The sun was an unwelcome addition to our lives. The previous night had seen the last teams arrive in time for an early breakfast rather than a late dinner, but incredibly 27 was still intact. Rebel Base had received an alternator from a completely incompatible vehicle, persuaded by an angle grinder to fit. They had even rigged up a single working headlight. Life was rosy. The Mini, team BMC, had fared less well on the last part of the Gibb River road, adding a cracked windscreen to their existing engine problems, which meant that the remnants of 27 had been heading at a steady 85 kilometres per hour all of yesterday. This was due to piston failure: the Mini was now running on three cylinders, a pop rivet patching up the hole in the cylinder they had picked up due to burning it out.

The American Marines have a credo that they adopted from the Shitbox Rally: never leave a man behind. We made the long procession north through Katherine to Darwin all together at a stately pace, though still faster than Braking Bad, an ancient VW that was only able at this stage to manage 80. Vintage cars attempted to pass each other while the Northern Territorians in their Hiluxes roared past in the far outside lane, used to the 130 speed limit. As in 2011 on the same route we missed the Stuart Highway turnoff into Darwin, but this time experience prevailed and we were able to form up in close convoy on the alternate route towards the main drag through Darwin city centre, horns honking. In a startling break with tradition, we rolled across the finish line before sunset, parked the car and then headed into the hotel bar for the first proper cold beer since Broome. As a baromter of our mental state at that point, I’ll just say that it was Castlemaine XXXX and it tasted like nectar from the gods themselves.

Hyped, we checked in, grabbed a quick shower and headed back out for more food and drink. After the shower, I was suddenly my usual pale complexion, all the orange fake tan of two days of Kimberley dust washed down the drain, hair no longer sticking up as if I had received an electric shock. Franzl fared better in the hair department, but that was due to general sparseness. A good group gathered for dinner, cracking jokes and retelling tales, but one by one falling quiet as the expenditure of the last week caught up with them. We were back at the hotel by 10.30pm.

Next day, we headed out to the Showgrounds for the car sale. In 2011, it had been a challenge to offload a hundred shitboxes into the local market, and this time there were two hundred and fifty. Learning from previous experience I parked Bruce up at the front to make sure there would still be some interest when his number was called. In the end, we got $100 for him, which was better that the Camry in 2011 that went for $60 – and that included a brand new jerry can and $30 of fuel. Franzl, however, was not to be put off and registered himself as a bidder. In a dazzling display of auctioning prowess mixed with bloody mindedness and seasoned with a pinch of mid life crisis, he entered into the bidding for the Land Rover that Alicinda Outback Safari were driving in (and usually at the back of) team 27, and clocked a Shitbox Rally record of $4280 when he secured it. The plan quickly fell into place: Troy from IT Crowd, a 27 team mate who is from Perth, would drive it back to home over the course of a week while we flew back.

So, Shitbox Rally 2014 is finally over. Franzl and I have covered the longest course in Shitbox Rally history, sharing a confined space from sun-up to sundown for seven days without me once having to resort to the tire iron and the spade in the middle of the desert. It’s the kind of event that lets you take a good look at your life and where you should be heading. For Franzl, the proud new owner of a Land Rover Discovery on the cusp of his fortieth birthday, that’s obviously towards the life of the landed gentry. I just hope that if he takes it on Shitbox 2015 he has an accompanying shitbox for his butler….


Mount Barnett to Victoria River roadhouse was always going to be a mammoth day. We were facing over seven hundred kilometres, five hundred of which were on dirt road, plus thirteen river crossings of unknown quality. It was the day that we drove all this way to do. There was a plan to separate the rally into three groups of eight buddy groups (or about eighty cars), with their own support and medical vehicles. However, as the saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

We set out in good order, the first wet river crossing was not a problem even though quite deep and rocky. We proceeded from crossing to crossing through the ever-present dust until arriving at a larger river, some thirty metres across. Support 16, our scout, decided on common sense being more useful than the battle plan and began sending shitboxes ahead, so we ended up in the lead for group three with the mandate to wait at the next big river crossing. This sparked some interesting debate within the car, as to what a major river crossing looked like. We hurtled through inch deep river beds for perhaps another couple of hundred kilometres looking for the big crossing. Rounding a bend on one of the long rises we finally understood what he meant.

