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Adventures in Agility: How One Online Publisher Changed Their Approach to Online Development in 45 Days


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Short version of presentation given at the 30th Annual Meeting of the Society of Scholarly Publishers, May 30, 2008, Boston, MA.

Short version of presentation given at the 30th Annual Meeting of the Society of Scholarly Publishers, May 30, 2008, Boston, MA.

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  • 1. How One Publisher Changed Its Approach to Online Development in 45 Days ADVENTURES IN AGILITY Larry M. Belmont Manager, Online Development labelmo at aip dot org Society for Scholarly Publishing 30 th Annual Meeting, Boston, MA May 30, 2008
  • 2. About AIP
    • Founded in 1931 as a service organization …
      • Charter: to diffuse and advance the knowledge of physics and its application to human welfare
      • Service mission: to supply economy-of-scale publishing services to Member Societies
      • Currently has 10 member societies, 23 affiliated societies, and several other organizations under its umbrella (most have a publishing program)
    • A publisher in its own right …
      • 10 journals, conference proceedings, database products
    • Scitation …
      • AIP’s online hosting platform; on the web since 1996
      • Aggregation of 180 publications for 25 publishing partners
  • 3. About me
    • 27 years in publishing, all at AIP …
      • 9 years in print journal production (most as a technical copy-editor)
      • 3 years in desktop publication production
      • 15 years in electronic/online products (8 as a manager)
    • Currently an online product development manager in a business unit
    • Not a programmer; more of a technical projects manager/product manager
  • 4. Our goals
    • Increase development speed in order to meet customer and customer constituency demands, as well as our own needs to evolve our services more regularly
    • Position ourselves to innovate or deploy new features quickly in response to unpredictable “market conditions,” major paradigm shifts (like Web 2.0), or good ole competitive one-upsmanship
  • 5. The enemy is us
    • Project ( micro )management
    • “ Perfect-plan-ism”
    • Fear of failure (culture of “that won’t work”)
    • Distributed decision-making
    • Monolithic release mentality
    • Design by committee
    • Disconnect from users and customers at all but latest stages
    • Compartmentalization, thick-walled bizunit-bizunit and bizunit-IT silos
  • 6. From many schools of agility …
    • Observe – Orient – Decide – Act (Boyd’s “OODA Loop”)
    • Observe – Model – Test – Reflect (Kolb’s “Learning Model”)
    • Plan – Do – Check – Act (Shewhart’s “QC Cycle”)
  • 7. … we stewed an “agile approach”
  • 8. Agility demands the right roles
    • The Agile “X Organization”
      • The Leader, a/k/a “Big X”
      • The Stakeholder
      • The Timekeeper
      • The User Advocate
      • The Visualizer
      • The Architect
      • The Coder
      • The Bulletproofer
      • The Tester
      • The Gatekeeper
  • 9. What was our “Big X” like?
    • Did not act like a certified project manager; more of an engager-resonator-cultivator-harmonizer
    • Articulated clear intent/goal (co-signed “the contract of leadership” with the team)
    • Asked the team to accomplish the goal, but did not tell them how to do it
  • 10. Team attributes
    • Highly motivated, highly skilled
    • Zen-like, intuitive understanding (“feeling it”)
    • Mix of experienced hands, fresh POVs
    • Rank did not dictate leadership role(s)
    • Business-technology blend
    • Self-mobilizing at all levels
    • Cross-pollinating
    • Credibility, mutual respect, passion, trust
    • Subjugation of personal agendas
  • 11. Team behaviors
    • Highly verbal
    • No blame, no fear
    • No assumptions, projections, conceits
    • Dialogue over monologue
    • Sublimation of egos, but wide berth given to passionate POVs
    • Devil’s advocacy tempers evangelism
    • Belief in user input and test-driven development as primary design driver
  • 12. A little inspiration
    • Korean War jet pilot John Boyd believed the perfect fighter plane’s key characteristic was agility – the ability to change its energy state rapidly to move from patrol to attack mode, and for a pilot to do the same mentally to gain advantage once engaged in a dog-fight
      • Pilot advantage hinged on highly intuitive Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) looping
      • The more agile pilot was the one who could change the situation more quickly than his opponent could update his orientation to it (“getting inside” the enemy’s OODA loop)
      • OODA grants us the ability to balance continuity and change (a pretty good definition of agility)
  • 13. What do aerial warfare and projects have in common?
    • Shared “adversaries”
      • Rapid, unanticipated changes that lead to disorientation
      • An uncertain environment
      • Constant threats to any initiative gained
      • Time itself
    • OODA helps in dog-fights and projects
      • Allows us to control the environment (esp. change)
      • Can help identify threats faster
      • Is iterative by design
  • 14. OODA, cheap DC comics version
  • 15. OODA, expensive O’Reilly book version
