What is Agile Development?

Agile development is a term used to describe iterative software development. Iterative software development shortens the DevOps lifecycle by executing against work in smaller increments, usually called sprints. Sprints are typically 1-4 weeks long. Agile development is often contrasted with traditional or waterfall development, where larger projects are planned up front and executed against that plan.

Delivering production quality code every sprint requires the Agile development team to account for the accelerated pace. All coding, testing, and quality verification must be done each and every sprint. Unless a team is properly set up, the results can fall short of expectations. While these disappointments offer great learning opportunities, wouldn't it be better to learn some key lessons before getting started?

This article lays out a few key success factors for Agile development teams:

  • Diligent backlog refinement
  • Integrate early and often
  • Minimize technical debt

Diligent backlog refinement

An Agile development team works off of a backlog of requirements, often called user stories. The backlog is prioritized so the most important user stories are at the top. The product owner owns the backlog and adds, changes, and reprioritizes user stories based on the customer's needs.

Agile planning

One of the biggest drags on an Agile team's productivity is a poorly defined backlog. A team cannot be expected to consistently deliver high quality software each sprint unless they have clearly defined requirements.

The product owner's job is to ensure that every sprint, the engineers have clearly defined user stories to work with. The user stories at the top of the backlog should always be ready for the team to execute on. This is called backlog refinement. Keeping a backlog ready for an Agile development team requires effort and discipline. Fortunately, it's well worth the investment.

When refining the backlog, there are some key considerations to remember.

  1. Refining user stories is often a long-lead activity. Elegant user interfaces, beautiful screen designs, and customer delighting solutions all take time and energy to create. Diligent product owners refine user stories 2-3 sprints in advance. They account for design iterations and customer reviews. They work to ensure every user story is something the Agile team is proud to deliver to the customer.

  2. A user story is not refined unless the team says it is. The team needs to review the user story and agree it's ready to work on. If a team has not seen the user story until day 1 of a sprint, that's a big red flag.

  3. User stories further down the backlog can remain ambiguous. Don't waste time refining lower priority items. Stay intently focused on the top of the backlog.

Integrate early and often

Continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) sets your team up for the fast pace of Agile development. As soon as possible, automate the build, test, and deployment pipelines. This should be one of the first things a team sets up when starting a new project.

With automation, the team will avoid slow, error prone, and time-intensive manual deployment processes. Since teams release every sprint, there just isn't time to do this manually.

CI/CD also influences your software architecture. It ensures you deliver buildable and deployable software. When implementing a difficult-to-deploy feature, teams become aware immediately as the build and deployments fail. CI/CD forces a team to fix deployment issues as they occur, ensuring the product is always ready to ship.

There are some key CI/CD activities that are critially important to effective Agile development.

  1. Unit testing. Unit tests are the first defense against human error. Unit tests should be considered part of coding and checked in with the code. Executing unit tests should be part of every build. Failed unit tests mean a failed build.

  2. Build automation. The build system should automatically pull code and tests directly from source control when builds execute.

  3. Branch and build policies. Configure branch and build policies to build automatically as the team checks code in to a specific branch.

  4. Deploy to an environment. Set up a release pipeline that automatically deploys built projects to an environment that mimics production.

Minimize technical debt

With personal finances, it's easier to stay out of debt than to dig out from under it. The same rule applies for technical debt. Technical debt includes anything the team must do to deploy production quality code and keep it running in production. Examples are bugs, performance issues, operational issues, accessibility, and others.

Keeping on top of technical debt requires courage. There are many pressures to delay fixing bugs. It feels good to work on features and ignore debt. Unfortunately, somebody must pay the technical debt sooner or later. Just like financial debt, technical debt becomes harder to pay off the longer it exists. A smart product owner works with their team to ensure there is time to pay off technical debt every sprint. Balancing technical debt reduction with feature development is a difficult task. Fortunately, there are some straightforward techniques for creating productive, customer focused teams.

Always Be Agile

Being Agile means learning from experience and continually improving. Agile development provides more learning cycles than traditional project planning due to the tighter process loops. Each sprint provides something new for the team to learn.

For example:

  • A team delivers value to the customer, gets feedback, and then modifies their backlog based on that feedback.
  • They learn that their automated builds are missing key tests and include work in their next sprint to address it.
  • They find that certain features perform poorly in production and make plans to improve performance.
  • Someone on the team hears of a new practice and the team decides to try it out for a few sprints.

Teams just starting with Agile development should expect more learning opportunities. They are an invaluable part of the process because they lead to growth and improvement.

Next steps

There are many ways to settle on an Agile development process that's right for a team. Azure DevOps provides a variety of process templates designed to offer starting points for teams looking for different baseline structures to their planning. Check out this helpful guide to selecting a process template that best fits a team's culture and goals.

As organizations grow, it can be a challenge to stay disciplined. Learn more about scaling Agile to large teams.