There is a place, about eighty kilometres from where the Gibb River Road transitions back to sealed bitumen, where you realise why you’re on the rally. We crested the rise to look out across a twenty-kilometre-wide valley through which passes the mighty Pentecost River, silver in the sun, snaking in wide loops northwards towards the Timor Sea. It is buttressed on the opposite bank by the collossal red sandstone cliffs of the Coburn Ranges, stretching in a line as far as the eye can see in both directions. In the afternoon light, it was such an awesome sight that we actually halted our onward rush for a few minutes to take photographs. Far below, a thin orange ribbon met the silver. We finally understood what Support 16 meant.

Half an hour later, we rounded a bend and drew up to the west bank of the Pentecost River crossing, looking out at a hundred metres of flowing water and in the distance, the eastern bank. Franzl had taken the previous crossings and there was a tacit agreement that one of us should cross the Pentecost and the other should drive into Darwin. At that moment, I wished I was driving into Darwin. I kept the speed low, revs high, and entered the water. The bottom was rocky, the wheels bumping over submerged obstacles, Bruce’s shocks complaining about the rough terrain. In 2011 I managed to be the one that killed the shitbox in similar circumstances by getting water into the engine, so this was a chance to set things right. Metre by metre we chugged across, slowing down as the car got bogged. A flick on the accelerator and we moved forwards again, suddenly climbing into shallower waters on the other bank and out. Sphincter unclenched, I drove us up onto the dry, Bruce purring. Clearly our 1990 Corrolla that had spend 25 years only going to the shop and back had delusions of Land Rover. But without the cup holders.

We caught up with Rebel Base there, part of our buddy group that had gone on ahead due to not actually having headlights; this was considered to be a problem for night driving. We spent three quarters of an hour filming the shitboxes coming over the river, waiting for our group, but it became clear that they were separated. Given Rebel Base’s problems, we decided to form up a mini-peleton and head towards base while there was still light.

We swept around the foot of the Coburn Ranges towards El Questro. At that turnoff, the road unexpectedly shifted back to bitumen, no doubt to spare the discomfort of the visitors to the El Questro outback resort. We still had three hours to go, and the sun was dropping so we didn’t argue… we picked up the pace to Kununurra and the first fuel stop since Mount Barnett.

Leaving the dirt, we were both a little sad at the end of the challenge, but also grateful since we still had three hours to go to the nightly stop. Without the need to concentrate so keenly, the bullshit once again began to flow and we kicked back into the same easy rhythm that got us to Broome. This lasted as far as the dam at Kununurra. Rebel Base put a call out that they were losing power, and sure enough they died right in the middle of the one lane road over the dam. Another shitbox behind them shunted the car over to the other side, where we hooked up our tow line to bring them into the service station a few kilometres ahead, the reversal of fortune from the previous day not lost on us….

We set to on the Rebel Base’s engine like pros, for about five minutes, until we realised that none of the experience we gained at Mount Barnett was applicable. In the end, with the aid of Support 6 (who frankly had a lot more going on), we all came to the conclusion that it was an electrical problem. In all probability, the Pentecost had extracted its passage toll on their alternator, and they were now bleeding battery charge. As on the previous night, the spirit of shitbox presented a unique solution: their battery was dead, but our battery was fully charged and out alternator still worked because… well… Toyotas are invulnerable. We hatched a plan to switch batteries and run until they ran out of juice again, then swap. Unfortunately, this meant we needed a third car that could provide a battery jumpstart if the worst came to the worst. Our team, 27, were nowhere on the airwaves which suggested they were well behind us with their own problems (it turned out that Team BMC running the Mini had their own issues and the remainder of the buddy group were sticking with them to make sure they made it). We were also not going to leave a man behind, even if it meant crawling into base in the wee small hours of the morning, so decided to head out on the road.

