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November 24, 2013

In his 2000 ICSE Keynote in Limerick, Ireland, my colleague Grady Booch said: “There is still much friction in the process of crafting complex software; the goal of creating quality software in a repeatable and sustainable manner remains elusive to many organizations, especially those who are driven to develop in Internet time.” Friction?

“Friction: the resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another.” [Merriam-Webster dict.]

By analogy, in software development, friction is the set of phenomena that limits or constraints our progress, therefore reduces our velocity (or productivity). An element of friction that we have been looking at more closely in the last few years is the result of technical debt: the accumulation of design or coding decisions that looked expedient at the time we made them, but are in retrospect suboptimal, and a hindrance now.

But there is another aspect of friction that is not related to the state of the code, but resides at the organizational and social level. Damian Tamburri, from VU in Amsterdam, has introduced the notion of social debt, as a counter part of technical debt [ICSE2013 workshop]. Social debt is a state of a development project which is the result of the accumulation over time of decisions about the way the development team (or community) communicates, collaborates and coordinates; in other words, decisions about the organizational structure, the process, the governance, the social interactions, or some elements inherited through the people: their knowledge, personality, working style, etc.

Friction in SW

Social debt + Technical debt => Friction => delays, unpredictable schedule, and/or poor quality.

To reduce friction, we have to work in parallel on both aspects, technical and social. An ideal, frictionless project, would have zero technical friction (i.e., a perfect design, and perfect code), and zero social friction: a team that collaborate, communicate and co-ordinate at zero cost, without error. Like in physics, it is impossible to reduce friction to nothing, to eliminate it, to have a completely frictionless development. But at least it gives us something to aspire to.

Friction in everyday language also means “conflict or animosity caused by a clash of wills, temperaments, or opinions” [Merriam-Webster], and for sure we can witness these often in he social relationships of software development teams, but much of the social debt is more subtle in nature.

As we have defects and code smells on the technical side, we can observe on the social side defects and “smells”: not problems but potential source of a series of concrete problems if left not addressed. Examples of social and organizational and social smells Tamburri identified and studied are: Organizational silos, or Prima donnas [paper submitted to ICSE 2014], maybe not issues in themselves in some circumstances, but certainly a potential for many ills.

Friction resulting for social debt is highly dependent on the context, therefore will vary greatly in form and intensity based on [see Octopus]:

  • size of the project (in whatever unit of measure: SLOC, function-Points, person-months, or staff);
  • geographic distribution of the development team (compounded by cultural differences)
  • governance rules imposed externally (Sarbanes-Oxley, Basel III)
  • age of the system (dragging old habits or process form last century)
  • stability of the environment  (commercial/contractual environment, human resources, etc.)
  • business model (internal development, software product, open-source community…)

There may be other aspects of the physics of friction, both static friction and dynamic friction, that could be exploited, making size of the project an analog of the mass, and linear speed to project velocity, and defining a concept of coefficient of friction in presence of various kinds of lubricants.

Your thought?

“Friktion ist der einzige Begriff, welcher dem ziemlich allgemein entspricht, was den wirklichen Krieg von dem auf dem Papier unterscheidet.” Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Krieg, 1832.
(Friction is the one concept that separates real war from a mere paper exercise. My translation)

Interview on Technical debt

September 24, 2012

The nice folks at have “interviewed” me over the web about technical debt. Transcript available on their web site here.

Podcast on Devnology

September 23, 2012

During my last trip through the Netherlands, I spent an hour with Freek Lemhuis  and  Arne Timmerman from Devnology (a dutch community software development website/blog), and they recorded this podcast, asking me about the agile elephants in the room, RUP, and other topics, such as cognitive biases and reasoning fallacies.

Podcast here:

Via iTunes:

Agility and architecture koan

November 1, 2011

“Self-organizing teams can decide everything by themselves. So they don’t need an architect.” writes Samudra Kanankearachchi on the Software Architecture group of LinkedIn.

This feels to me like one of these strange agile koans. If you repeat it often and long enough, it will gradually become the truth.
Self-organizing teams have very little to do with the architecture of your system. Self-organizing teams are about: task allocation, collaboration, communication, accountability, … it may have to do with time-boxing and therefore what gets accomplished in a certain time-frame. Architecture is about making decisions (choices) about the structure, composition, organization of the software system. It also feels like “architect” is necessarily not a member of the team. Not my personal experience or recommendation. Architect is a role, not necessarily a person (whose only role is to be an architect, though these exist in large organizations.)

Most systems tackled by small agile teams have a pre-defined stable architecture. So yes, they do not need to have anyone playing the role of architect. For novel complex systems, where architectural decisions need to be made, if they are made “by the team”, it means that the team plays the role of architect, and hopefully they have the knowledge and experience to do so. Like some teams have a scrummaster and a product owner, such teams should have an architecture owner, who drives the discovery of architectural issues and their resolution. Because an architecture is not going to gradually emerge out of weekly refactorings (another agile koan), unless this emergence is guided somehow.

There was a whole issue of IEEE Software magazine last year dedicated to the interplay agility-architecture. Start here: . Some of my own prose to be found there.

We do not need richer software process models

March 11, 2011

A group of researchers is looking to issue a Manifesto for Rich Software Process Models. Here’s my position on this topic.

“… perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”  Antoine de St. Exupéry, Terre des Hommes, 1939, chap.3

Over the last 30 years we have tried very hard  the rich process models, and we have not been extremely successful at it. Maybe we should try lean and mean software process models, rather than making them “richer.” At minimum, we should try to analyze why the rich approaches have not worked; where they failed. Could it be that we were trying to solve the wrong problem? or that the real problems by far overshadow the process model issue? Or maybe the whole construction paradigm we use for software development is not adapted anymore? My position is that we should try the route of very simple software process models, to ensure a wider applicability, greater versatility, and acceptance. Possibly these new process models would be based on other paradigms of software or system development than the “technical-rational” construction idea. I would be wary of richer process models. Read more…

The Daily Stand-up Meeting from Hell

March 4, 2011

Last year, while I was the “academic-in-residence” at Software Education in New Zealand, we wrote and shot this little video, to illustrate all that can go wrong during a daily stand-up meeting. I use it in class to start a discussion on the practice. Ask me if you want the original file (197Mb).

Click here to see the video on Youtube

Daily Stand Up video

Video on YouTube: The daily Stand Up Meeting


Creative Commons License
The Daily Stand up by Philippe Kruchten is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

The Elephants in the Agile Room

February 13, 2011

An “elephant in the room” is a metaphor for the behaviour of people who deliberately ignore an impending issue. They are fully aware of some major issue that really must be tackled or decided upon, but everyone keeps busy tackling other, often small items, ignoring the big issue, pretending it does not exist, hoping maybe that it will vanish by magic or that someone else will take care of it; that one day the elephant will have left the room.

During the 10 years agile celebration meeting in Snowbird, UT, organized by Alistair Cockburn on February 12, after covering the walls with a couple of hundred issues cards, David Anderson noted that there was “an elephant in the room”, a topic that few are willing to debate in the pen, namely the Agile Alliance (its role, mission, accomplishments, etc.). After the lunch, a small group gathered and identified a few other such elephants in the room, other topics that the agile community is not really willing to tackle for a variety of reasons. We ended up with a long list of about 12 such “undiscussable” topics (or at least not discussable in the open).

Here they are, with an additional sentence to explain what the title is about, based on the best of my recollection (see photograph at bottom): Read more…