Wednesday 15 July 2015

What Day Should a Sprint Start on?

This is the kind of question I like: Sensible, thoughtful, and with an easy answer.

Your sprint should start on a Tuesday or a Wednesday.

To provide some justification for that confident answer, here are some important requirements for your major sprint ceremonies:

  • You need your whole team in the sprint ceremonies as often as possible.
  • You want your sprint ceremony days to be as regular as possible (i,e, to fall on the same day of the week on every sprint). 
  • You need 2 consecutive days, 1 for review and retrospective at the end of the last sprint, 1 for planning the new sprint.
  • You want your team to be focused and alert for both of these days.

I think we can all agree on these basic requirements.  Here's how they affect the days of the week your sprint should start on:

  • More holidays (and sick days) are taken on Mondays and Fridays than Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.  So if you want your whole team there, the chances are much better on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.
  • Public holidays (especially in the UK and some other Commonwealth countries), tend to fall on Mondays.  In countries that have a Christian history, Good Friday and Easter Monday always - obviously - fall on a Friday and the following Monday. This means you are almost certain to lose one or more ceremony days to a public holiday.
  • Fridays are the day people are least likely to be alert and focused, and the day they are most likely to be thinking about leaving early (if your company has flexi-time or similar).  That makes Fridays a bad day to have either reviews and retrospectives or planning meetings.
  • More discussions of weekend shenanigans, sporting events, hackathons and whatever else people get up to, happen on a Monday morning than any other time of the week....except possibly Friday afternoon.  This does not lend itself to an alert and focused mental state on either day
  • Monday morning is often used for start-the-week meetings, email catchup, and so on.  This will interfere with ceremony timing, or, harsh but true, the ceremony timing could be seen as interfering with "normal business".  This is particularly important if you are still trying to get buy-in for agile at your company.

Ceremonies are supposed to be time-boxed, and everyone should be working their full hours every week (baring holidays or sickness), but let's be realistic about how people really are.  We are not automatons, we get more tired as the week goes on, we have a life outside of work, and most of us get on with at least a few of our colleagues and like to talk about our weekend.  This is normal. It's not wrong, it's not weird, it's not lazy, it's how humans are.  Make sure your Agile implementation takes that into account, and schedule the start of your sprint on either a Tuesday or a Wednesday.  You'll get a lot more out of your team if you do.

Saturday 4 July 2015

It's Not Documentation, It's Communication

If you see documentation as just release notes, user manuals, configuration guides and so on, then you're missing the point and the power of professional writers. Any and all technical information, whether static or dynamic, needs to be shared with or communicated to a disparate community of stakeholders.  The more stakeholders, the more critical the need for trained technical writers becomes.  Think of documentation as a critical node in the routing of information, and the algorithm that controls that node as a trained writer.
A trained writer understands:

  • Writing for different audiences;
  • The difference between technical and non-technical language;
  • The use of dialects (hint: never use dialects); 
  • How to avoid idioms, metaphors and analogies that wouldn't be understood by non-native speakers;
  • What assumptions can be made about the audience;
  • When a piece of writing is ambiguous, and how to make it unambiguous;
  • Why short sentences are important;
  • How to avoid giving the reader "wall of text" blindness;
  • When to use, and importantly when NOT to use, visual aids;
  • The benefits of lists and when they're appropriate;
  • Grammar, punctuation and semantics, i.e. good writing.

You might think that the expense of having professional writers is not necessarily worth it.  After all, a friend of mine who is also a professional writer commented that the quality of writing in 50 Shades of Grey was mind-bogglingly bad, and yet that series of books has sold in ridiculous numbers and inspired a film.  Not bad for an author who by all accounts really, really needed an editor.  But here's the rub: Sex sells, and in big numbers.  Technical documentation does not.  If people are reading what you write because they want to, then the quality of your writing is less important.  If people are reading what you write because they have to, then the quality of your writing will have a big impact on their understanding, and even whether they read more than a few lines at all.

Doubtless you will be aware that there is a huge difference between listening to an soporifically boring voice and listening to the aural feast of a mesmerising, majestic voice. It is the same with writing.  Read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and rejoice in the fluid, hypnotic intonations and the depth and vibrancy of the picture he paints with mere printed letters on a page.  Then read The Most Boring Story Ever Written.  Sweet Lord, take me now so that I might suffer it no more.  You don't have to be a fan of magic realism to appreciate that Garcia Marquez injects colour and life into his writing in a way that surrounds and overwhelms your mind's eye as you see the story unfold page after page. And yet the story he tells, whilst full of symbolism and allegory, is largely one of family life.  As the The Most Boring Story Ever Written makes clear, mundane can be mundane; as Garcia Marquez makes clear, it doesn't have to be.

