Agile Business Analysis: Interview with Scott Ambler

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ModernAnalyst.com: What about certifications?

Scott Ambler: Don’t trust some of the certification efforts underway right now. They’re okay.

But, for example, an interesting thing that we sort of seen get tweaked out of some of the surveys is that, the project management community seems to have a different culture and measurably different set of beliefs than everybody else, including business stakeholders. I’ve attributed that to the certification that we see from the PMI and the Prince 2 folks; the answers that the project management community gives on the surveys are much more closely aligned with what they’re being certified at, which shouldn’t be a surprise. But that is not the value of everybody else.

Arguably the book of knowledge, these books of knowledge and these certification efforts are…. There is a lot of good stuff there, don’t get me wrong, but some is not so good. And we need to start distinguishing between the religion and the reality. I think people are being still sort of certified in religion in some ways.

ModernAnalyst.com: Are you saying the problem with these bodies of knowledge is that they seem to imply that these are the only tools and that they work for all cases?

Scott Ambler: Yeah. The fundamental challenge is that if you look at the project management community, a lot of their book of knowledge was actually written based on theory.

Some of it is also there is some generic project management stuff that doesn’t apply to the IT world but people are still being certified in it. And that’s a fair thing but it’s a bit of a challenge. But there’s also some interesting theory that’s being taught that really doesn’t apply. It’s not what people want to hear. It’s not what the theory guys want to hear but they haven't taken the time to really look into this. They sort of know there’s a problem but they haven't figured out the solution. So, people are being certified in that. This is a challenge.

So, what do you do?

If you’re a professional and you’re being told to certify in these things for these good reasons, you’re going to learn that stuff. And because you’ve gone through all this effort and you’ve taken the courses and read the books and written the tests, the brainwashing has been accomplished. Now you’ve got to fight off all that.

You’ve more than likely surrounded yourself with other certified people or other people who want to be certified. So, you have this group thing stuff going on as well… There is the underlying assumption that what you’re being certified in is actually what you need to be certified in. I wouldn’t want to make that assumption.

There are some good reasons to do certification but you need to go beyond that. There needs to be more in your professional life than just certification.

ModernAnalyst.com: Do you have the same views on agile certifications?

Scott Ambler: … there really aren’t many coherent, respectable certification in the agile community.

ModernAnalyst.com: Are you also saying that there shouldn’t be?

Scott Ambler: There’s value in certification. But you need to be certifying people in something that is of value, something that’s real, and something that works. And not what we want to work because that’s what we’ve been told should work by theory people and by the textbook people.

ModernAnalyst.com: The IIBA is currently working on revising the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK). What advice would you have for them?

Scott Ambler: I am one of the reviewers so I’m obviously now biased. They’re working on it. There’re challenges. Right now, we are at this unfortunate point in time where we’re doing this major transition from one process paradigm to another.
I think BABOK is forcing a little more than it should on the traditional stuff right now. A lot of people are doing great work and their hearts are in the right place. Their timing could be better because they’re just at this unfortunate point in time where things really haven't settled down yet on what really is best practice in the analysis world…

In the agile community, we’re not exactly known for putting stakes in the ground and trying of certify ourselves. The agile analysis certification movement is pretty much nil. The agile community might not be stepping up on this topic as much as we should.

ModernAnalyst.com: What are you up to these days? What are some of the fun exciting things that you’re working on and what are some trends that you see coming up?

Scott Ambler: Most of my stuff I’m focused on is helping organizations become more effective at software development in general. I’m only dealing with the more complex environments. My focus is on:

  • Scale… scaling agile.
  • How do you do agile at the enterprise level?
  • How do you do this across teams of hundreds of people within regulatory environments?

These greater complexities that often get overlooked by the agile religious bigots among us. ;-) …

One of the things I’ve been saying for a while now is that when you look at what’s happening in the industry, the agile community has figured out now how to build high quality small applications. When you compare that to the traditional community, I would argue that they’ve figured out how to develop low quality scale applications. I’ll let the Legacy systems out there speak for that.

