Writing by Peter Hilton

Simplify development work organisation

Reducing chaos by consolidating different levels of units of work 2023-03-28 #product

Blake Weyland

  1. Units of work
  2. Simplify product work
  3. Simplify development work ←
  4. Product development tools
  5. Universal product tools

Product development teams typically organise their work into different levels of granularity with different units of work. On timescales from days to minutes, these include:

  1. user story - a new or updated software product capability
  2. development task - a change to the software
  3. pull request - a set of commits combined into a batch of proposed code changes
  4. code commit - a source code version control history entry

While you might not find as many opportunities to simplify these levels of work as with product work organisation, you probably don’t need all four.

User stories & features

Features, often described by user stories, link planning to delivery. They also provide shared context for the product trio of product manager, designer and developer. This occupies the centre of the units of work hierarchy, in the sense that at a small enough scale, you don’t need any of the other levels.

Even if you don’t eliminate user stories, you can simplify by making them smaller. The smaller a user story’s scope, the less detail you’ll need to write down, and the more you can focus on incrementally building a design that targets the higher level objective. Smaller stories also reduce temptation to split them into separate tasks.

Development tasks

Separate explicit development tasks in a user story smell like compromise. Developers want to map out steps in their technical implementation, but they could do that at the user story level. Developers also want to assign work to more than one person, which some user story tools still don’t allow.

Not only are development tasks probably unnecessary, replacing them with (smaller) user stories has a more important benefit. Completed development tasks feel like progress, while only completed user stories correspond to working software. When every user story has several related tasks, the tasks pollute work tracking with fake progress.

Pull requests

A pull request (in GitHub, a.k.a. merge request in GitLab), proposes a set of code changes from one developer, typically as part of work on a user story. Structurally, this overlaps with development tasks so much that you probably don’t need both.

Developers use pull requests to coordinate pre-integration code review. Code reviews deserve a separate process step in some situations, but they don’t have to correspond to a level in the unit of work hierarchy. Consider eliminating pull requests in favour of trunk-based development (previously known as continuous integration), with asynchronous (non-blocking) code reviews. You can still group commits with a common prefix, e.g. a Jira issue key.

Code commits

Don’t mess with commits.

Source code version control tools have remained a stable part of the software development process for fifty years. Despite tool variations, from decade to decade, a code commit remains the fundamental unit of software development work.

Some developers emphasise commits, as units of work, by documenting them in commit messages that describe code changes. This probably only happens when commits record the primary unit of work, and the team doesn’t use user stories.

Two levels

These simplifications reduce the number of levels to two:

  1. user storyuser story
  2. development taskuser story
  3. pull requestuser story
  4. code commitcode commit

Simplify your development work organisation to user stories and commits.

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