The Birchwood Park offices of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) are working on the new Universal Credit systems, which are a re-working of the benefits systems of the UK. The project is also the biggest project that the UK government is piloting with agile methods. I first heard about this project when I attended the seminar entitled “Towards Agile Government” that was one of the “Diversions” after one day of the SPA 2011 conference. One of the speakers was Steve Dover, who works at the DWP with the title Corporate Director of Major Programmes – ADC, and I explained my trip and asked if I could drop by. He said yes, and so I dropped on by.
I arrived bright and early and after checking in was taken to the person who I had been communicating with to arrange my visit, Fidelma O’Reilly. Fidelma took the time to give me a quick rundown of what they are doing there, how they are working, and show me some of the team rooms. Once I had a basic idea of what was going on I spent the rest of the day with one of the teams as they went through their normal activities.
Fidelma and I sat down at some chairs that were near the entrance and I got a chance to see the bustle of activity as everyone moved around the open plan office. On some of the walls were various printouts and on an unoccupied desk near where I was sitting there was a big poster of all of the major areas that the project would need to cover.
The office that I was in had no software developers, that work was being done by contractors elsewhere. The people that are in this office all work on analyzing requirements and specifying the software. They break down time in the following manner:
- Leaps that are 4 months long containing
- Releases that are 2 months long containing
- Iterations that are 2 weeks long
Each iteration there is a “show and tell” day in which the current state of the working software is demoed.
The first step of the work is done by teams who analyze the legislation and such and come up with the basic business process models that describe the entirety (much more than just the software) of the Universal Credit program. They also outline the boundaries of the software system that is to be built. This information (models, documents, examples, personas) is then handed over to another team that drills deeper into the use cases of the software. They work on the visual design of the system, the wording, error cases, and happy paths and write that up along with acceptance criteria. That information is then handed over to the external contractors to build and then later demo.
I spent the rest of my day with one of the teams that does the second stage of work. Each one of these teams has a coach to help guide them through how to work in this new process. The coach of the team that I was with is Martin Leonard and I spent quite a bit of the day with him.
More Than Meets The Eyes
I guess I should say that all of the teams that are part of this project have chosen a name for themselves that is the title of a movie. I was with the team named “The Transformers”. The naming scheme came about at a time when all of the teams were simply numbered (“Team 1”, “Team 2”, etc.) and one team decided to have a little fun and chose a name. The idea caught on and now every team has a name that, I think, are all on the theme of movies with names hinting at change.
When I got to the room they were about to start the morning standup. As the session got kicked off the standup gave me a very good idea at where things stood and some of the anxiety that was around about getting things done. They were nearing the end of their time to work on the current story (the name of the product that they get from the previous team in the work flow) and were not sure if they were ready for the next lot (which was going to be delivered to them that day). I got the impression that on the whole, though, things were going smoothly and the coach and team lead took the questions that were raised on board. Literally. There is a board in the room that was used for tracking questions that were cropping up that needed to be handled outside of the team and normal flow of work.
The team quickly transitioned into a review and presentation of some wireframes that had been completed. A lot of good conversations happened about wording that was being used to describe things, whether a service user would have the information that was being asked for, whether it was clear where they could find the information, and so on. The application that is being worked out in these wireframes consists of a lot of forms that are to be filled in by people seeking benefits. Many of the people on the team normally work in some capacity with these service users and so were very in-touch with what their service users might and might not like and understand. In addition to this kind of feedback on what is being built I was told that there is also user testing where they bring in real users and get feedback from them.
After that the team began a retrospective. The feedback that I saw was mostly positive, but showed that the team had not yet jelled, as some of the discussion indicated some confusion about who should do what. This is completely understandable since, as I was told, almost nobody had been part of this team for more than three or four weeks. They were all still new to the work and to each other. My impression was that they were going through a fairly normal adjustment to their new way of working and new colleagues.
During lunch at the canteen I got a chance to talk to a couple of the people on the team. The general feeling that I got was that they all were very excited about trying out this new way of working. They asked about my experiences working this way in other places and I tried to explain my understanding of how agile development fits together. This led into a little bit of a lesson on what TDD is (it had come up during the retrospective) and how a developer’s view of the agile process is similar, but at the same time different, from what I saw them doing. The general view that they had on the whole thing, I think, was summed up by the response from the product owner on the team when I asked him about how he found working in this new way (I’m paraphrasing here), “exhilarating, but scary. I have to admit that I don’t know a lot more often.”
After lunch it was time for a handover of the next bunch of work from another team. The handover was done by some documents that had been emailed to everyone and a walkthrough of the business process models that had been put together. During the walkthrough some questions were raised and the model was changed as the teams came to a common understanding of what was in scope and out of scope. I unfortunately did not get to see this through to the end as I had to leave to get out of Warrington and beat the afternoon rush of cars on the roads.
That night I reached Torrington which is about 20 miles south of Warrington. I checked in at an inn, headed to a Japanese restaurant for dinner (I was pining for some good teriyaki, but settled for blah teriyaki), and returned to the inn for a beer. At the inn I sat outside and enjoyed the antics of a group of people at a neighboring table who were obviously regulars. At one point I got pulled into their conversation and one of the guys caused roaring laughter from everyone else when he thought my accent meant that I was Australian. Shortly after that I went to bed with images of the day’s kanban boards in my head.