Tasking in Software Development

Published: Fri 01 May 2015

tags: retro team

Tasking is core part of XP, Kanban, Scrum and other software development methodologies. It is required when more than one developer is working on a feature. I consider it to be the most wasteful part of the development process as practiced in the mainstream.

Tasking typically involves the team sitting around a machine/desk/whiteboard/projector. From past experience this can take anywhere from an hour up to a day or more. Engagement is often low and this process can be both mentally and physically tiring. During which many assumptions about what should be done is made.

The end result is nothing but index cards, scribbled diagrams or other lightweight documentation. These artifacts are often transformed into digital versions.

Problems

The foolish understanding is that now any developer can pick up a task and start work. This leads to dependent tasks being worked on in an independent manner. Team members then find themselves being impeded until a certain piece of code is in place. No amount of swarming or pair programming can help in most cases.

The biggest failure that poor tasking encourages is a task board with numerous items moved to complete, yet the actual functionality is broken and stood no chance of working. In my past experience, this is unfortunately very common.

An equally common scenario is when task cards are stationary for long periods, until they all move across to "done" very suddenly. This is usually a symptom of a unidentified problem or change coming into play.

Ultimately poor tasking results in waste.

Solutions

Due to the frustrations of experiencing these problems week after week, across numerous teams, I have experimented with a variety of solutions.

Possibly the most controversial and difficult to sell is to have small enough stories and features that mean a single developer/pair can work on. Tasking becomes organic, just part of the day to day work. A simple check list of tasks can suffice here. Both team members stay in sync because the overhead of other team members has been removed. Ultimately you still need to integrate these small(er) features but there are ways to slimline this.

A less dramatic solution is to task in a ad-hoc basis, per story/feature and limit WIP to include tasking. In other words, if you are aiming to deliver three features over several weeks, task the first feature and move onto coding. If during this coding phase you change plans or discover a problem, limited work is lost. Additionally tasking in smaller chunks is better for the teams' morale.

The two other solutions are the most powerful at combating the tasking problem I have described, these are to utilize a Walking Skeleton and try Mob Programming. Both of which will be detailed in future posts.