My Keys For Successful Scrum: The Story of Poe

One of my main reasons for starting this blog was to share some of the stories from the development of Avid Studio/Pinnacle Studio for iPad, codenamed Poe. It was the first development where we really used Scrum, and it ended up being a very successful product, and an incredible learning experience. There are a lot of stories and thoughts to share from this development.  In this blog entry I want to share what I think are some of the key elements to successful Scrum, many of which are ignored by other Scrum teams I’ve seen.


Early in 2011, after the release of Pinnacle Studio 14, the Pinnacle team at Avid went through a major upheaval (a nice way of saying 2/3 of the team was laid-off).  While that was an incredible blow to the team, it was also a chance to reorganize and try something new.  Toby Youngberg, the remaining engineer in my small office had just finished an iOS game on the side, and we discussed some ideas for video on the iPhone and iPad. This led to my proposal for a new video product on iOS, which would soon morph into Poe, a powerful video editor on the iPad.

For Poe, we were able to put together a small but really unique core team.  There were three full-time engineers: Toby Youngberg and myself in Salt Lake City and Oleg Tsaregorodtsev in Mountain View.  We also had Ray Johnson in Mountain View part-time, who helped with automation, localization, and so much more as usual). We had two QA engineers, Eddie Kestermont (who we nominated as ScrumMaster) and Eduardo Urrutia, and finally Terri Morgan in Seattle who was both product owner and designer (and had the distinct honor of having to prepare much of the material to satisfy the old product lifecycle process that Avid still held onto, hiding much of the tedious work from the rest of the team).

While this core team was responsible for the majority of the Poe product, it wouldn’t have been successful without a great deal of work from other teams and individuals.  These incredible people who all had a major role in Poe are listed in the Credits of Avid Studio and Pinnacle Studio for iPad.

So, with that basic background, here are the elements of Scrum that I think are most important based on our Poe experience.

1. Kick it off right

Getting a project started right can make a big difference in how it progresses.  The Poe team was lucky enough to come together for a full week of Scrum training with Bob Schatz of Agile Infusion (Avid had a clear mandate to move to Scrum for all development, and with a small remaining team, everyone was able to come together for this training).

This made a big difference in really understanding the foundation and details of Scrum. We had all thought we knew Scrum from previous projects, but we had only been following the basic mechanics, and were missing many of the key features that would bring us the most benefits (which is what this post is all about).

Even more important, on the last day of together, our team sat together in a room and kick-started the project from a Scrum standpoint.  We came up with a team name as well as amusing codenames for each member.  We developed the profile for our primary user, picked our ScrumMaster, and developed our initial backlog.

For our team’s mission statement, we wrote a loveletter to our users, telling them what it was we were trying to create and what we hoped they would get from it.

We created the rules for the team (if you were late or missed a stand-up more than once, you had to dance the Haka for all to see), and created our Definition of Done (see #6).

While we all knew each other well from years of working together, this was an important start to the project, where we all came together both physically and mentally.

By bringing your team together to kick-off a project, and making sure everyone is reasonably on the same page about the goals and rules of the project and team, things will run much more smoothly.

2. Pick the right ScrumMaster

I think a large part of the success of the Poe team was the choice of ScrumMaster: in our case, Eddie Kestermont.  The first time you meet Eddie, you’ll wonder what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into, but you’ll soon realize the intelligence, capability, and warmth behind the bold, big personality. He turned out to be the perfect choice for our team. He was strong enough not to be overriden by a very senior engineering team, and nice enough that when he told you to shut-up, you knew he meant it in the nicest way.  Eddie was also great at removing obstacles the team had in its way, which is a key responsibility for the ScrumMaster.  He also made retrospectives fun with trivia contests for prizes, and did a great job of facilitating planning meetings, stand-ups and retrospectives.

I recommend choosing a ScrumMaster who isn’t an engineer if possible.  In any case, pick someone who the team respects and who is dynamic and strong enough to stand up and remove obstacles both within and outside of the team.

3. Stand up in your stand-ups

I’ve seen so many stand-ups devolve into status meetings or technical discussions.  If your daily stand-ups our taking more than 10 minutes on average, then you either have too large of a team or you’re doing it wrong.  The first step to getting it right is to stand-up in your stand-ups. Many of us worked remotely, but we all stood up even on Skype, which felt a bit silly at first, but it made a difference.  It’s a reminder that you’re there to communicate what you’ve done, what you’re going to do next, and most importantly, are there any obstacles in your way.