The same applies, although perhaps with less creative license, to technical documentation.  It is not the message that will make your documentation readable, it is the delivery of that message. The message contains the value, the delivery communicates that message.  It doesn't matter how valuable the message is if you can't deliver it in a way that your readers can consume.  That doesn't mean that your delivery method - help file, PDF, web help, popup, tooltip, annoying paper clip - isn't important, but that's the difference between driving, flying and catching the train.  Each one is better in different circumstances, but frankly as long as you take one of them and get where you need to go in a decent time frame it doesn't matter. But driving in a Range Rover is different to driving in a Russian jeep.  A professional writer will produce a written delivery that is the Range Rover of communication.  An unprofessional writer will produce something closer to a Russian jeep.

At the start of this post, I suggested thinking of documentation as a critical node in the routing of information.  But the writers who provide this documentation can be conductors who allow the information to flow freely, or they can be insulators who wrap the information in layers of obtuse and unparseable linguistic murk.  Our role as professional writers is, more than anything, to conduct the information as freely as possible.  We are not "people who type", or dull people with an insane perfectionist streak for things that no-one else cares about.  We are professional communicators who polish our words to a conductive shine so that our readers can get what they need quickly and easily. 

Improving Documentation ROI: Part 4 - Time Costs

In Part 1 we looked at what ROI is, and how to calculate it.
In Part 2 we looked at the broad area of improving ROI by reducing costs.
In Part 3 we looked in a bit more detail at direct costs, and specifically direct financial costs.

In Part 4, we're going to look at direct time costs.

Time is the one thing you can't make back.  If you invest £1000, you might make it back if your investment pays off.  If you invest 1000 man hours, that time is gone, forever, no matter how the investment pays off.  For that reason saving time is possibly more important than saving money, even though as we've discussed previously, time = money. 

Part 3 we looked at an example calculation of ROI on paying for a screen capture tool.  That calculation relied on knowing the cost of a help desk consultant and a technical writer per week, but that's not necessarily information you'll have.  If you can't use the financial cost saving as your ROI figure, what is the best way to calculate ROI and provide a figure that the decision makers in your company can put a known value on?

Well, time = money (I'll keep hammering that point home), and your management will know how much one person's time is worth and be able to translate that into a financial figure if they want.  So really you don't ever need to put a financial cost against someone's time, you can just calculate the time saving and let others worry about working out the financial saving from that.  Let's look at an example of a time cost saving with the ROI calculation:

Assume your help desk gets 200 tickets a week, of which 20 tickets (10%) are requests for information about the configuration of the web server that your product needs.  These tickets take on average 15 minutes to resolve from start to finish.  15 minutes x 20 tickets = 300 minutes (5 hours).  It would take you 10 hours (600 minutes) to write a configuration guide that would answer at least half of these requests for information before they ever get to the help desk.  The configuration guide will need to be updated 4 times a year in line with the release cycle, and it will take 3 hours (180 minutes) to update the configuration guide each time.  What is the ROI on the work for this configuration guide?

Cost: 600 + (4 x 180) = 1320 minutes.
Gain: 150 x 52 = 7800 minutes

7800 - 1320 = 6480
6480 / 1320 = 4.9

So the ROI for this work is 490% over 1 year.  And that's a minimum - remember that the
configuration guide will answer at least half of those tickets, but it might answer more, so the ROI might be even better.  In future years the return will grow yet again, because the cost will no longer include the 600 minutes it took to write the original guide.  The gain that will come from updating the guide 4 times a year makes this idea a no-brainer.

There are innumerable situations and contexts where new or better documentation will be able to save people in your organisation time.  When it comes to increasing the ROI of documentation for your product, talk to the people who design it, develop it, test it, market it, demonstrate it, sell it, install it, configure it, administer it, support it and, most importantly because they're the customers, the people who use it.  Ask them what they wish was explained somewhere, what questions they get asked the most, what the most complicated or difficult things they do with the software are, which bits of the documentation aren't up to scratch, what documentation they want to have, and then work out how you can create or amend your documentation to answer that question, solve that problem, make that process more efficient, or save someone a job.  Because if you want to increase your ROI, you'll have to know what will save people time, and what won't.

I could talk about suggestions for saving other people time with new or better documentation all day, but you know your organisation better than I do so I'll leave it to you to take that idea and run with it. Although this post will be one of the shortest in the series, the concept of improving your ROI by saving people time has probably the most potential for reward, so don't hesitate to do your research and find ways to deliver time-saving documentation wherever you can.

But if you want to write all this fantastic time-saving and ROI-improving documentation, you're going to need some time of your own, right?  How do you make that time when you're already neck deep in work?

Hold that thought, because we'll cover it in Part 5.....