We might not see it in our lifetime, but the next round is that we really have to figure out how to develop high quality enterprise scale applications. I don’t think we’ve figured it out. I’ve definitely got some ideas in the form of the Enterprise Unified Process, and Agile Modeling, and Agile Data, and Agile Unified Process. But in general, we just haven't figured it out.

The traditional community clearly has not figured it out. There’s too much rampant bureaucracy and the governance efforts almost always a questionable effort at best amongst these organizations. There’s a lot of good will or a lot of good ideas but, in practice, it hasn’t worked for us. I think it will take at least a few more decades to figure this out if we ever do.

I think that’s going to be the next round.

That’s pretty interesting to me.

ModernAnalyst.com: Thank you for your insights!

[This interview occurred on August 1st, 2008.]

More resources: 

About Scott Ambler:
Scott Ambler is the Practice Leader Agile Development within the IBM Methods group. He is an award-winning author of several books focused on the Unified Process, Agile software development, the Unified Modeling Language, and CMM-based development. He is a regular speaker at international IT conferences and is a contributing editor with Dr. Dobb’s Journal. He holds a bachelor's degree in computer science and a master's in information science from the University of Toronto. For more information on Scott, visit:
http://www.ambysoft.com.

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ajmarkos posted on Monday, September 8, 2008 12:58 PM
I am all for "making decisions right now". Heck, once I have an adequate understanding of the as-is, that is a relatively easy thing to do. But I have to take the time required to learn the as-is; I lack divine intiution.

I may be hearing it wrong, but to me agile is about jumping right into the to-be - largely ignoring the as-is. Am I hearing correctly?

Tony
scottwambler posted on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 5:37 AM
If you visit www.agilemodeling.com and spend some time reading about the best practices, you'll see that it's common practice for agilists to invest a bit of time up front in requirements and architecture envisioning.

- Scott
ajmarkos posted on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 10:48 AM
Scott:

I have to admit, it has always been my experience that, especially on larger scale software projects, more than "a bit" of as-is modeling is required. The way I learned it and experieinced it is that coming up with an adequate as-is model is the major part of the required work (I was actually taught that the as-is model is ninty- eight percent (98%) of the required work ).

BA's often lead Business Process Re-engineering projects - very as-is-oriented efforts.

Tony

Tony
scottwambler posted on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 11:46 AM
In Agile Modeling, www.agilemodeling.com, we talk about doing just enough modeling for the situation at hand. So, just enough is situational. The larger, more complex the project the more modeling you're going to need to do. A good heuristic is that for every month of the release consider doing one day of up front modeling (i.e. for a 12 month project consider doing 12 days), with a cap of two weeks (10 days) for complex projects and one week for straighforward projects. Naturally logisitics and your organization's ability to focus on getting the job done and stay focused on high-value activities can stretch this out, but I would consider that a significant risk.

My experience is that the professional modelers among us tend to think that we need to do an order of magnitude more modeling than what is actually required. This is because they're often overly specialized on modeling hence overestimate its value, because they've been trained to think that way, and because they often haven't gotten their heads out of the theory of yesteryear. Having said that, the "extreme programmers" among us often think we need to do an order of magnitude less modeling than we actually need to do.

Bottom line is that if you have the skill to model something today, you will also have the skill to model it tomorrow when and if you actually need the details. The goal should be to get the value out of modeling which is to communicate and think things through without taking on the risks associated with too much detail too early.


In the November issue of Dr. Dobb's Journal I summarize the results of a recent survey that we did regarding the current state of modeling and documentation in IT. From the looks of it the agile community appears to be a bit more effective at modeling than the traditional community and a bit more likely to create deliverable documentation. I hope that the article will be an eye opener for a lot of people.

- Scott
ajmarkos posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 4:43 PM
Scott:

Thanks for the informative reponses.