Daffodils from team 24 offered to be our third car, which meant that we inherited the whole of team 24 for the trip back. As mentioned previously the Rebel Base had no headlights, and now no means of charging their battery and keeping the engine going. Valiant Effort from 24 took the lead in the dark with their roo bars, we followed behind lighting the way for our team member, Rebel Base tucked in just behind all but invisible on the road in the dark, and the rest of 24 followed on behind, headlights blazing. We moved at speed given the large distances still to cover, Rebel Base lighting up the hazards for oncoming traffic, the UHF radio tight with comms. Suddenly, IT specialists and lawyers were asking each other for their twenty and warning for oncoming civilians. Once again we had crossed over into the alternate universe of the other rally.

We had a sweepstake on arrival time, based on speed, set at 250km out from base. Two hours later, and with the one and a half hour time difference going into the Northern Territory from Western Australia, I lost by two minutes to Franzl. Team 24 were either side of us… go Brown Pointers! When we crossed into NT, the call went out regarding a photo opportunity. Needless to say after twelve hours in the dirt and then in the dark, it wasn’t taken up.

We arrived into Victoria River Roadhouse at about quarter to midnight, Northern Territory time. Worryingly, we were still among the first half of teams to sign in… it was clearly shaping up to be a big night. We rolled Rebel Base into triage, set up camp, got some dinner and then set up the camp chairs in triage to await developments. Andy and Melvin showed their appreciation to team 24 by cracking out the whiskey. It was most welcome at that point. The night dragged on and teams limped into base. Shitboxes on trailers were declared dead, and then the support guys headed back to pick up stragglers abandoned by the wayside. Some support teams covered another five hundred kilometres that night. We saw the remnants of team 27 finally roll in and headed to bed as the sign in board finally completed. A quick check of the time told us it was 3.15 in the morning.


We set out from Fitzroy Crossing to meet the Gibb River road, a thousand kilometre journey equivalent to driving from Scotland to the south coast of England on a single dirt road. The distance we had to cover today was 350km, the unsealed road easy going, scenery stunning… spirits were high. The buddy group was moving well, keeping in close contact on the UHF radio so that the following cars knew what to expect; after the experience getting to Marble Bar we were a pretty tight unit.

We stopped off at Tunnel Creek, a natural subterranean passage through the towering black limestone cliffs of the Devonian Reef National Park. Within, a pool of cool water for swimming that the shitboxers made good use of after two hours of hot, dry driving. We proceeded north to Windjana Gorge through fluted black rock-faces, the surface of this wide sweep of water punctuated by the heads of freshwater crocodiles. Even a sticky thirty degree heat and no air conditioning wasn’t quite enough to persuade us into the water.

From there we headed further north until we hit the Gibb River Road itself. The conditions were fairly good and we managed to keep our speed up on the gravel, though the still air meant that the dust from the road hung over us like a fine mist. We had the choice of winding the windows down and breathing in the Kimberley particle by particle, or keeping the windows up and slowing basting in our own juices. There was a Land Rover in our team; they shared our misery at one of the driver changeover stops… apparently they had to turn their air conditioning up a little in the fiery blast of the midday sun. We sympathised and applauded their fortitude… it was very spirit-of-shitbox.

The Gibb River road snaked up into the highlands of the Kimberley, through an ancient landscape of gumtrees and red sandstone. Fires burned ahead of us on the tops of the bluffs; as the road rose to meet them we found ourselves driving in shallow valleys with flames to the left and the right of the road, so close to the verge that we could feel the heat. We radioed back to the following cars and then put the foot down to get out of the area. [addendum: flying back after the rally over the the same landscape as we drove, it becomes plain that the Kimberley is always burning. From seven kilometers up, the brown land is shrouded by smoke from hundreds of fires].

