Eight Days a Week

Reflections on the Pitfalls of Story Points and Velocity Capture

Many don’t know this, but I studied mathematics for two years at university before specialising in Computer Science. One mandatory class specialized in teaching the fundamentals of mathematical proof. In a nutshell, we learned how to establish that a given hypothesis was correct, or identify the contradiction that disproves the theory. It was immensely satisfying when you reached the end of a proof. Furthermore, verifying that you had the correct answer was pretty straightforward.

Why should we need to prove the correctness of our story point estimates?

Original Sin

While evaluating our stance on story points, it’s important to reflect on their origins. According to the legendary Ron Jeffries, story points originate from the initial XP evolution. Fascinatingly they were meant to represent ideal days. Essentially, a story point is a productive developer day.

Is there such a thing as a super productive ideal developer day anymore?
Relative estimating using either points or t-shirt sizing could be more helpful here.

Crystal Clear

While estimation is a clear problem, it is important to identify the root cause of the lack of confidence in the published metrics. Lack of transparency in how metrics are calculated on the shared portal is definitely a key one. While there is a publicly queryable API, the underlying calculation remains closed. This makes it easy for people to point the finger at the numbers, and claim they are wrong.

The age old saying of a bad workman blames his tools can apply to software development too. It’s a natural defence.

Calm Like a Bomb

Weaponisation of velocity metrics by management and client groups is a major concern. While I understand the desire to compare the effectiveness of squads at a higher level, story points are not the way. Story point estimates are personal and unique to a team. They depend on numerous factors, not limited to:

  • Degree of squad autonomy
  • Average story complexity
  • Level of Product Owner engagement
  • Development team collaboration and cohesiveness maturity levels
  • Degree of process and testing automation
Comparing stories across teams can encourage bad gamesmanship as teams try to beat the system.

Prove It

Any fascination with story points or sprint velocity by key stakeholders should be considered unhealthy. From many of my experiences over the years, a significant cause is often management pressure. Someone is looking at that trend of points and asking why it is lower than last time.

Success is a straight road for all development teams.

Lead software engineer with a strong interest in UI, UX, Usability and Agility. Lover of cooking, tea, photography and gin! All views expressed are my own.

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