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Connecting with Calgary

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Calgary, Alberta to visit the CGI office there and hang out with several of the development teams. These teams have extensive experience with larger-scale agile development including both XP and Scrum and have a good reputation for having a great development culture that excels at mentoring and coaching. I was excited to see what I could learn and take back to our teams in Edmonton. Below are some of the main points I gleaned, organized into categories.

Adopting Test Driven Development

The boldest idea I heard was in response to my question of how to encourage the adoption of test driven development (TDD). The answer consisted of this process:

  1. Clearly communicate to the team the expectation that all production code will be produced with tests.
  2. Wait and monitor code check-ins until you see code checked in without tests.
  3. Delete this untested code and commit the change.
  4. Communicate to the affected developer that you found some code that was not necessary because the tests still passed after removing it. Diabolical laughter optional :)

This sounds extreme, but the team I was talking to actually used this in the formative early stages of building their team and the use of TDD has become a standard practice on the team. I think applying this at the start of a project with a new team is the best timing and makes the most sense, but I may have to try it mid-project (my team, watch out :)

I also learned of a different approach to writing individual tests that basically involves starting at the end and working backwards. Start first with the asserts that specify the desired result, then write the execution of the method under test which covers how the result will be obtained, and then finally write the setup code which provides the necessary inputs. This approach is very much a pull approach (in the lean sense) - each step serves as the specification for what needs to be done in the next step. As such, it might be an easier approach for newcomers to unit testing.

Adopting Pair Programming

I asked about dealing with resistance to adopting pair programming, especially the tendency of pairs to collaborate jointly for only a short time before reverting to working separately, each at their own computer. The answer was to take away someones computer, which leaves them with no choice but to pair with someone else on the team.

Environment factors can also help or hinder pairing. The Calgary teams have their workstations set up to allow people to sit side-by-side in front of the same machine. I think this layout is very important for successful long-duration pairing, and I switched my own cubicle over to this layout a while ago. The Calgary teams, however, took this setup one step further and have a second keyboard and mouse for each of their workstations. This has several benefits in terms of encouraging pairing:

  • It communicates visually the expectation that two people will work at this computer rather than one.
  • It eliminates concerns over using another person's keyboard. The 'owner' of that workstation has their dedicated keyboard, with the second keyboard reserved for guests. Whether the concern is over germs or over intruding on someones property/space, having only one keyboard produces a reluctance on the part of the visitor to drive.
  • A common problem in pairing is for the person who is not driving to become too passive. Providing a second keyboard gives them the opportunity to jump in at any point (even when the driver does not want to relinquish control), and having the keyboard waiting in front of them is a subtle reminder to remain actively involved.

Using Task Boards

All the teams use task boards consisting of cards in various columns on a whiteboard, wall, or even a window. My team has recently switched to using a task board and I really like it in terms of it visualizing the work in progress and serving as a hub for discussions, like in the daily scrum. Given my experience and its broad use in Calgary, I am going to more actively promote its use.

Every team seems to have variations in how the task boards are used, but there were some commonalities across the Calgary teams. All teams used large cards - about the size of half a normal 8.5 x 11 page. Compared to the small post-it-note-sized cards my team uses this is a lot more real estate. These cards are made from colored paper cut in half that allows different colors to be used for different types of activities (e.g. defects, stories, and tasks). One team printed out defect reports (from JIRA) on regular paper and folded them in half to attach them to the wall. Another team attached printed requirements (with tests) folded in half to user stories. The teams all had relatively few columns for their task board - usually not more than four consisting of "In Sprint", "In Progress", "In Testing", and "Done".

Professional Development

The Calgary teams have a very strong culture of professional development that manifests in a number of ways. The most visible manifestation is my seeing many recent software development or I.T. books scattered around the office, many of which are books on my reading list (I may have to do an office raid :).

What I consider the most significant manifestation of this culture is the existence of a professional development group for senior developers. This group holds a number of activities that include periodic presentations by members on technical topics, book reading groups to jointly go through particular books, and Friday noon viewings of videos relating to software development.

One of the technical leads had an interesting rationale for doing professional development: not doing it is essentially stealing from your clients in the future. If you spend five percent of your time doing professional development and improve by five percent per year, then you will break even after the first year and show a benefit in future years: your output will be higher than before, even after subtracting the five percent. So not doing professional development will leave your client shortchanged in the future. If you let that trend continue long enough, you will eventually lose your client.


I had a great time and enjoyed being challenged with new ideas and perspectives on software development. I believe that visiting other teams or companies and seeing first-hand how they do things is quite beneficial. I encourage you to look for opportunities to do this and I hope to do more of it in the future. Thanks CGI Calgary!

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