Monday, October 25, 2010

The Myth of Iteration 0

"Iteration 0" is the initial phase on an Agile project when collaboration tools such as a source code repository server, a continuous integration server, and distributed build and test agents, as well as document tools like wiki servers, and other tools are set up. It's often also a time to configure individual workstations and team members' tools in preparation for everyone starting work.

"Iteration 0" is a bit of a popular misconception that is a side-effect of software projects initiated by technologists - which sounds a bit ridiculous at first. After all, who else but technologists to do software projects? Of course technologists are the right people to do software projects, but are all technologists the right people to execute project startup? And for that matter, what is "project startup" as differentiated from the rest of the work? Is it something that should be approached differently than the rest of the work?

The technology-focused project initiation isn't necessarily the wrong thing to do, but it's often only the right thing to do from within the technologist's perspective, and that perspective can be limited. A tool-biased perspective is a challenging thing to overcome by someone whose moment-by-moment work is necessarily suffused with a constant focus on tools, or whose initial career path passes through a lengthy time of tool focus.

If we literally codify the "first iteration" as "Iteration 1", we technologists can use a bit of geekery to make allowances for a pre-iteration focused on technology. As programmers, we're accustomed to counting a list of things starting from zero. If the list of iterations starts at the "zeroeth" position, but work is only scheduled to start on the first position, then we get an extra "unclaimed" iteration to work with: "Iteration 0".

Any way you cut it, the first iteration is the first iteration, regardless of the numerical designation assigned to it - and regardless of creative license and word games. If you choose to have a zero-based project schedule, then we should naturally change the schedule to state, "Deliver something user-valued in Iteration 0". Which, consequently, is not an invitation to technologists to insert an "Iteration -1" at the head of the schedule.

Over the past few years the caution to not exit any iteration having only shipped technology has been whittled down to a more technologist-friendly caution against exiting an iteration having only shipped frameworks. It's a narrower interpretation of a deeply-powerful principle. It sets the stage for the institution of a technology-focused "Iteration 0".

Nonetheless, it's sometimes necessary to devote a period of work entirely to technology concerns - especially if technology concerns become obstructions to user-valued concerns. And it's all too easy for technology to become an obstruction to delivery in a technology product delivery effort. But this isn't the problem with "Iteration 0".

"Iteration 0" is a project startup issue that is technology-focused startup rather than a product-focused project startup. There's an implicit assumption in "Iteration 0" that - while perfectly reasonable from a technologist's perspective - isn't necessarily an optimal path for project startup.

If a project startup is executed with "all hands on deck", then coordination of the people involved becomes an issue that must be dealt with right of the bat, including the setup of tools that support the coordination.

So, is it necessary to start a project with an amount of people that necessitates coordination and collaboration tools? If project startup is executed with a small workcell of skilled pathfinders, do they need the tools that necessitate the "Iteration 0" work? Can a project startup be executed without the need for the collaboration tool setup?

And more importantly: Is there a benefit to executing project startup without the full compliment of technologists that we'll need for full-steam-ahead solution development?

The answer to this is usually a resounding "Yes", there is a benefit. A good bit of the reasoning and guidance is found more in the Lean Startup and Lean Product Development bodies of knowledge than the colloquial Agile body of knowledge.

There's a time to activate a full compliment of development staff, but the optimal time is rarely the start of development work.

Ampersand GT

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