  • 16. Our 1 st OODA loop Installed an agile “framework” (people, process, tools); planned a 1 st iteration and an agile user testing/feedback loop Decide Studied the competition, to see what they had on the abstract page that we didn’t, and what we could add quickly; ID’d customer and user wants and needs; increased Web 2.0 savvy; assigned values to deliverables Orient Noted that 46% of Scitation user sessions started on the abstract view; began cultivating a vision that our platform was made up of 2 million article homepages where the users engaged us and one another, and where we engaged them Observe Implemented the 1 st iteration Act What We Did OODA Component
  • 17. Thank you, sir, may I have another … 20 business days Plan and implement Version 1.6 8 business days Implement version 1.5 37 business days Assemble the team; retool approach, applications, and presentation framework (GUI) to facilitate “working agile”; plan version 1.5 14 business days Plan and implement Version 1.7 10 business days Plan and implement Version 1.8 12 business days Plan and implement Version 1.9 How Long We Took What We Did
  • 18. So, where did that speed come from? Practice designer-centered design Practice user-centered design Run the project via meetings, e-mail, and reference a 50-page “plan” and document it on the LAN Run the project on the web and reference a 1-2-page “roadmap” and document it on virtual writeboards Wait until everything is hard-wired together before alpha testing Test end-user functionality modularly as it’s built – and course-correct as we go Slow-cook requirements via multiple meetings, mockup reviews, documentation reviews Quick-cook requirements in social environments (wiki, basecamp) Produce exhaustive Visio wireframes and workflows Prototype on paper (easy to change) Wait until everything is changed and re-wired together before beta testing Engage key internal stakeholders and customers/users at every stage Declare work done and move onto next thing without reassessing value or need to modify/optimize behavior Never consider work really complete; continue evaluating feedback and surveying users to drive followup iterations What We Used to Do What We Do Now
  • 19. Our obligatory process diagram
  • 20. Keys to speed: paper
    • Went “retro” for planning, design, and visualization
      • Used index card bleachers to organize the high-level project components
      • User stories were literally story-boarded
      • Used presentation boards and Post-Its in multiple colors like Colorforms to arrange GUI elements – and wire-framed the results
      • Used dozens of 3x5 index cards and Post-Its to map the deeper logic underlying screen flows
      • Captured certain visualizations with a digital camera on the spot and posted them to the project Basecamp as a point of reference for the team
  • 21. Keys to speed: new “environments”
    • Ergonomics, creature comforts
      • Dual monitors
    • Development framework
      • AJAX
      • Apache Tiles
      • Spry
      • XML
    • Management framework (still playing with these)
      • Basecamp, JIRA (web-based project collaboration)
      • Jabber (IM-like messaging and conferencing)
      • Pbwiki, Confluence, Drupal (online documentation)
      • surveymonkey (online user feedback collector-analyzer)
  • 22. Keys to speed: the “war room”
    • Leveraged the social-ness inherent in teams
    • Provides an extremely high signal-to-noise ratio
  • 23. Keys to speed: optimized meetings
    • Daily meetings of the action team (team leaders, developers, designers)
      • 15 minutes or less
    • Twice-weekly meetings of the entire team .
      • 30 minutes or less
    • All other communication handled on the teamlet level, via short-burst online chat/IM or face-to-face
  • 24. Keys to speed: “eating the elephant”
    • To build is human; to iterate, divine
    • Build first out of necessity, and then iterate aggressively to grant user flexibility, comfort, and – if desired – luxury:
      • Dirt track  single-lane cobblestone road  two-lane asphalt road  Autobahn
    • Start with one “story,” and then …
      • Rewrite it
      • Rewrite it again (embrace “change”)
      • And (possibly) again
  • 25. Our agile “mythology” scorecard Agility requires no discipline “ Fail fast” or “fail early and often” is a speed-enhancing attribute; “gotta build it to break it” (best to break it sooner) Agility is a silver bullet OODA worked (though no one explictly knew it was OODA) Agility is just for programmers People first, then methodology, then tools – the best route from fragile to agile for us Agility means “perpetual beta” User stories and personae were critical to getting at REAL functionality with VALUE “ Agile Myths” We Debunked “ Agile Myths” We Confirmed
  • 26. How we plan to stay agile
    • “ A good plan … executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week”
  • 27. It’s alive!
    • Project your agility – allow the public/users/potential partners to look behind the curtain at select products way before even “soft” launches:
      • Allow them into your “Labs”/“Skunkworks” – virtual sandboxes for new, experimental, or evolving features
      • Introduce the proposed alongside the old, and let the users compare
  • 28. Thanks!
    • AIP
    • Agility in Practice
    • Learn more at
    • The director’s cut of this presentation is available
    • at
    • Redrawn version of John Boyd's OODA Loop by Patrick E. Moran.
    • Agile Lifecycle and other diagrams, courtesy Scott W. Ambler, Javapolis.
    • A lifetime of project-management inspiration via
    • Other images and sound bytes from the Great Internet Hard Drive.