Tony
Ivan posted on Friday, September 12, 2008 12:36 AM
Regardless of the name you apply to your approach to analysis, a characteristic of effective business analysis is clear communication. To that end, can you please clarify your fourth bullet point ("We’re self organizing, so that the people that do the work are the ones that are best suited to organize and plan it. That’s a bit different") which in its current form can be taken to mean either you advocate choosing the workers from the organizers OR that you advocate picking the organizers from amongst the workers. Thanks in advance
scottwambler posted on Friday, September 12, 2008 7:39 AM
Like I said, it's a bit different. The workers are the organizers. On agile teams there's a blurring of roles. We're moving away from overly specialized people, such as people who are just programmers, or just testers, or just BAs, to people who are generalizing specialists (see http://www.agilemodeling.com/essays/generalizingSpecialists.htm ) who have one or more specialities and a general knowlege of the process -- the sweet spot between being specialists and generalists. Generalizing specialists are more effective than specialists as they don't need as much supporting bureaucracy, they have the ability to apply the right technique to the situation to the right degree, and they can interact more effectively with others because they have a better understanding of the issues that they're trying to address. When you're just a specialist you're effectively someone who just has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

So, instead of having someone do the planning for the team (i.e. the manager), the team itself does the planning. The manager may facilitate the effort, but the team does the majority of the planning work. When done on a JIT basis, this proves to be far more effective than traditional planning approaches.

You're correct that an important part of business analysis analysis is effective communication, arguably it's the most important part. But, we need to step back and observe that the traditional approach to analysis leaves significant room for improvement. The agile community has adopted several improvements, for the most part centered on reducing the feedback cycle and choosing more effective ways for people to share information (documentation, by the way, is the least effective method for people to share info). For several years now I've suggested that the business analysis community needs to point their skills back at themselves. I suspect that if they did that honestly that they'd start questioning the traditional strategies that they seem to prefer.

- Scott
Ivan posted on Sunday, September 14, 2008 9:43 PM
Thank you for directing me to the 'generalizing specialists article. Excising the circumlocution, your approach relies on an effective team. You pick (presumably expensive) resources who are skilled at more than one discipline. Ideal, that. I opine that such a team is by definition effective regardless of any particular method. In fact, left to their own devices, they may be relied upon to find and apply their own most effective methods, which may or may not be the methods you advocate. It is to improve the likelihood of success when the project team is less than ideal and/or operating in a less than ideal set of cirumstances that we codify and apply methods. The higher the risk, the more strictly we should enforce the methods which are, after all, insurance against failure. It strikes me as specious to promote Agile as a superior method if it requires a ‘better’ team than the alternatives, which themselves have evolved to maximize success even where the ideal team cannot be assembled, that is to say, almost always.
scottwambler posted on Monday, September 15, 2008 8:57 AM
My experience is that it's realistic to build teams from generalizing specialists, but you actually need to choose to do so. Just as a specialist team would be made up of some novices, some mid-level people and some experienced people so would an agile team made up of generalizing specialists. The novice GSs might just be specialists, the mid-level ones might be people with one specialty and a general knowledge, and the experts would have more than one specialty.

The deciding factor is that you need to build a team with a learning and collaborative culture going in, instead of building a Tayloristic team of specialists.

So, not having a group of experts on hand isn't a valid excuse for becoming more agile. It is, unfortunately, a common excuse for why organizations remain at lower levels of productivity. My advice is to choose to succeed.

Also, I've been pretty clear in my blog, and in other writings of course, that I certainly don't expect conditions to be ideal. Nor have I ever actually found myself in an ideal situation. So, not being in an ideal situation isn't a valid excuse to not become more agile either.

Strictly enforcing methods hasn't worked very well in practice over the years. Sounds good in theory though. You need to choose approaches which reflect human behavior, and as we know knowledge workers don't react well to being told what to do or to being strictly monitored. You might want to read the IBM whitepaper that I co-wrote with Per Kroll on Lean Development Governance which goes into this topic in more detail.