We crossed seventeen rivers in one day, though most of them were dry or barely a puddle now the wet season had passed. The experience from the 2011 rally seemed destined to be wasted – here we were with our worldly possessions sealed up in dry bags and bin liners to keep them dry, tarpaulin over the bonnet and grille, and the Corolla air intake modified by ingenuity and duct tape to point backwards and high rather than sitting low, directly behind the headlight. There were a couple of crossings where we plunged into foot-deep water, but the Corrolla (unlike the mighty Camry in 2011) was unfazed and just kept chugging through the brown water. The crocs dined poorly that day.

The sun lowered in the sky and dusk approached; as before approaching Marble Bar, the visibility deteriorated. With the onset of night, the Gibb River road transformed from an unforgiving landscape of dry valleys punctuated by mighty Boab trees and blood red sandstone escarpments; as the sun set these blended into a yellow fog and finally into a grey netherworld of dust, sharp rocks and car tail lights. We crawled along, buddy groups unraveling as we put distance between cars to let the dust settle and lost radio contact with members ahead and behind. In the dark, twenty kilometres from home, Bruce finally decided he had had enough; we began to lose power and crawled to a halt by the side of the road, alone.

Standing on the roadside, bonnet up, dim figures in the dusty dark, we began to go through the causes: air filter clogged up by red dust? Electrical problem? Fuel intake? And suddenly we were in the other rally, the parallel universe that runs alongside the buddy group chatter and the silly driving games. Out of nowhere in the dark, two cars stopped for us and jumped in under the bonnet, theorising possible causes, eliminating the parts that might be going wrong. These were garage mechanics going bush two thousand kilometers from home, elbow-deep in red dirt trying to get a shitbox back on the road, and the only reason that the Shitbox Rally is really possible at all. In the end, Support 14 hooked us up and towed us the last few kilometres back to Mount Barnett and into triage.

At the Mount Barnett roadhouse, dozens of dead and dying shitboxes were parked around the bright lights of the triage area like patients in the ER, guys with red eyes and black hands working at speed on all types of cars, from Fords to Corollas to Rovers spanning three decades. We were guided to start isolating the causes and worked as best we could, dreading the worst. In the end, it was a $3 fuel filter choked with crap stirred from the bottom of the tank by three hundred kilometres of dips and corrugations. We were lucky. Other boxes had gearbox problems, even shattered axles, the kind of damage that would normally result in a sad shake of the head and a trip to the wreckers yard back in the real world. At Mount Barnett, half a thousand kilometres from the nearest sealed road, some shitboxes gave their lives so that others may live. The Barina with the shattered axle inherited one from a Festiva (though those parts don’t actually fit without angle grinders and sheer bloody-mindedness); we got a fuel filter from god-knows-where; and one by one lost causes were brought back to life. An engine roaring invoked the kind of cheers normally reserved for Grand Final goals. In the final reckoning the next day, we pulled out of Mount Barnett leaving only a single shitbox (the Festiva) behind, hollowed out, its vital pieces now integral parts in Holdens, Commodores, Barinas, Volvos. All in all, it could be considered an honourable death.

We are bombing along the Great Northern Highway to the sounds of Nirvana, having crossed the Pilbara from Newman north through Marble Bar on the dirt. So far Bruce Almighty is proving robust yet economical on the fuel, which is good when it’s 300km between pumps.
This was Bruce’s first taste of the dirt. We had a good run on the gravel out of Newman past the new mining camps but conditions rapidly deteriorated as 250 teams kicked up dust in the still afternoon air. Within an hour, it was hanging over the landscape in the bottom of the valleys like an eerie yellow fog, the lowering sun combining to make conditions very difficult and progress painful. To the east, fires burned all along the ranges lifting dark clouds into the sky as we pulled back onto the strip of bitumen running into Marble Bar in the dusk.
We spent the night in the Ironclad Hotel, shitboxers mixing with the locals before heading back to the campsite for more festivities. Later, I climbed the hill behind camp in the dark to get a better view of the clear night sky. Looking across the town, a hill on the outskirts had a different kind of glow and as the minutes passed, the light intensified until the whole hillside was on fire. It’s an unsettling sight when there’s nothing between you and a wall of fire except fields of dry grass. The wind was behind us though, so after a while watching the blaze we turned in for the night. The outback is like that….

