made things complicated, any more than the creators of the Microsoft server protocols added interdependencies to make life difficult for competitors.

A complex package ecosystem was probably not part of RStudio’s product vision, at least for many years. But sooner or later, RStudio management will have realised that simplicity and ease of use is not in their interest.

Once a collection of complicated packages exist, it is in RStudio’s interest to get as many other packages using them, as quickly as possible. Infect the host quickly, before anybody notices; all the while telling people how much the company is investing in the community that it cares about (making lots of money from).

Having this package ecosystem known as the Hadley-verse gives too much influence to one person, and makes it difficult to fire him later. Rebranding as the Tidyverse solves these problems.

Matloff accuses RStudio of monopoly behavior, I would have said they are fighting for survival (i.e., creating an environment capable of generating the kind of income a VC funded company is expected to make). Having worked in language environments where multiple, and incompatible, package ecosystems existed, I can see advantages in there being a monopoly. Matloff is also upset about a commercial company swooping in to steal their precious, a common academic complaint (academics swooping in to steal ideas from commercially developed software is, of course, perfectly respectable). Matloff also makes claims about teachability of programming that are not derived from any experimental evidence, but then everybody makes claims about programming languages without there being any experimental evidence.

RStudio management rode in on the data science wave, raising money from VCs. The wave is subsiding and they now need to appear to have a viable business (so they can be sold to a bigger fish), which means there has to be a visible market they can sell into. One way to sell in an open source environment is for things to be so complicated, that large companies will pay somebody to handle the complexity.

The Product Owner Delta

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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As regular readers might know I’m working on a book called The Art of Product Ownership to be published by Apress later this year. One of the chapters is entitled “Why have a Product Owner” and a few days ago a bunch of ideas crystallised into this…

The aim of the Product Owner is to increase, even maximise, the business value delivered by the team as a whole. The Product Owner does not so much create value themselves as increase the value created by others.

Think of it like this: if the team randomly selected work to do and delivered it to customers then some value would be created. (For the moment I’ll ignore the scenario where that work detracts from the existing value.) The aim of the PO is to ensure the work done creates more value than a simple random selection. The greater the difference, or delta to use a mathematical term, between random selection and an informed selection the better.

The general hypothesis is that intelligent selection of work by a skilled Product Owner will result in both more value being delivered and an increasing delta between intelligent PO selected work and randomly selected work.

This difference the value added by a Product Owner. I like to call this difference the Product Owner Delta.

Now in real life work is seldom randomly so Product Owners are not competing against random selection. In some cases the alternative to a designated Product Owners is someone else: a senior developer, an architect, a manager or someone else. In such cases this person is taking on the Product Owner role. They may not have the title, the aptitude, the skills or official position but when work is selected by one person they are de facto the Product Owner.

In other cases the alternative to the PO might be selection by consensus on the team, or a sub-set of the team. Now it is entirely possible that such a group could outperform a single Product Owner in selecting work – especially is they have market and customer knowledge, some analysis skills, time to do the background research and so on. In some cases this works, for example think of a small start-up staffed by software developers creating software development tools.

However, in some cases selection by committee might be inferior to a random selection. Imagine a team which has never met a customer, argue about what to do, duck key decisions and never say No to any request. Its easy to image a dysfunctional selection committee.

There is more to increasing the Product Owner Delta than simply selecting the highest value items. Timely selection can help too. If decisions are not being made, or committees are spending a long time making decisions then having one person simply make those decisions in an efficient, timely, manner can increase the delta.

Time has another role. Because of cost-of-delay simply selecting the highest value items at any one point in time does not maximise the value delivered. Time Value Profiles (see Little Book of User Stories or my presentations on value “How much? When?”) expose this and need to be another tool in the Product Owners repertoire.

And of course, the Product Owner Delta is not the only reason to have a Product Owner in the team, but it is probably the main reason.


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Story Generators

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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Recently I’ve been looking again at Jobs to be Done and OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). I increasingly see them as story generators and a potential solution to the tyranny of the backlog I described last time.

When I first looked at Jobs to be Done (and OKRs actually) I wondered if they constituted a fourth, top, level on top of Epics, Stories and Tasks. I’ve long argued against having more than three levels of things to do (or requirements as we used to call them.) There are big meaningful things to do (stories), really big things which we don’t as yet understand but look really valuable (epics) and the immediate small things to do right now (tasks).

Actually, I’d rather think most things can be dealt with by two levels and one level is the even better. So adding a fourth “even bigger” thing on top of Epics just felt wrong. Technologists (like myself) have a tendency to map everything into hierarchies; inverted trees with fractal like branches. But not everything is, or should be, a hierarchy, mapping the world into a tree like structure can add complications.