- Scott
Ivan posted on Monday, September 15, 2008 7:11 PM
No, thank you, I have read enough of the style, and in any case I will be busy searching for an example where “enforcing methods hasn't worked very well in practice over the years”. This could take some time.
scottwambler posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2008 5:15 AM
You're right, it's likely going to take some time because it's very rare for organizations to write up their failures and share them with the world. What's more common is that the problem gets ignored and then swept under the rug. Worse yet, many organizations will apply the same failed strategy over and over in the hope that somehow they'll get it right this time, being unable to observe the failure patterns that they're experiencing.

To see patterns of failure you need to work at a series of firms, something that consultants get to do but non-consultants generally don't. When you start to notice the same patterns over and over again you start to question what's going on. When you only see a one or two organizations struggle with a strategy, often several years apart, it's easy to assume that it's just bad luck that they both got it wrong.

You might find the results of the 2006 Data Management survey, http://www.ambysoft.com/surveys/dataManagementAugust2006.html , to be interesting because it found that two thirds of development go around their corporate data groups. Although this is a complex issue, it's clearly a sign that data management efforts are struggling in many organizations. Yet, when was the last time you read a case study about a struggling data management group?
Acadia posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2008 10:17 AM
Hi Scott,

I have been reading your articles for a while now and on Agile as well. I think Agile came in to place just to create a balance in a world that was relying too much on process and somehow forgetting the end user. I think Agile was a way to cut down the process drone and get some dynamic feedback mechanism into the picture. This is also clear in your article when you say one can choke oneself with all the modeling and documentation that no one will read.

Its also great to know you conducted a survey and you found out that Agile teams indeed focus and deliver modelling and documentation. Something that even you were surprised to learn.

And here is where I find the issue. Since politics is so much the talk these days, I can't help but say that throughout history individuals/ideologies comes to power in the hope of setting right and making better what existed, but end up doing some abject things themselves.

In the same light, I think the Agile community has to clearly advocate what it wants to do and there must be a absolute lack of ambiguity. Many people misunderstand Agile to mean no documentation. I think somewhere the founders did feel that way too and your "just enough" is not really a good enough term. Not having documentation is going the other extreme. Forget surveys and polls, I have found in my own company that after the product was delivered and shipped and the applause died down, people came back to fix something after months just to be utterly dumb founded and not knowing how to go about it. Or users in non-tech groups fumbling and cursing under their breath because no matter how good the usability Help does help many a times.

And when you talk of roles not being super specialized and planning being done by the teams, you have to have a precondition that it works in places where there is a good rapport and trust between the team. I cannot imagine Agile surviving in an environment where there is hostility backstabbing and an aggressive client. And there is no documentation to save your soul. So though your survey speaks clearly, I wish Agile community also understands the preconditions where Extreme Programming and Agile will work well to save a project and where it simply cannot. And I also wish that the Agile community mentions that documentation is really v important.

