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The Agile Virtue of Transparency

David on Transparency and Agile Practices

April 14, 2011 | David Cooksey

The Agile Virtue of Transparency

Transparency runs contrary to human nature. We all want to look good, however, the greatest programmer in the world will still cause bugs. Few designs are so prescient that they never require updating. When mistakes or design flaws are discovered, it’s natural to downplay, hide, excuse, or otherwise mitigate the negative effect these mistakes have upon our reputation.

Unfortunately, this human tendency can cause many problems. Bugs can remain unfixed and architectural flaws unresolved. In order for our code and processes to be useful, our mistakes need to be brought to light and corrected. This is precisely why transparency is so valuable, and also so difficult. A team or organization must be structured in such a way that mistakes are corrected while simultaneously encouraging people to own up to their mistakes.

Naturally, common sense applies. There is no need for every developer to constantly inform the team every time they make a typo or cause a test to fail locally. Transparency does not mean that every individual detail should be published to everyone up and down the chain. No one can absorb all of that data, and the sheer mass of data would actually discourage transparency because it would be extremely hard to find the data points that are relevant. A problem or potential problem should be brought to the attention of the people who can resolve the problem, and those who should be notified of it as soon as possible.

A friend told me a story recently that does an excellent job of illustrating the value of transparency between levels. His company had decided that it was time to create a new website. Their website was functional, but could use a facelift. Also, there was a lot of business logic in the database which could possibly be pulled out into a services layer. The team was hired and they got to work. A year later, the new website had less functionality than the original website. Content management required business analysts to open and compile multiple Visual Studio solutions. A change to a stored procedure parameter required compiling more than 12 independent solutions—and no business logic had been pulled out of the database.

This occurred because the people asking for the new site had no view whatsoever into what it was going to be. There was no involved product owner. There were no intermediate demos that evaluated progress or architecture. There were no intermediate releases to gather feedback. As a result, a year’s worth of time and considerable funds were wasted.

This is an extreme example, but it shows very clearly why transparency is such a valuable virtue for an organization to have. Opaqueness makes it far too easy to hide flaws, which can dramatically increase cost to the company.

So, how do we encourage transparency within an organization? First, lead by example. If a manager never admits to a mistake, chances are the people working for that manager will never admit to mistakes either. Secondly, avoid mockery. Scorn, ridicule, and condescension train people to protect themselves emotionally by hiding their mistakes. Every developer will cause bugs and make poor design decisions from time to time. Third, extend a helping hand. The field of development is so large that no one is an expert in everything. Sometimes a bug or unusual design decision is caused by incomplete understanding of part of the specific system or the underlying programming concept. A team effort to fix the bug, if it is significant, can help create a sense of community and avoid the blame game.

There is no doubt that transparency is difficult to achieve and maintain. However, if you want to develop products that meet the needs of your users in a work environment where people can focus on their work instead of appearances, it is essential.

David Cooksey is a Senior .NET developer at Thycotic Software, an agile software services and product development company based in Washington DC. Secret Server is our flagship password management software product.

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