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Maybe It's Time to Stop Pointing Stories

A warning to parents of young children: this post contains strong language. You may want to cover their eyes for this next part.

I believe Scrum, and the practices that come with it, are being blindly adopted by software teams with little consideration as to the costs or benefits. In particular, I’d like to pick on the Scrum ceremony of story pointing and estimation. Maybe you should stop doing it.

Now that the heresy is out of the way, you can let your kiddos back into the room. Who am I to say this? Well, as a consultant and developer, I’ve worked on 7 different software teams over the past 3 years. And I’m here to implore you to stop for a moment and consider: are your story points useful?

Let’s back up a bit and see how we got here.

In Agile project management, Scrum seems to have won the day. Scrum was first proposed as an alternative to waterfall-style product development over 30 years ago. Later, it was productized into a service and certification, and an army of consultants were unleashed to transform product organizations. And this was generally considered a good thing, as Scrum does offer some clear benefits over a more traditional big-design-up-front style. Story points and its sibling velocity were bolted on to give business owners a stake in Scrum, and provide an answer to the burning “When will it be done?” question.

And here we are in 2018, dutifully sitting in a room arguing over story points and reviewing squiggly burndown charts, without stopping to consider the cost.

I recently spent time on a large financial services client, where the project management lead required that the development team commit to a certain number of story points each sprint. On the weeks where we delivered more points than expected, we celebrated – such efficiency! Such shipping! On the weeks where we missed our estimate, we were criticized – such laziness! Such waste! But in both cases, the team was working as hard as it could. The root cause of the variance had nothing to do with the effort of the developers, but entirely with the impossible task of estimating.

Beyond the sprint-to-sprint morale whiplash, story pointing came with other hard costs. Every two weeks, the entire 10-person development team would spend 2+ hours estimating story points for the sprint. Over the course of a year, that’s 500 hours (or ~$50,000) that could be spent on real resources.

So I ask you, are story points worth the cost on your team? What value do you derive from them?

I may actually have invented Points. If I did, I’m sorry now. – Ron Jeffries

Published 3 Aug 2018

I am a software developer and team lead. I mostly write about managing software teams and keeping developers happy.
Cody Duval on Twitter