Shitbox Rally 2014 kicked off with a beautiful sunrise over Kings Park in Perth over 250 of the least fit vehicles to embark on the 4,200km journey to Darwin. We had nearly 800km to cover today, and all of it on sealed roads, so should have been easy, right? Burned out clutches and weak bladders dogged progress. We covered the first 300km in four hours and then bedded down some faster times once the team synchronised toilet stops. The road has been good so far and the Corrolla is just eating up the miles.

I’m looking forward to Shitbox Rally 2035, when you’ll be able to pick up a 2009 Honda CRV for $1000. In 2014, it’s going to be a white 1990 Toyota Corolla where power steering is still the future. As Franzl points out, it’ll be good to build the guns up.

This is the last chance to work out if the shitbox is up to the job, since a week from now we will finally be on the rally! Lessons learned from the 2011 rally include the (obvious in hindsight) revelation that shock absorbers are not a nice-to-have when you’re going to be doing 4000km, a quarter of which is going to be on some of the roughest dirt roads in the country.

Fortunately Franzl’s mate Ray opened his workshop for us to fit a new set of shocks on the back. So, good that we now have rear suspension, but bad that some crucial parts were fitted by an IT guy…. Still, when we took her out on the limestone tracks north of Perth with Fletch as the navigator to test the shocks they held up pretty good. Well, we didn’t end up axle deep in a sand dune. Not that they sort of thing tends to happen to me. Ever. The night drive in the rain also passed without incident… too good to last, right?

So now, it’s down to finishing off the decorations for the car and making tough decisions like just how many pairs of underpants counts as over-packing…!

One last thing…we are still raising money to hit our $4000 target for the Cancer Council so if you want to sponsor us, here’s the link to our fund raising page:

Previously (“Transit of Venus”) to honour Captain James Cook’s epic effort in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti I mentioned that I’m going to attempt to observe the last transit of Venus this century; well, I’m probably going to have lost my eyesight (or worse) by the next chance in 2117. I have been playing around with various options and have settled on a camera obscura design, the prototype of which has worked surprisingly well. Here’s how to make one, so you can be ready for the big moment on 6th June 6am (AWST)/8am (AEST) when Venus passes in front of the sun.

You will need:

1. A north or east facing area to observe the rising sun. I’m using a balcony but you’re free to use a patio, or perhaps even a small clearing in a forest. The view of the sunrise is the key thing.

2. A box containing 24 bottles of Monteith’s Summer Ale

3. A small hand mirror

4. A sharp pencil

5. A dressing mirror

6. A comfortable chair

7. An accurate timepiece

8. A copy of Kernighan & Ritchie’s landmark C programming language 2nd edition

9. A fresh lime

First, carefully open the box of summer ale and set the content aside in a cool place for later. Next, take the sharp pencil and poke a hole in the centre of the base of the box no more than 3mm thick. Position the box so that the base is directly facing the sun. This should result in a thin beam of sunlight shining through the hole you just created.

The business end of the Venusian Transit Machine

The business end of the Venusian Transit Machine

Quickly, take a sharp knife and slice open and drink the juice of the lime. This is important, since it will reduce significantly the possibility of suffering from scurvy during the observation, a detail Cook was only too aware of. Take the hand mirror and prop it up on Kernighan and Richie’s excellent tome at an angle such that the beam is directed onto the large dressing mirror. Finally align the large mirror so that the beam travels onto a wall in a shaded area, such as a darkened bedroom. The key thing here is to use the mirrors to lengthen the journey to the viewing wall as much as possible, which will give the pinprick of light more time to broaden out into a larger image. From experiment, a 3mm wide beam travelling for 30m yields a sun image roughly 25cm across, which should be ample to observe the disc of Venus.