I strongly resent the fact that in life if you went about changing your mind, you would be booted, but in the software world, a client who changes his mind endlessly is accommodated. I need to understand yet how Agile even tags cost with all the changes and scope creeps with no change management and with documentation coming at the fag end?
scottwambler posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2008 7:31 AM
Some thoughts:
1. Software development is a complex and situational effort. As a result there is ambiguity in the agile message and justifiably so. One size does not fit all. Perhaps your need for definition is an indication that you may struggle to become more agile?
2. If people misunderstand agile to mean no documentation that is surely not the fault of the agile community, but instead the fault of those people to not do a bit of research. Just google the term "Agile documentation" and you'll find a wealth of articles on the subject. My Agile Modeling book, published in 2002, covered the topic in detail and the Agile Documentation book in greater detail in 2005. The topic has of course been addressed in other books too.
3. Just good enough is in the eye of the beholder. Just good enough artifacts are the most effective you can possibly create. Once again, software development is situational and one size does not fit all. I've described JBGE in detail at http://www.agilemodeling.com/essays/barelyGoodEnough.html
4. If your organization is having problems then you need to learn from your experiences and improve your process. If there is an actual need for more documentation then learn from that and invest effort in it on future projects. Agilists treat documentation just like any other requirement -- it's estimated, prioritized, and then implemented appropriately. Also, is the real problem lack of documentation or poor hand-off procedures? I've seen lots of orgs treat documentation like a band-aid over their release process. Instead of just handing a system off to a maintenance team, keep some of the developers around or bring some of the maintainers into the development effort. Also, were the teams writing high-quality code with a full regression test suite? If not, then I suspect that's your actual problem.
5. Help features, user manuals, ... should be treated like any other requirement (see above). If the stakeholders choose not to invest in these things then who is really at fault?
6. If you don't have good rapport and trust between the team you're in very serious trouble regardless of paradigm. With agile you'll likely fail quicker, which is a good thing. Papering over problems like this only extends the point at which you declare failure, increasing your actual costs as well as opportunity costs.
7. The agile community has been pretty clear about the preconditions for various agile methods. For example, the XP folks have been very blunt about this (once again, invest some time with Google) as have I with Agile Modeling (drop by www.agilemodeling.com and search the site).
8. People can and will change their minds. Get used to it, this is human nature. Furthermore, it's the customer's money, not yours, and if they choose to spend it in "questionable manners" that's their decision, not yours. If you resent things like this you either need to work through your issues or you need to find work in another profession more aligned with your value system.
9. The agile community is spectacularly clear about how to handle the cost of changed requirements, see http://www.agilemodeling.com/essays/changeManagement.htm for one of many write ups on this subject. We treat stakeholders like adults and ask that they be accountable for these sorts of decisions, it's their money after all. One of the advantages of agile, and one of the challenges I suppose, is that it provides greater control and visibility to stakeholders. The stakeholders can change the scope, control the budget, and control the schedule. When you deliver potentially shippable working software on a regular basis, that enables stakeholders to make concrete decisions on whether the system is ready to be shipped, whether they're getting what they want, and how much (if any) they should continue investing in this project. When you implement requirements in priority order you deliver the highest ROI possible, as defined by your stakeholders. When you deliver high quality working software, with a full regression test suite, on a regular basis you can accomodate change easily. Working in ths manner requires greater accountability on the part of stakeholders (clearly a challenge in many orgs) and greater discipline on the part of IT professionals (also a challenge in many orgs). We've upped the game in the agile world.
10. If you step back and observe what happens on traditional projects, most of the critical deliverable documentation is written towards the end of the lifecycle just like on agile projects. See http://www.agilemodeling.com/essays/documentLate.htm
Acadia posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2008 9:36 AM
Scott, thanks for your response and your time. I agree with your comments. The problem is when there is a lot of half-baked knowledge around and time is not invested in reading and researching. And I think practitioners and experts like yourself are doing a fabulous job of putting so much knowledge out there for people. There really is a need for advocates and enlighteners - who know the stuff to educate the people.

My worry is the misunderstanding of Agile must not undermine the role of a business analyst in the project sphere. Reducing our work to mere facilitation may not stand in the way of companies throwing out our role altogether.
Amar posted on Thursday, September 18, 2008 1:51 PM
It is a side question but can I ask anyone of you to shade some light on the type of questions asked on a BA skill evaluation test?
scottwambler posted on Friday, September 19, 2008 11:24 AM
Agile is real, it works well, it's here to stay, and it's growing. So, the BA community, and other communities for that matter, needs to accept this and find ways to add value on such projects. This will require them to be flexible enough to change. If not, they're going to struggle. BAs clearly have value to add, IMHO, but they need to choose to actually do so. The implication is that they will need to change the way that they approach their work.
jim4004 posted on Wednesday, November 12, 2008 3:25 PM
I think you've gone a step beyond the Agile Manifesto to say that Agile is against documentation. I don't see that at all, but rather that people and solutions are more valuable than documentation. There are many times that documentation IS part of the deliverable, and I don't see any conflict in that. Bureaucracy or not, if the business requires documentation, we should be delivering it, and why not deliver it in an Agile context? Many organizations believe that they cannot implement Agile because it's anti-documentation. They are legally bound to provide documentation. I'd much rather see the documentation as part of a sprint than a tired old traditional method.
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