Stand-ups will often lead to additional discussions after the stand-up or separate smaller meetings, but keep the stand-up simple, otherwise you’ll find yourself in daily hour-long meetings that you’ll quickly despise. Your ScrumMaster should be integral in keeping the stand-up on target, and in coordinating needed discussions.  You might get annoyed when he or she tells you to take the discussion offline, but you’ll appreciate it when you don’t have to lose time in endless discussions.

4. Communicate!

If you’re lucky enough to have a co-located team, you certainly have the best opportunity for success, but even in that case you need to work hard to make sure everyone communicates.  Often its a matter of personality.  Again, our ScrumMaster served an important role of drawing out quieter teammates to speak their mind.

If you’re geographically separated, make an extra effort to talk.  With Poe we really started using Skype to communicate regularly and less formally with separated teammates.  This face-to-face communication is critical, and much more effective than long email threads. We’d have design discussions where we would often draw something on paper and show it to others.  Remember though to follow-up a Skype discussion with a stored communication (email, Jira, Confluence/Sharepoint, Wiki) so that important decisions aren’t lost.

4. Break down your stories

I still see this as one of the biggest problems with Scrum teams.  I know that I personally had a tendency to  write what I thought was a pretty atomic story, only to realize that it could easily be broken down much further, and there was great advantage in iterative development to breaking it down that way.  For example, after the initial release of Poe, we finally got to Voiceover on our backlog.  Initially it was a single story, something like “As a documentary creator, I want to be able to add voiceovers to my video projects”.

After breaking it down, we had stories like:

  • As a user, I want a clearly understandable button to tap to bring up the UI for voiceover recording
  • As a user, I want a voiceover interface that shows which audio track I’ll be recording on.
  • As a user, I want the voiceover interface to default to the audio track with the most avialable time on it.
  • As a user, I want to be able to select any track to record a voiceover on.
  • Followed by another 20 stories that covered starting recoding, stopping recording, reviewing, keeping, canceling, etc.

When you’re in a sprint planning meeting, take the time to break down your stories to a point where each story is a manageable chunk of a couple of days work at most.  That should be further broken up into tasks that can each be completed in a few hours.  It’s an amazing benefit to productivity.  There were many times when I’d just finished a big story and wasn’t ready to take on a major piece of work.  I could just pick up a small story, maybe a UI element that needed to be added, and knock it off in 1/2 hour.  It would often kick me back into gear when I was drifting.

5. Don’t get locked into specific roles

Engineers on a team have a natural tendency to try tand divvy up stories and tasks at the beginning of a sprint based on their knowledge domains.  I strongly recommend avoiding this.  At least leave the option that different team members may take different roles during a sprint. With Poe, it was somewhat of an advantage that we were all fairly new to the platform, and even Toby who had the most experience still had a great deal to learn for the complexity of the product we were creating.

If your stories are broken up properly (#4), there is more of an opportunity for engineers to cross into new domains without it being too much of a burden on existing experts in that domain, and it will pay off in the long run.

6. Always follow your Definition of Done

Many Scrum teams don’t even have a definition of done, and for many that do, this is is the first thing to get lost, which was our problem with Poe.  The Definition-of-Done defines all the common elements required to consider a story or epic complete.  We had a good initial Definition of Done, including things like:

  • The product must build without any errors or warnings
  • All strings must be added for localization.
  • All automated tests must complete without failure.
  • All bugs reported by QA must be resolved.
  • Must have designer sign-off
Early on, we did well at this, making sure we checked off the Definition-of-Done items for every story, but after hitting a couple of roadblocks on the way that slowed down development, we started skipping some of these steps to try and get the product finished faster.  Within weeks we were seeing more crashes, more bugs that were propogating through the product, and it felt like we were moving towards disaster.  We ended up taking a sprint just to get back to a reasonable level of quality, and tried harder after that to stick to the Definition of Done.  Even after that, we weren’t careful enough to make sure every story really met our definition of done, and we paid the price, spending the first few months after shipping getting stability to a reasonable level.
This may be the hardest rule to follow, but it may be the most important.  You should set a clear Definition-of-Done up front for your project, and you shouldn’t consider a story complete until it’s met that defnition.  It’s much better to ship a high-quality product with features left on the backlog then spending time trying to recover stability in a large code base.

