6 common questions about agile development practices for teams

Experts answer six common questions about how agile practices can help teams work more efficiently.
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"Any questions?"

You’ve probably heard a speaker ask this question at the end of their presentation. This is the most important part of the presentation—after all, you didn't attend just to hear a lecture but to participate in a conversation and a community.

Recently I had the opportunity to hear my fellow Red Hatters present a session called "Agile in Practice" to a group of technical students at a local university. During the session, software engineer Tomas Tomecek and agile practitioners Fernando Colleone and Pavel Najman collaborated to explain the foundations of agile methodology and showcase best practices for day-to-day activities.

Knowing that students attended this session to learn what agile practice is and how to apply it to projects, I wondered how the students' questions would compare to those I hear every day as an agile practitioner at Red Hat. It turns out that the students asked the same questions as my colleagues. These questions drive straight into the core of agile in practice.

1. What is the perfect team size?

Students wanted to know the size of a small team versus a large team. This issue is relevant to anyone who has ever teamed up to work on a project. Based on Tomas's experience as a tech leader, 12 people working on a project would be considered a large team. In the real world, team size is not often directly correlated to productivity. In some cases, a smaller team located in a single location or time zone might be more productive than a larger team that's spread around the world. Ultimately, the presenters suggested that the ideal team size is probably five people (which aligns with scrum 7, +-2).

2. What operational challenges do teams face?

The presenters compared projects supported by local teams (teams with all members in one office or within close proximity to each other) with distributed teams (teams located in different time zones). Engineers prefer local teams when the project requires close cooperation among team members because delays caused by time differences can destroy the "flow" of writing software. At the same time, distributed teams can bring together skill sets that may not be available locally and are great for certain development use cases. Also, there are various best practices to improve cooperation in distributed teams.

3. How much time is needed to groom the backlog?

Because this was an introductory talk targeting students who were new to agile, the speakers focused on Scrum and Kanban as ways to make agile specific for them. They used the Scrum framework to illustrate a method of writing software and Kanban for a communication and work planning system. On the question of time needed to groom a project's backlog, the speakers explained that there is no fixed rule. Rather, practice makes perfect: During the early stages of development, when a project is new—and especially if some members of the team are new to agile—grooming can consume several hours per week. Over time and with practice, it becomes more efficient.

4. Is a product owner necessary? What is their role?

Product owners help facilitate scaling; however, what matters is not the job title, but that you have someone on your team who represents the customer's voice and goals. In many teams, especially those that are part of a larger group of engineering teams working on a single output, a lead engineer can serve as the product owner.

5. What agile tools do you suggest using? Is specific software necessary to implement Scrum or Kanban in practice?

Although using proprietary software such as Jira or Trello can be helpful, especially when working with large numbers of contributors working on big enterprise projects, they are not required. Scrum and Kanban can be done with tools as simple as paper cards. The key is to have a clear source of information and strong communication across the entire team. That said, two excellent open source kanban tools are Taiga and Wekan. For more information, see 5 open source alternatives to Trello and Top 7 open source project management tools for agile teams.

6. How can students use agile techniques for school projects?

The presenters encouraged students to use kanban to visualize and outline tasks to be completed before the end of the project. The key is to create a common board so the entire team can see the status of the project. By using kanban or a similar high-visibility strategy, students won’t get to the end of the project and discover that any particular team member has not been keeping up.

Scrum practices such as sprints and daily standups are also excellent ways to ensure that everyone is making progress and that the various parts of the project will work together at the end. Regular check-ins and information-sharing are also essential. To learn more about Scrum, see What is scrum?.

Remember that Kanban and Scrum are just two of many tools and frameworks that make up agile. They may not be the best approach for every situation.

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Dominika Bula is a Agile Practitioner at Red Hat Czech Republic. She is both a certified Scrum Master and PMI certified Agile Practitioner. As an enthusiastic participant of Agile and DevOps Community of Practie, Dominika contributes as a writer to Opensource.com. During her journey with Agile she has coached multiple engineering teams.

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Scrum is a lightweight agile project management framework with broad applicability for managing and controlling iterative and incremental projects of all types. Ken Schwaber, Mike Beedle, Jeff Sutherland and others have contributed significantly to the evolution of Scrum over the last decade. Scrum has garnered increasing popularity in the agile software development community due to its simplicity, proven productivity, and ability to act as a wrapper for various engineering practices promoted by other agile methodologies.https://goo.gl/rSn2pE

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