Finally, and optionally, recline in the comfortable chair and open a refreshing ale to celebrate viewing one of nature’s rarer spectacles. Good luck!

planetary conjunction

Sun, Jupiter, Venus and the Moon

Recently, we moved to Perth. One of the highlights of the late afternoons here has been watching the sunsets over the Indian Ocean. Another prominent feature of the evening sky are the bright points of light chasing the sunset: mercury, venus, mars, jupiter and saturn all lined up with the moon recently and it was possible to watch them pursue the sun over the horizon one by one through the course of the evening. Jupiter’s gone from the sky now, a trick of trigonometry between its orbit and Earth’s has put it on the other side of the sun, which just leaves Venus. Venus has been chasing down the sun over the last few months and is now only a few minutes behind sunset. On June 6th, it will perform a transit across the disc of the sun, a feat that will not be repeated within our lifetimes: December 11th 2117.

The transit of Venus is significant because it was used to solve one of the great unanswered questions of the 18th and 19th centuries: just how big is our solar system? Astronomers had mapped the orbits of the planets and produced a set of ratios, so knew just how many times larger Jupiter’s orbit was than Earth’s, but lacked any way of knowing the absolute distance of one orbit (and hence, by inference, the distances of all remaining orbits). In 1768, the Endeavour was dispatched from England to sail to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus the following year and answer this question. In command of the voyage was Captain James Cook, with orders to go, boldly (they didn’t split infinitives back then), discover strange new lands and new civilisations and be ready with a solar observatory up and running in the newly discovered island half a planet away from home by June 1769. It was an undertaking comparable to a mission to the moon and the construction of the Large Hadron Collider all rolled into one. The canny Yorkshireman made it with most of his crew intact and a month to spare.

The maths is fairly simple, as Edmund Halley worked out in 1716, providing you can get an accurate timing for the start and the end of the transit. If you can do this for widely separated points on the earth you can work out by the principle of parallax the angle formed by the line between Earth and Venus, and so get the distance between the planets. Cook’s mission was ostensibly to make the most accurate timing he could from the greatest possible distance to ensure the largest parallax. It turned out that, of the 76 places on the planet that the transit was viewed from, the rate of error in the observations swamped any chance of getting an accurate result. That would have to wait 120 years for the next transit.

Significantly for those of us living Down Under, Cook then opened his secret orders which directed him westwards to discover the great unknown land rumoured to exist there. He went on to make a full circumnavigation of New Zealand before heading further west to strike land at Botany Bay, in what is now Sydney, New South Wales. A wealth of new botanical discoveries, a timing of the Venusian transit, the first accurate maps of New Zealand and the Australian east coast, all in a secondhand converted coal ship… not a bad effort.

Living in WA, the transit will start at around 6am, so will already be underway at dawn. The east coast will be able to observe all of it, from 8am until about 2.30pm. So, in honour of the occasion, I’m going to repeat Cook’s epic experiment from the comfort of my own balcony. I don’t have a flashy telescope, and direct observation of the sun is definitely out, so it will have to be through a pinhole camera set-up using household items. It may be a bit of work, but then again: last chance to see…

A useful link to the 2012 transit of venus is here.

If you find that you are stepping outside of your product development process on a regular basis, you need to do one of two things:

1. You need to enforce the process more stringently and educate all team members in how to follow the process;

2. You need a different process, my friend.

Welcome to the world of impedance mismatch. Over the years, I have seen a *colossal* amount of effort poured into smoothing out the mismatch with #1. If you’re sitting there with a full Programme Management office and a three page Change Request document and are still having to subvert the process to deliver results, you’ve reached the end of the road for the current process. But, the problem comes after you take the plunge with #2 and find yourself unexpectedly back at #1 after a while. There is a point of diminishing marginal returns, a point when it’s no longer a matter of continuing to educate everyone in the new process (they get it) or locking down workflows (the workflows are tuned). Instead, it might be the case that the new process isn’t the right one.

