Thursday, 28 January 2016

Who owns the backlog?

A conversation about bug lifetimes came up in a Slack discussion at work today, and a core question came up, that really summarised the entire tenor of the conversation: who owns the backlog?

The answer, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is everyone. The backlog of work to be done, and the prioritisation of that work, is not the exclusive province of any one member of the team, or any one group within your organisation. Everyone who has a stake in the backlog owns it, jointly.

No, seriously. This is especially true if you work in an organisational structure similar to Spotify’s popular squads model. It’s definitely a much more refreshing take on the division of labour than the fairly typical siloing of The Business, The Developers, and The Testers. Admittedly, even then, there really isn’t much excuse not to own your backlog, but when your work priorities are determined by someone on the other side of the office (if they even work in the same building as you), it’s at least understandable that developers might not have as much say about it as they’d like.

But at the end of the day, if you’re invited to periodic planning and prioritisation sessions, you own the backlog as much as everyone else in the room. Developers aren’t there to just be technical consultants on the projected time to complete a given feature. You’re there to contribute to what gets priority over something else.

This is all abstract and fluffy, I know, so here’s an example from my own life.

In the third quarter of 2015, my squad was charged with implementing a new feature on our mobile apps. As an organisation, we’d tried it once before, in 2010 or 2011, and it was an embarrassing failure, so I suspect that, throughout the business, people were a little shy about trying it again. But we had some new technology in place to support this feature, and we thought we could achieve it in a couple of months, by standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak.

At the same time, we’ve been trying to commit to dual-track agile, so we’d set an aggressive schedule of in-house user testing sessions with the Android app, to validate our workflows and UI. This user testing is fairly expensive, especially if you miss a date, so we agreed upon certain milestones for each round of testing.

In order to make these milestones, we had to make a number of compromises internally. Lots of stuff where we said, “well, it doesn’t need to be complete for the test, but we need something in this UI element, so we’ll hardcode this thing, and fix it after the test.” The only problem—and you can probably see this coming already—is that we didn’t fix those things promptly after the user test. We continued plowing through new features to make the next test. Like I said, it was an aggressive schedule.

Cut to a month or so later, when those hardcoded elements start causing bugs in the interface. I probably spent a week and a half correcting and compensating for things we considered “acceptable” for the user tests, that if I’d either implemented properly in the first place, or immediately corrected it after that test, would have taken a day. This was obviously really frustrating, and I mentioned that frustration in my end-of-year review. I complained that because we were so focussed on the milestones, at launch, it wasn't properly monitored, and it delayed other work, and said I was disappointed with having to release something retroactively dubbed a “public beta”.

When my manager and I reviewed the year, both his comments and mine, he had one simple question for me that stopped me in my tracks: why didn’t you say something right then? And I didn’t have an answer for him. Because I didn’t say anything at the time it came up. I didn’t open tickets for the defects. I may have mentioned the concessions made, in passing, during standups, and counted on my project manager and product owner to open the tickets.

So why didn’t I say something? Because I was acting like someone else owned the backlog, and my job is just to take work off it. This isn’t true. I could have saved myself, and everyone else, a lot of trouble, by recognising that I own the backlog as much as anybody else. If bugs are languishing in the backlog, then it’s your responsibility, as a member of the team, to bring that up during planning sessions. Your manager will appreciate your taking the lead on reducing technical debt and advocating for improving your code base.

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