How to Discover the Business Value of Your Tech Task

This is Part 1 in a series about improving communication between programmers and the business.

Audience: Programmers and Project Managers

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes


Software development teams often face significant challenges with inter-role communication. I’ve noticed a recurring pattern of programmers wanting to focus their energy on changes whose value is difficult for the business to understand. We often capture this work as Tech Tasks and prioritize it based on how vocal people are, not on its return on investment.

The Problem

When the business asks questions like, “What are you working on?”, they are usually trying to understand why programmers are choosing their current work item. They are seeking visibility into how the team is investing time and the business’ money.

Often the answers to these questions lead to clumsy and uncomfortable conversations. The programmers feel unfairly judged and the business feels powerless to steer their project.

The Solution

An effective way to increase the effectiveness of these situations is for the programmers to share the why behind this work with the business. If programmers don’t understand the business value of the work they are doing, then they can’t understand the Return on Investment (RoI) of the Task and thus can’t safely prioritize it for the business. If developers can discover the business value of these Tech Task by asking themselves, “Why?”, then they can share this information with the business and work with them to prioritize these Tasks the same way the team does User Stories.

How To Do It

We are seeking the core business value behind our technical tasks. To discover this value, ask yourself 5 Whys and your answers will lead you to the value this Tech Task provides to the business. The 5 Whys is a Six Sigma technique for Root Cause Analysis and the root cause of our desire to do this Tech Task is what we want to better understand.

Once you can explain the business value of this Tech Task, you can either work with the Business to prioritize it as a Tech Task or even reframe it as as User Story.

Example of 5 Whys

Suppose while you’re in the process of finishing your last User Story, you discover that it was difficult to test interactions between the Order and Customer classes. In particular, it is difficult to “add” an Order to a Customer and you believe the solution is to fundamentally change how Customers interact with Orders.

I want to refactor the Customer class.

Why?

So our code is easy to test

Why?

So we write better automated tests

Why?

So we find defects quicker

Why?

So we have fewer defects

Why?

So our product is more usable

Reframing Tech Tasks as User Stories

If you want to invest in improving communication between programmers and the business, you can write your Tech Tasks as User Story.

Mike Cohn says that User Stories take the form:

As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>.

Getting these three parameters right is critical to writing great User Stories.

We can’t know the what (<some goal>) or the why (<some reason>) until we understand the who (<type of user>).

Our choices for the who are As a programmer or As the product owner. If we look at the 5 Whys listed above, we see that the topmost answer is from the programmer perspective and the bottommost is from the business perspective and the answers in the middle are a combination of the two.

If you intend to write Tech Tasks as User Stories, I’d advocate for having an Epic User Story or Theme that relates to the highest level Why. This means that the Epic is written in purely business language. Next, we can write finer grained User Stories that are written using more technical language, but still have a “So That” clause that relates to a business concern.

This allows us to honor both perspectives while still being able to capture simple Acceptance Criteria.

The Epic

We can write the Epic User Story for our example as:

As the product owner, I want my product to have fewer defects, so that my customers find it more usable.

The User Story

As a programmer, I want to refactor the Customer class, so that our code is easier to test.

User Story Hierarchy

At this point we could choose to stop writing User Stories and just get to work. We could also create tiers of User Stories, on for each level of the 5 Whys. Each tier of User Stories would be the so that clause for the level of User Stories below it.

These hierarchies are more useful for clarifying the business value of Tech Tasks and Non-Functional Requirements (aka Cross Functional Requirements) and are generally not helpful for conventional stories.

  • Usability - As the product owner, I want my product to have fewer defects, so that my customers find it more usable.
  • Quick Defect Discovery - As a Quality Analyst, I want to find defects quicker, so that we have fewer defects.
  • Test Automation - As a Quality Analyst, I want better automated tests, so that we find defects quicker.
  • Easy to Test Code - As a programmer, I want our code to be easier to test, so that we write better automated tests.
  • Refactor Customer Class - As a programmer, I want to refactor the Customer class, so that our code is easier to test.

Tags

We can also tag our User Stories with all of the Themes or Epics that they support.

As a programmer, I want to refactor this class, so that our code is easier to test.

Tags: Usability, Time-to-market, Maintainability

Have the Conversations

The real key here is to have the conversations between programmers and the business where you truly try to understand the perspective of the other and you work hard to present your perspective in a language that the other can easily understand.

Written on January 29, 2018