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Archive for the ‘development’ Category

Yesterday I was involved in a few discussions about meeting business needs.

Well, that covers a multitude of sins.

Someone said that in his experience, getting business requirements for BI results in either “give me exactly what I have already”, or blue sky, ie “everything”.  That’s been pretty much my experience too, and can signal that the stakeholder isn’t successfully engaged, perhaps because they don’t know what they can get, or they don’t prioritise the exercise highly enough to put in the requisite effort.

Managing scope is another issue.  BI projects are especially susceptible to scope creep, for a number of reasons.  In particular, business stakeholders often only engage belatedly on the fuller range of opportunities presented them.  This can be for rational reasons, as early deliveries often trigger further ideas and needs – not to mention their realisation you can deliver them something meaningful, cool even.

Still scope needs management one way or another.  Formalised signoffs are common, but what do you do for enhancement requests or incremental changes?  A trickle can become a steady stream.  In some situations I’ve seen a very strict policy taken: any further requirements can only be admitted via a subsequent project.  The most extreme was when a project was underquoted by an external supplier, and cost was fixed.  Black-letter adherence to a document can lead to poisonous – or at least cold – relationships, so usually there’s been some tolerance allowed or built in.  Ideally, you’d quote in a bit of slack, over-deliver, make everyone happy, and generate further collaboration.

Then there’s business-as-usual BI.

Identifying opportunities for further BI development:  not usually high on the agenda.  This because of a familiar experience that was voiced yesterday: the six-month queue for new development.  Delivering business intelligence is more a matter of managing what’s being requested than drumming up work (how to get a six-month queue: drum up work).

Prioritising is necessary, but not the ultimate answer: it doesn’t shorten the queue, and you can guarantee that as a result some worthy requests can end up languishing in a permanent limbo; somebody will be put offside.

Another common approach, which I favour wherever possible, is to foster skills loci in individual business units.  It’s often possible to identify someone in a given business area who has an analytical bent – who, by temperament, interest or both, is not only open to the idea but keen for the opportunity to extract and analyse themselves.

That’s a two-edged sword for several reasons.  Primarily: unfettered access can result in people building non-conforming versions of commonly-used metrics; some sort of auditing or filtering process needs to take place.

Mentioned yesterday was a forum of such power users, meeting monthly under the auspices of a BI professional.  Sharing experience and best practice is one aim, but it also helps to be aware of the directions people are headed, training needs, and to keep on top of resourcing levels.  I don’t think control should be an issue per se, but with workload decentralisation it’s easy to lose sight of the use of both toolsets and resources, which understanding is necessary when planning updates or changes to environment or data.  Again, it remains important to keep an eye on the use of metrics, where possible via published – and updated – standards, with acknowledged business owners.  This model can become unwieldy when there is not at least centralised insight into the use of the data resources provided.

I don’t think any of this is particularly new, but for various reasons it’s not always effected with sufficient enthusiasm – on either side.  While it’s important to ensure people are reading off the same script, I don’t think that either business or IT interests are served by maintaining BI skills within IT – with or without business analysts interfacing.  Even if there’s pushback from the business units, they will have to acknowledge they are their own subject matter experts, and shouldn’t abrogate that knowledge by delegating to those without a direct interest.

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It’s hard to get through 2010 without stumbling across the term ‘agile’, which is being spilt everywhere.  Like most bandwagonesque ideas, the exact meaning is by turns carelessly mislaid, blithely trampled on, or deliberately stolen.

The origins of “agile software development” goes right back to 2001, published in The Agile Manifesto.  In theory, anything not referencing it is either wilful, ignorant, or indifferent.  But language is organic; these things will happen.

The Wikipedia definition of agile software development accords with the Manifesto.  And an example of the breakout process comes from Maureen Clarry of CONNECT: “Confusing Agile with a capital A and agility is a common mistake. Agile as a methodology is a small piece compared to organizational agility. Closely related to that, we sometimes see BI organizations that use Agile methodology as an excuse so that they don’t have to define standards or document anything. This is another example of trading speed and adaptability for standardization and reuse. It does not need to be an either/or proposition.”

Ouch.  The battle lines are clearly drawn; it can’t be surprising to see it in the business intelligence arena.

This current discussion will look at the capital A, which has definition.  As such, the Agile Manifesto is not for everyone.  Up front, they say:

“we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan”.

That’s not motherhood – and it’s obviously not universally applicable.  Enterprise-level organisations will necessarily favour processes and tools, simply because they need good communication, integration between parts of the body to make it work –and grow – well.  In that context, the Manifesto could be seen as permission for cancer to grow: it may be successful, but out of step with the rest of the body.  On the other hand, it may be good for pilots where they don’t need tight integration with the body corporate.

The Agile Principles should be viewed in full here, but a short version could be summarised as:

  1. Highest priority: to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery
    of valuable software.
  2. Embrace changing requirements, even late in development.
  3. Deliver working software frequently.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals, and resource them.
  6. Face-to-face meetings!
  7. Working software is the primary measure.
  8. Sustainable development: the ability to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to good design.
  10. Simplicity: maximise the amount of work not done.
  11. Self-organising teams.
  12. Reflect as a team at regular intervals, on how to be more effective.

MIP, an Australian data management consultancy, are the ones who first brought MicroStrategy, Brio and Informatica to Australia.  Recently they gave a presentation on Agility in its formal sense, in the context of presenting RED, a data warehouse development tool from a New Zealand company called WhereScape.

WhereScape RED has:

–          automatic creation of surrogate keys, load timestamps, etc;

–          code generation, execution, re-execution;

–          a source repository;

–          change management/ version control, including comparison tools;

–          generated user and technical documentation, with auto commenting, diagrams, glossaries;

–          prototyping facilities;

–          notification of data issues (although it is not a data quality tool per se, it uses an error mart).

MIP presented WhereScape RED as inextricably linked to Agile development; a simpler IDE than Microsoft’s Visual Studio, and an intuitive ETL tool.  It has been customer-quoted as a “perfect complement” to SQL Server technology (albeit I can’t say how well it fits in with other database technology).

What I saw did look good.  It makes sense that it would suit an Agile development project.  I noted one caveat at the time: that with such tools and methodology, it would be easy to lose the development thread in the process of rapid reiteration.  A challenge, but not an insurmountable one, for the data professional.

Update 05-Aug-10: The Data Warehouse Institute’s World Conference has Agile as its theme.  Some of the adjunct discussions can be seen to muddy the waters somewhat (is it a methodology? a process? a style? – depends on who’s talking, and how loose their language is).  An earlier discussion – “Being” Agile vs. “Doing” Agile – is salient, especially the comments.  One of the author’s own comments is worth repeating, that promoting Agile on the basis of speed specifically is “wrong-headed”:

“When speed is the primary objective, quality and value often suffer. But when the focus is on incremental value delivery (of high quality); increased productivity occurs naturally”.

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