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Stop Asking Your Developers The Three Standup Questions (Part I of II)

Jimmy McGill

By: Jimmy McGill
October 19, 2021

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Every day, engineering leaders ask their team members the same three standup questions to ensure the software development engine hasn’t come to a complete stop. It’s excruciatingly boring to be asked the same questions day in and day out, and it’s not a productive use of engineers’ time. These questions — the “are things moving?” questions — can be answered with the help of an Engineering Intelligence Solution, like Code Climate Velocity, freeing up valuable standup time for an even more impactful set of questions, the “how can we move faster?” questions. These are the questions that dig deeper into a team’s processes and practices, helping leaders identify opportunities for improvement and drive excellence on their teams. 

In this two-post series, I’ll explain how data can help you answer the classic standup questions, then walk through the “next three questions,” that every engineering leader should be asking to level up their standups — and level up their team. 

First, the classic questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday? 
  2. What will you do today? 
  3. What (if anything) is blocking your progress? 

Let’s dig in.

Standup questions one and two: What did you do yesterday? What will you do today?

These questions are meant to help you understand what progress your team has made so far, so you can assess your team’s output within the context of your current sprint or cycle. In comparing what’s been done so far to what’s planned, you can get a sense of the sprint’s status. 

Rather than ask your developers for a rundown of yesterday’s completed tasks and today’s to-do list, let the data speak for itself. You could do this by running a Git diff for every branch, or you could let a tool like Velocity do the work, drawing connections between Commits and Issues and providing an accurate view of what your team is working on. This can also help you check that the team is prioritizing appropriately, and working on the most impactful Issues. You can also review the Issues that have yet to be started to determine whether the team is saving the trickier work for last. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it could indicate that a slowdown is to come, and may be worth discussing during standup. 

Of course, data won’t tell you for sure whether your team will hit its deadline, but it will give you a big picture view of how your sprint is progressing and where the team might need your help. 

Standup question three: What (if anything) is blocking your progress? 

Once you have a high-level understanding of the progress of your current iteration, you’ll want to know if there’s anything that might throw it off track. Developers might be hesitant to call out blockers, preferring instead to solve problems themselves, or they may lack the context to foresee potential slowdowns. Data addresses both of those problems, though the relevant information has historically been harder to find, as it’s spread throughout your VCS and project management tools. This is where an Engineering Intelligence Solution is particularly valuable — Velocity can even send you a customized alert when a particular unit of work is stuck or at risk. 

Work that is stuck may have gone a few days without a Commit, or may be marked “In Progress” in Jira for an atypical length of time. Work that is at risk is work that is not moving through the software development pipeline as expected, and which may become a bottleneck if not addressed. Though the signs of risk vary from team to team, Pull Requests with high levels of Rework, or many comments or Review Cycles are worth further investigation, as are PRs that haven’t been picked up for review in a timely fashion. 

Data can also help you identify possible blockers in developers’ collaboration patterns. Every engineer will have their own opinion of how the team is working, and though it’s important to understand how engineers are feeling about the current state of collaboration on the team, it’s critical to check any hidden biases with objective data. 

Start by looking at the distribution of work across the team. Is there someone who is overloaded, or someone who isn’t getting work? Velocity makes this easy with a Work in Progress metric that tells you how much each engineer is working on at a given time. Then, to get a sense of the team’s broad collaboration patterns, it can be helpful to determine how many engineers are working on the same Issue or Pull Request. This way, you can be aware of a possible “too many cooks” situation, or dependencies that may impact delivery. 

So, what standup questions should you be asking instead? 

When you enter standup with this information, you can skip past the classic three standup questions in favor of three more impactful questions:

  • How can I help remove distractions?
  • How can the team help resolve that risk? 
  • Are we working on the right things (see what people are working on, blend that with your context)? 

The answers to these questions will help you move beyond a short-term focus on getting work done and help you get to the next level, where you’re focused on helping your team excel. Find out how in my next post. 

This is the first post in a two-part series. Read the second post here.

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