Unlike stories (and epics and tasks) Jobs to be Done don’t really lend themselves to the transactional “Done”. While you could put a Job all the way to Done on your Kanban board and track it from “To do” to “Done” in reality the customer job still exists. Sure you’ve improved it but you can improve it again – another example of Stable Intermediate Forms. This seems to be the great potential of Jobs to be Done, they keep on giving: as much as you improve your product to help with the job you can still improve it some more.

So each time you analyse the Job to be Done you should be able to find more stories to deliver to improve it. Hence the Job to be Done is not a “story” to do, it is a Story Generator. Every time you look at the job to be done you find more stories, every time you examine the result of the latest improvement you find more stories. The job will never be done. Some might see that as a bad thing but that also means the job presents a stable focus for ongoing work.

The same might be true of OKRs but in a slightly different way. Because the objective is reviewed periodically – every quarter or so – it lacks the continuity of Jobs to be Done but perhaps allows the team to switch targets, maybe it is stable enough.

The key results may well be stories in their own right, or they may be things which lead to stories. Either way one can expect some key results to be achieved and marked as done regularly. As they fall they are either replaced by new key results building towards the objective (which themselves lead to stories) or new key results are added for new objectives.

I’m sure there are other story generators out there but the key thing for me is not the mechanism but the existence of the generator. Once you have a story generator you do not need a big backlog of things to do. The generator will replenish the backlog whenever you need more stories – either because you have done them or the value has fallen.

Using a generator removes the need to have a big backlog which removes the tyranny of the backlog. The team are now free(r) to concentrate on delivering value towards their objective.

Finally, I wonder if anyone has used both OKRs and Jobs to be Done together? Right now they feel like alternative generators to me, having both seems like a bit like overkill. Although I accept that maybe OKRs are more corporate and Jobs to be Done are more product focused. Anyone got any experience using them together?


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Agile won the war but lost the peace

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, … in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still” President Ronald Reagan, Farewell to the Nation, January 11, 1989

Back in 2001 when the word agile appeared it was a manifesto – a set of ideas, the term “agile” also served to group a bunch of tools and techniques which could make software development “better.” More importantly to my mind, it painted a picture of a shining city on a hill we all wanted to live in.

Agile was a place you wanted to go, it was a journey you wanted to make, it offered hope. More important as the tools – sprints, stand-ups, etc. – and approaches – just in time, last responsible moment, test first – were the stories agile people – including myself – told. These were stories of a better world, of that shining city on the hill.

And not unimportantly, in a world of search engines “agile” gave you something to search for. Before agile you could search “make my software development team better” or “software development process improvement” but what you got was a very mixed offering. AltaVista (and the young Google) would suggest links for CMMI, or ISO-9000, or vendor tools to “fix it”, or proper design, or… there was no coherent message. Most of these ideas resolved around senior people making big decisions and then imposing them.

Then along came agile: it offered to involve everyone, everyone made decisions, everyone was happy and we could all go to that shining city on a hill – more than that, we all had an important part to play in building that city.

Today everyone is agile. Nobody is promoting traditional (“waterfall”) working, CMMI, PMI and everyone else has incorporated agile (to some degree). Not being agile is about as popular as leprosy.

But very few of us have reached the shining city on the hill.

Along the way agile has been watered down, in becoming compatible with everything else it is less different, it is less attractive, fewer workers are motivated to take the journey. And as “the powers that be” have found ways to bring control-and-command back to teams (maybe in the name of scaling) fewer people are invited to help build the city.

Ironically, as we (the agile community) has made agile management friendly we have made it less worker friendly. Today senior managers “get agile” and want their organisations to be agile. But those at the code face seem to have less and less motivation. And those in the middle… sometimes they seem to want to change just enough to declare success but no so much that things really change.

For some people agile has become completely discredited – I wrote Why do Dev’s hate agile? last year and I’m presenting it in London next week. Agile isn’t a shining city on a hill, agile is trench warfare.

And Googling “agile” presents a long long list of links with less and less coherence.

Agile won the war. Agile is respectable and everyone is agile now. Big business rush to be agile, Governments want to be agile, blue-chip consultancies will sell you agile.

But agile lost the peace.

While many say they are agile few software developers live in a shiny city. The place they live in might be better than the place they came from but it doesn’t live up to the dream many of us shared 15 years ago. Agile has become an excuse for failure and a thing to be imposed.

