Agile Tools Help Teams Hit SOA Targets

Opinion: Modularity and time-to-market pressures call for service-based life-cycle support.

If its not what you do for a living, its something you should think about paying someone else to do. Configuring, maintaining and updating a development teams life-cycle management tool set seems like an excellent example, and Rally Software Development Corp.s forthcoming Rally Release 5 looks like an attractive option for improved process quality -- despite the growing challenges of decentralized teams.

"We all have to see each others eyes" to meet the expectations of so-called "agile" software development processes, said Rally VP Richard Leavitt before showing me the companys latest effort. Agile development, with its two- to four-week cycles of delivering fully tested incremental updates, needs that kind of immediacy in identifying and addressing any kind of blockage to any team members work. Even NASA has recognized the need to tighten the eyeball-to-eyeball feedback loops among team members, literally changing the shape of the table where daily management meetings will convene when the space shuttle returns to flight later this week -- hurricanes permitting.

Eye-to-eye interfaces loosen, though, when teams work in different locations and increasingly even in different time zones -- and even having development team members on different floors of the same building can add weeks of time and tens of thousands of dollars to project costs, as estimated by consultant Alistair Cockburn in his October 2001 book on agile techniques. Improved communication tools, as noted by Borland Software Chief Scientist Randy Guck, have the potential to shift things back in the right direction, but unstructured tools like e-mail dont live up to that potential.

An online environment thats structured to consume available data, such as test reports, and to digest that information for developers in an action-oriented way, is a better way. Guck addressed related needs in a paper this past February on the use of Borlands StarTeam in distributed efforts: He has a dog in the fight, to be sure, but he makes some good general points about issues of designing and maintaining a distributed teams support environment.

As I said earlier, though, theres a case to be made for letting someone else walk and feed the dog -- especially if a team only exists in the virtual, project-oriented sense of an SOA development effort and does not even share a single physical infrastructure.

I was therefore pleased to get an early look last week at the Rally Release 5 update thats planned for subscriber availability on July 23. With service-model pricing beginning at $65 per user per month, I have to admit that the service can look expensive compared with using a whiteboard or a spreadsheet to monitor project status and trends. The problem, of course, is that the latter approaches often prove to be false economy. Manual tracking and scheduling tools often dont reflect reality; when they do, its because a new task of progress reporting has been shoved to the head of the to-do list. And minutes of delay, or hours of confusion, add up quickly into real costs -- direct or otherwise.

I therefore looked hard for signs that Rallys designers had crafted an integrated approach to requirements tracking, testing, defect reporting and correction, and end-user feedback response. I liked what I saw, and their site will soon be offering a test-drive environment where you can get an idea of the facilities that Rally provides.

Getting everyone around the right-shaped table, figuratively speaking, can be a growth experience for all involved. "Testers become first-class citizens and acquire analyst skills," observed Rallys Leavitt during our meeting. When a developer has two ways to do something, he added, a tester may seize the opportunity to say, "Well, I can test that" -- and guide small choices in the direction of big quality gains.

Tell me what kind of guidance youd like to get from a process tool at