Introducing the A-* Stack

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Introducing the A-* Stack

· Agile Zone ·
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There are so many frameworks, architectural styles, tool stacks from which to choose. Perhaps, there are too many. Yet none of them are able to solve all your problems. The least understood of all of these is a framework that deals with the software development process itself, holistically.

Software architecture and agile methodologies seem to be inextricably inter-twined. Everytime I have a chance for geek-talk with a bunch of software architects, there is always someone that will throw in some of the softer issues that deal with how we run our projects, how do we estimate, something about big design up front no-no’s, YAGNI, DRY and others. Since architecture is full of metaphorical stacks of many kinds, I thought it might be useful to invent an agile stack. Humor me, and let’s call it the A-* stack.

I think there are several responsibility areas in A-*. I have no idea what the dependencies are, but here is my A-* stack as I think of it right now, and we’ll try and refactor it later to gain deeper insight into the areas of responsibility and order that must evolve out of the chaos.

  • People Layer: This layer is responsible for establishing a team ethos. It is vital to creating a common work ethic in the team, shared values and principles. It is the lowest common denominator. In high conflict teams with high discord, things fall apart easily. Under these circumstances, you need to drop to philosophical introspection of your team values such as honesty, respect, reasons for existing on the project/or building the solution.
  • Project Management Layer: Managing a project founded on agile practices, even those that use agile practices partially, is no easy task. There is a dedicated layer of responsibility that keeps track of project velocity, prioritization of stories, facilitating feedback and managing change. Sure, we embrace change in agile projects but it still needs to be managed within the prioritized list of stories and other constraints of the project. This is different from traditional PMBOK style project management and deserves its own layer of responsibility.
  • Development Layer: This layer embraces the technical practices of the software developers. It includes niceties like continuous integration, test driven development, code refactoring, single code repositories that guarentee one version of the truth. This is, perhaps, the one layer that is best understood and have tangible actions at the code face.
  • Architecture and Design Layer: This layer is more than it’s really cool acronyms like YAGNI, DRY and BDUF. The focus is on gaining deeper insight into the problem domain. It very likely shares a gray and fuzzy area with the Development Layer and that’s ok. It really doesn’t matter that we have spillage into the development layer or vis versa. As long as we focus on gaining maximum understanding of the problem domain and modelling the solution as simply as is possible.
  • Run-Time Layer: This is one that I’ve dwelled on for a while. Sometimes the run-time environment really gets in the way and obstructs fluidity and rhythm in the development and architecture layer. It may well be the least agile of all layers in A-*. So, choose wisely … if you can. Let me explain a little further by example. The Ruby on Rails folk have made many screen casts that show how you can change code and you can just reload the page and, magically, the change is visible. Now compare that to someone writing EJB’s. Write, package, undeploy, deploy … it’s just painful, even if you are POJO+TDD inclined. The EJB container will bite you, eventually. So, in some respects the RoR runtime is more agile than the EJB runtime. (Aside: I think the only agile runtime in Java world is OSGi because it supports dynamic loading and unloading of classes and multiple versions classes in the same namespace. Now that’s agile!)
  • Environment Layer: The place where the team work is an equal contributor to agility. From how your workpace is layed out to desk configurations in an open plan office space, it is significant. Audible and visual communication is important and this may overlap ever so slightly with the people layer. I think the environment has a dedicated layer of responsibility in A-*.
  • Toolbox Layer: The tools you use can help you become more agile. I find that a flip chart, white board and multi-colored markers keeps me fluid and helps me progress rapidly, especially when I am working in the Architecture and Design Layer. We all have our special favorites that include the full blown IDE with our special key bindings, code diff tools, and even specialised items like shared whiteboards. I know of one team that has a Skype bot that acts as their JIRA interface - chatting to thet Skype bot allows them to update statuses and query JIRA. Whatever tools keep you agile has a place in this layer.

On a final note, Niclas Nilsson commented on my original blog post that these are, perhaps, not layers and this is not a stack in the first place. He used a term that I really liked: concerns. I think they are concerns because the cut across the entire software development effort. But, if the problem domain was agile software development then the layers that I talk about may end up being modules with some dependencies between them.

I am also keen to hear of how A-* differs for people working in the Java and .NET camps.  In my experience, there is an attitude and approach difference in those camps and that surely affects your A-*.  Perhaps, you have some other thoughts about what goes into A-* and what should be taken out.  Maybe you have some real world insights that go beyond my meagre learning experiences.

Drop me a note.  I really would like to know how your A-* stacks up.


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