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The Value of Agile Infrastructure

Engineering practices such as Continuous Integration, Refactoring, and Unit Testing are key to the success of agile projects, and you need to develop and maintain some infrastructure maintain these engineering practices. Some teams struggle with how to fit work that supports agile infrastructure into an agile planning process.

One approach is to create "infrastructure" or "technical" stories for tasks that are not directly tied to product features. In these stories the stakeholder may be a developer. For example, a user story for setting up a continuous integration server can go something like:

As a developer I can ensure that all the code integrates without errors so that I can make steady progress.

While there not all work on a project leads directly to a user-visible feature, thinking of infrastructure stories differently than other stories has a number of risks, and can compromise the relationship between the development team and other stakeholders. Agile methods are about delivering value as measured by the product owner (though the team has input in helping the owner make the right cost/benefit decisions). Thinking about tools and as having value that is dependent from end user value subjects you to the same risks that Big Design Up Front does: wasting effort and not delivering value.

I'm a fan of being able to track everything an agile team does to something that can create value for the product owner. This may be a bit idealistic, but having this ideal as a starting point can be useful; even if just try to focus on delivering value you will be more likely to make the right decisions for your team and your project.

One way to make the relationship between "infrastructure" work and product value is to recast infrastructure stories with a focus on value to the product owner. For example, consider the example above for setting up a CI system:

As a project manager, I want to identify when changes break the codeline so that mistakes can be fixed quickly, and the code stays healthy.

This may not be the perfect example, but when I think of infrastructure items this way I have a better understanding of why I'm considering a change, and it prepares me to advocate for the work in case there is push-back. You can apply this approach to other "technical" items such as:
  • Investigating a new testing framework.
  • Refactoring (in the context of implementing a story).
  • Upgrading your SCM system.
  • Setting up a wiki
  • Adding reporting to your maven build.
The benefits of considering the value of technical tasks to all stakeholders, and not just developers, include:
  • A better relationship between engineers and the other stakeholders on a project.
  • A better allocation of resources: If you can't explain the value of something there may be a better solution, or at least a less costly one.
  • A better understanding of how to use engineering techniques to deliver value.
I admit that his approach has some challenges. The value of technical tasks can be difficult to explain, and are often long term at the expense of short term costs. Even if your project dynamics require you to address infrastructure in some other, more indirect, way you can benefit by starting to think in terms of how what you want to do adds value. Software engineering is a means towards the end of solving business problems, and as engineers we should be able to explain what we're doing to any informed stakeholder.


Steve Berczuk said…
Johanna Rothman had a related post on her blog.

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