Agile and Extreme

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Agile development approaches evolved in the 1990s as a reaction to documentation and bureaucracy-based processes, particularly the waterfall approach. Agile approaches are based on some common principles, some of which are [www.extremeprogramming.org]:

  • Working software is the key measure of progress in a project.
  • For progress in a project, therefore, software should be developed and delivered rapidly in small increments.
  • Even late changes in the requirements should be entertained (small-increment model of development helps in accommodating them).
  • Face-to-face communication is preferred over documentation.
  • Continuous feedback and involvement of customer is necessary for developing good-quality software.
  • Simple design which evolves and improves with time is a better approach than doing an elaborate design up front for handling all possible scenarios.
  • The delivery dates are decided by empowered teams of talented individuals (and are not dictated).

Many detailed agile methodologies have been proposed, some of which are widely used now. Extreme programming (XP) is one of the most popular and well known approaches in the family of agile methods. Like all agile approaches, it believes that changes are inevitable and rather than treating changes as undesirable, development should embrace change. And to accommodate change, the development process has to be lightweight and quick to respond. For this, it develops software iteratively, and avoids reliance on detailed and multiple documents which are hard to maintain. Instead it relies on face-to-face communication, simplicity, and feedback to ensure that the desired changes are quickly and correctly reflected in the programs. Here we briefly discuss the development process of XP, as a representative of an agile process.

An extreme programming project starts with user stories which are short (a few sentences) descriptions of what scenarios the customers and users would like the system to support. They are different from traditional requirements specification primarily in details—user stories do not contain detailed requirements which are to be uncovered only when the story is to be implemented, therefore allowing the details to be decided as late as possible. Each story is written on a separate card, so they can be flexibly grouped.

The empowered development team estimates how long it will take to implement a user story. The estimates are rough, generally stated in weeks. Using these estimates and the stories, release planning is done which defines which stories are to be built in which system release, and the dates of these releases. Frequent and small releases are encouraged, and for a release, iterations are employed. Acceptance tests are also built from the stories, which are used to test the software before the release. Bugs found during the acceptance testing for an iteration can form work items for the next iteration. This overall process is shown in Figure

Overall process in XP

Development is done in iterations, each iteration lasting no more than a few weeks. An iteration starts with iteration planning in which the stories to be implemented in this iteration are selected—high-value and high-risk stories are considered as higher priority and implemented in early iterations. Failed acceptance tests in previous iteration also have to be handled. Details of the stories are obtained in the iteration for doing the development.

The development approach used in an iteration has some unique practices. First, it envisages that development is done by pairs of programmers, instead of individual programmers. Second, it suggests that for building a code unit, automated unit tests be written first before the actual code is written, and then the code should be written to pass the tests. This approach is referred to as test-driven development, in contrast to regular code-first development in which programmers first write code and then think of how to test it. As functionality of the unit increases, the unit tests are enhanced first, and then the code is enhanced to pass the new set of unit tests. Third, as it encourages simple solutions as well as change, it is expected that the design of the solution devised earlier may at some point become unsuitable for further development. To handle this situation, it suggests that refactoring be done to improve the design, and then use the refactored code for further development. During refactoring, no new functionality is added, only the design of the existing programs is improved. Fourth, it encourages frequent integration of different units. To avoid too many changes in the base code happening together, only one pair at a time can release their changes and integrate into the common code base. The process within an iteration is shown in Figure.

An iteration in XP

This is a very simplified description of XP. There are many other rules in XP relating to issues like rights of programmers and customers, communication between the team members and use of metaphors, trust and visibility to all stakeholders, collective ownership of code in which any pair can change any code, team management, building quick spike solutions to resolve difficult technical and architectural issues or to explore some approach, how bugs are to be handled, how what can be done within an iteration is to be estimated from the progress made in the previous iteration, how meetings are to be conducted, how a day in the development should start, etc. The website www.extremeprogramming.org is a good source on these, as well as other aspects of XP.

XP, and other agile methods, are suitable for situations where the volume and pace of requirements change is high, and where requirement risks are con- siderable. Because of its reliance on strong communication between all the team members, it is effective when teams are collocated and of modest size, of up to about 20 members. And as it envisages strong involvement of the customer in the development, as well as in planning the delivery dates, it works well when the customer is willing to be heavily involved during the entire development, working as a team member.

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