Crucially, this doesn’t mean that the new process wasn’t the right one at the start. Analyse the reasons for the turbulence: at the beginning this was likely to be fear-of-the-new issues, however it’s entirely possible that the organisation has evolved new issues as it becomes used to working in a new way. Moving from Waterfall to Scrum might have solved 90% of your problems but it’s not the end of the road: Scrum may only be a staging post to something else.

In Agile at Westfield, I covered how Westfield employed the Scrum process, noting that a key component is the ability to inspect and change the development process from the vanilla ‘out-of-the-book’ Scrum implementation to better interlock with the organisation, commenting that ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’. This has proved to be true.

Since writing about the second anniversary of the Scrum process at Westfield we entered a crunch period in the run-up to Christmas, fitting in, among other things, launching a mobile site, adding three new payment methods and the re-engineering of the checkout experience to allow payment to multiple retailers with several payment types all in the one page. This was a high-risk strategy and we were forced to make compromises on our product development process to hit the deadlines. Some bugs slipped through, but mostly it all held together, and we spent a couple of sprints patching up the holes. There was a conscious decision to pile up technical debt and dial back test coverage (for reasons covered below), effectively taking calculated risks to hit the deadlines.

Before settling back into a comfortable Scrum rhythm of 3-weekly iterations, in which the last four sprints were a bad dream, one question that needs to be asked is: was the recent period really an aberration or were we witnessing the evolution of the organisation to a new ‘normal’? If the latter, how do we cope? What could we learn and put in place before finding ourselves back there again? Here are my takeouts….

1. The piper must always be paid: you cannot run development at 150% and not expect to rack up tech debt. Especially in software development, there is no such thing as a free lunch; it was acknowledged across the business up-front that the short-term race to the finish would need following up by sprints with very little business benefit in them.

2. Test code dwarfs the production codebase by a 3:1 ratio. It is insane to not think that tech debt piling up in your test codebase isn’t real technical debt and it doesn’t need to be paid down. Thanks to hidden tech debt, our checkout refactor fell foul of brittle, badly coded tests, leaving us with no recourse but to drop test coverage by disabling tests.

3. It is possible to release without certainty that the code is production ready, in special circumstances. If you have tested the important pathways (e.g. payment) thoroughly you can be reasonably sure that any bugs that slip through will be in less critical areas. You can then watch the system in production and patch as necessary with low impact to customers.

The last point turned out to be Pandora’s box: traditionally, skimping on QA releases all the software evils on the world, but there is also some good. You can scale back from ‘perfect’ to ‘good enough’ in your QA process only if you still have rigour around key processes and are able to release changes quickly. This means embracing Continuous Deployment techniques within a Scrum framework, and the two are odd bedfellows.

Scrum vs Continuous Deployment

At the heart of the Agile development methodology is the idea that you need to release a little, and release often. For teams coming at Agile off the back of nine-month-phased Waterfall projects, cutting down to monthly iterations feels blisteringly fast, but it allows a lot of the features of Waterfall to remain in the background, such as long UAT and release processes; it may be the case that development can start and finish on a feature within the same month, but that feature may face a tortuous journey to production from then on. If you then have pressure from the business owner to deliver on a fortnightly basis, you soon realise that you have an Agile process with a cumbersome Waterfall tail, where the set-up and tear-down costs for a fortnightly sprint are a large percentage of the total costs of the sprint. The time has come to optimise the workload downstream of Dev so that each feature can flow efficiently and continuously into production.