9. Sprint Reviews and Sprint Retrospectives

This is another area that I think many Scrum teams miss out on.  It’s something we did well with Poe, and it paid off. At the end of each sprint we would have a Sprint Review to demonstrate the completed stories from that sprint, and most importantly we would have a user demo to get feedback.  We brought in a variety of different types of users, including: professional editors, people from other divisions at Avid, even friends and family with a passing interesting in video.

Early on, it seemed like it would be silly, when all our app did was launch and display an image of the team, but we were always pleasantly surprised by the user feedback we would get that ultimately shaped a better product. New bugs would appear and things we didn’t notice were major blockers for users.  Try not to guide your users too much, instead give them a task to perform with the product, and let them try and figure out how to use it.  You’ll learn a lot watching a user struggle with something you thought was completely obvious. Don’t dismiss any feedback from your user demos.  Get everything into your backlog. Sometimes it’s the little things that will make the biggest difference.  Finally, reward the users who come in for a demo (in our case it was with a free Avid product, but it could be anything, including a $10 iTunes gift card).

After the Sprint Review, have a Sprint Retrospective with just your Scrum team.  This should be an opportunity to really look at what worked well and what didn’t from a Scrum-process perspective.  Were you overoptimistic about what was brought into the sprint, did you break up stories well, how was communication.  Did you really follow Definition-of-Done.  How did the demo go.  Are your stand-ups getting out of control.  Are there some things you can tweak to make it better.  Are there some major process-wide obstacles that need to be worked.  It’s here where you’re going to tweak and iterate the Scrum process itself to better meet your needs.

10. Don’t be afraid to iterate, which often means throwing hard work away

Scrum is all about iterative development.  Part of that is being willing to throw work away.  Early in the development of the storyboard/timeline concept for Poe, we realized that there were many things that just didn’t feel right about it.  We took one sprint to completely redesign the UX for the timeline.  After that rewrite, we did user reviews and found that our great new design was even worse.  So we threw that away, and wen’t back to a variation of the original design, but with numerous tweaks that came together to make it feel right. There were many other times during development where we went down a path only to find out that it didn’t pay off with the user like we thought it would.  Source control is your friend here.  We found ourselves cherry-picking from some of the dead-end paths we had gone down to more finely tune the final direction we chose.

This doesn’t mean just randomly picking a direction and heading there.  Your team should be making intelligent choices based on their experience, but it’s also easy to get locked into endless discussions about the “right” way to do something.  Sometimes you just need to pick one of the best choices and give it a try, with a willingness to drop it and start over if it doesn’t work.  If you keep things granular enough in your stories, then this usually means a few days work at most.  Hopefully going down that path also helps you learn something important about the right direction to head.

Bonus: Go around, climb-over, dig-under, blast a hole through

If there is one thing that resonated most in our training with Bob Schatz, it was this.  When you hit an obstacle, you need to find a way around it.  During the development of Poe, we ran into some major limitations of the iOS platform for video (which is amazingly powerful, but necessarily limited).  For example, one of the early obstacles was finding out that even though photos could be loaded as AVAssets, they couldn’t actually be used in a video composition.  So we quickly created a simple architecture that would render a photo into a small video clip that could be added to a composition (we realized later that this was exactly what iMovie was doing as well). Some of the obstacles we hit could have derailed the entire product, but we became master ninjas in finding ways to circumvent them.  Sometimes this meant redefining some feature, other times it meant finding some workaround that was “good enough” that would later be iterated into something more elegant.

Whenever you hit an obstacle, take a step back and figure out a way to get around it, over it, under it, or through it.  Talk to your team about the obstacle and listen to their ideas, particularly the non-engineers.  Often your first thought to an idea will be, that’s impossible!  But sometimes those impossible ideas will spark something that will end up being the perfect path.

Conclusion: Have Fun and Iterate Everything

Poe was an incredible experience, both in creating a product that I love, and in gaining a better understanding of the advantages of Scrum (as well as some of the pitfalls). It was also the most fun I’ve had engineering in a long time.

Remember that Scrum itself is something you need to iterate.  If you’re doing the same thing every sprint and every project, then you’re missing the point.  Scrum is a framework that you need to change and adapt constantly.  So keep iterating and have fun.


2 thoughts on “My Keys For Successful Scrum: The Story of Poe

  1. Thanks Bob, you were instrumental in giving us a great foundation to work with.

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