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Communicating in an agile environment

Richard Kennedy
by Richard Kennedy

Traditionally software development follows the “waterfall” model, so-called because the stages of development (requirements, design, implementation, verification, and maintenance) sequentially flow down until the project is completed.

Since the waterfall development cycle is typically quite long, requirements documents such as functional specifications are created to protect against the departure of key staff members and ensure that new employees can quickly come up to speed. These same documents also allow technical writers to work with relative independence.

Of course, all this planning and internal documentation takes a long time (typically 20-40% of the total project). This time spent planning has a flow-on effect that pushes development and bug testing to the end of the cycle, which often means that customers are unable to provide feedback or approve work until the project is basically completed.

With technology moving faster than ever customers expect greater interaction with companies and more frequent software updates. Agile software development attempts to meet this need by breaking down each release into small iterations called sprints. These are short (typically two week) development cycles that conclude with a presentation where developers showcase new features.

Unfortunately, these deadlines mean developers cannot spend hours writing functional specifications. Out of necessity, the agile model heavily favours face-to-face conversation over documentation. So, what does this mean for technical writers?

  1. Increased volume of communication
    The volume of communication increases for two main reasons. Firstly, developers send more communications (emails, remote session invitations, etc.) to ensure you are on track to meet the shorter deadlines. Secondly, you will find that you are contacting developers more often to obtain information that was previously contained in functional specifications.
  2. Increased frequency of communication
    Agile development essentially shrinks the waterfall development process into a two-week sprint and repeats it multiple times. This means that communication (queries, reviews, etc.) will be ongoing throughout the whole development cycle, which is a departure from the waterfall model where most communication happens during the single review cycle at the end of development.
  3. Increased responsibility for communications
    With agile favouring face-to-face communication and placing greater demands on developers, do not be surprised if you find yourself chasing answers, particularly if you are working off-site. You must communicate frequently in the most direct manner possible.
  4. Phone calls trump emails.
    Agile is all about quick answers. For example, calling an SME is better than emailing because you can get an immediate answer. Emails are often processed, delegated, and reassigned, which is not ideal when you’re trying to make a sprint deadline.
  5. Email still have a place
    Emails still have a place in agile communication. For example, emailing communications about completed work is preferable to calling because sending the email creates a record that confirms the communication took place.

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