Continuous deployment requires the following:

* Continuous integration of the codebase via a farm of build servers, plus alerting on red builds and a philosophy of whoever breaks the build fixes it, quickly

* A clean source main line, so that if the builds are all green the codebase can be tagged for a deployment at any time

* A source management system that allows cheap feature branching so that all non-trivial work is kept away from the main source line until it has passed feature QA and is ready to be merged into the main line

* Automated QA to allow the deployment to be stress and regression tested, releasing human QAs to range freely across the application looking for trouble spots

* Automated, reliable, auditable deployment scripts

It’s not strictly necessary that each merge into the main line triggers a release process that deposits the code into production (after all, would you want code going straight out that was checked in during Friday drinks?), but rather that there is a capability of starting a release process at any time and having it ready for production by (at most) close of business the same day. Using this capability, fortnightly iterations become low-cost, low-burden, which seems to solve the problem.

Or does it? Scrum requires that the stories are lined up from an ordered backlog at kick-off and committed to as an ensemble. Stories must fit within the sprint and allow an increment of business value to be delivered. There is a point where shortening the sprint cycle to increase delivery responsiveness runs into the software management equivalent of the Planck length: the minimum size of a unit of business value. If your average per-developer velocity is 10 points for a three week sprint, dropping to a weekly sprint cycle means that all stories must be three points or less. If you have an atomic five-point story, it won’t fit.

An ideal scenario would allow stories to be injected into the sprint while also allowing velocity to be calculated and tracking of team commitment. In this world, the team commitment is a set of empty story slots that may be filled as the sprint progresses by the top-prioritised stories from the backlog. The Scrum concept of being able to visualise the entire commitment before starting work is still mostly possible by looking at the top stories in the backlog, with the understanding that priorities may change over time. While this may be a little less efficient from the developer’s point of view (in wanting to line up similar stories to get pipelining efficiencies) it means that the team is never engaged in wasted or lower-priority work.

Trivial stories and bug fixes can be committed directly to the main line, more complex stories (and even entire features) sit on their own feature branches waiting to be pulled back into the main line by the QA team, who now act as quality gatekeepers to keep changes off the main line until deemed stable and accepted by the business owner. Developer, BA, UX and QA resources are responsible as a team for taking a feature from concept, through visual design, development, acceptance, and finally release in one single sweep. This also has the advantage of the team being able to follow a story from cradle to grave (and into production) while the knowledge is still fresh (as covered off by @mootpointer on Continuous Deployment).

This sounds closer to Kanban than Scrum. The pipeline of story production that sits above the story development process in Scrum is extended down into the iteration and all the way out the other end into a tight DevOps integration that flows the stories out into the production environment. Scrum process components such as velocity can still be calculated retroactively at the end of the iteration period, to allow capacity planning going forward. The all-important Retro is still held at the end of each iteration. Regular backlog grooming meetings still occur. However, if the business needs to react swiftly to a new opportunity, there is no longer the harsh grinding of gears as stories are pushed out of the commitment, new stories brought in, sprint cycles potentially lengthened or reduced.

Should Westfield move to full Kanban? Not in the short term, due to the massive education and process re-engineering overhead across the business. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Continuous delivery is that first step.

Some things just go together, like gin and tonic, or public holidays and improbably inaccurate short range weather forecasts, or jam and cheese (try it, you might like it). Another is a social media strategy and a mobile strategy.

Over half of activity on Twitter (and one third on Facebook) is read on a non-desktop device. It’s a good bet that the Like or tweet about your product or company was either sent from a mobile or will be read on a mobile, rising to a near certainty if it’s viral sharing between individuals.

So what? Imagine if you were running a traditional marketing campaign and half your ads were accidentally written in a foreign language… the cut-through rate would be pretty poor. Worse, if everyone else in the market did the same thing then you would probably be performing at industry average, which makes the problem invisible. So it’s important that, after going to great lengths to get that social strategy off the ground, you deliver people to pages that can be read easily on their device… making them wait 20 seconds while you send them the full 1MB desktop web page that’s then scaled into illegibility is unlikely to boost conversion.

Sites like eBay understand this. The pages most likely to be emailed, Liked, tweeted are mobile optimised, making the journey from a friend’s recommendation to a product purchase pretty seamless. By sewing together social and mobile you can make every click count.