The thing that passes for “agile” today is too often a watered down version of the original dream. Worse still, we don’t have a word to describe that shining city we all want to get to. Russians have an expression for this:

“We wanted the best, it turned out like always.” Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin, Prime Minister Russia, 1998-1999

Me? – I still dream of that shining city on the hill, I still believe agile is the right way to get their, I still wave the flag for agile but more and more I feel the need to explain myself and tell people that the agile I dream of is not the agile they may experience.

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Continuous Digital published – done?

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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Continuous Digital is done.

Probably. Maybe. Definitely maybe.

Continuous Digital is the second of my two #NoProjects books. Many people ask: “why two?” “What is the difference between them?” “Do I need to read both?”

Short answer: Project Myopia explains why the project model is bad for software development. Continuous Digital describes what to do instead.

Long answer: as the #NoProjects hypothesis grew, as I thought about it more, as I talked to others about the ideas – specifically Steve Smith, Joshua Arnold and Evan Leybourn – the ideas grew. My thinking both on “what to do instead of project management” and “why do something different” grew.

Specifically I saw that the combination of Continual Delivery and Digital Business meant there was a stand alone case for moving beyond the project model. Whether you agree with the problems I discuss in Project Myopia or not there is a case for changing the way businesses are managed.

That is why I split the too books. Project Myopia is a companion book, it is not a prequel, a sequel, a book one or a book two. It is a book some people will read in its own right.

Continuous Digital argues that since business are increasingly digital, and as businesses strive to survive and grow then technology development is not a separate “project” it is inherent to the business. Technology and innovation are business as usual.

Stopping, even pausing, work – as in the project model – surrenders competitive advantage and introduces extra costs (time, money, risk). What is needed is a new model. A continuous model.

Continuous Digital is now published on Amazon in digital form and will soon be there – and in other booksellers – in physical form. (If you can’t wait for a print copy you can buy one from Lulu where they are slightly cheaper too.)

So I’d like to say Continuous Digital is done. But…

Even before I saw the final print version I had requests for an audio version of both Project Myopia and Continuous Digital. I’m debating whether to do these, if you would buy an audio version please let me know, if enough people want it I’ll do it.

Second, once I saw and held the final, done, version in print new ideas came to me. I don’t want to revisit the text – although I might fix a couple of typos – but Continuous Digital is a big book, 350 pages. And I know many people will be put off by the size.

So I’m thinking of turning it into four smaller books, each around 100 pages in length and each corresponding to one part of Continuous Digital. Maybe.

It is never done. It is continual.

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Business school research in software engineering is some of the best

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

There is a group of software engineering researchers that don’t feature as often as I would like in my evidence-based software engineering book; academics working in business schools.

Business school academics have written some of the best papers I have read on software engineering; the catch is that the data they use is confidential. For somebody writing a book that only discusses a topic if there is data publicly available, this is a problem.

These business school researchers show that it is possible for academics to obtain ‘interesting’ software engineering data from industry. My experience with talking to researchers in computing departments is that most are too involved in their own algorithmic bubble to want to talk to anybody else.

One big difference between the data analysis papers written by academics in computing departments and business schools, is statistical sophistication. Computing papers are still using stone-age pre-computer age techniques, the business papers use a wide range of sophisticated techniques (sometimes cutting edge).

There is one aspect of software engineering papers written by business school researchers that grates with me, many of the authors obviously don’t understand software engineering from a developer’s perspective; well, obviously, they are business oriented people.

The person who has done the largest amount of interesting software engineering research, whose work I don’t (yet; I will find a way) discuss, is Chris Kemerer; a researcher who has a long list of empirical papers going back to the early 1990s, and rarely gets cited by papers by people in computing departments (I am the only person I know, who limits themself to papers where the data is publicly available).

#NoProjects: Project Myopia is published

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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Project Myopia – the original case for #NoProjects – has been a long time in the works but it is now done. Published. For sale on Amazon.

Projects fail. Some say 40% of all IT projects fail, some say 70%. And it has been that way for years. Each project fails for its own reasons but they all share one thing in common: the Project Model. Could it be the project model itself which creates failure?

Projects end. Successful software continues. Twenty-first century digital businesses want to continue and grow.

Project Myopia is available to buy on Amazon today – the physical version should joined the eBook in a few days.

Project Myopia gives the case against projects – the hard core #NoProjects arguments. A second book, Continuous Digital will join Project Myopia in a few weeks on Amazon. Right now copyediting isn’t finished on Continuous Digital, plus the physical copy needs to be worked out. In the meantime late drafts of Continuous Digital are available on LeanPub.

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