February 24, 2023

Story Kick-offs: An Experiment with Time in Engineering

David Halewood - Software Engineer

Our experiment with remote-first, asynchronous Story Kick-offs.

Here at Learnerbly we believe in the power of experiments in helping our teams solve problems more efficiently. Some will fail (fast) and others will succeed in helping drive measurable improvements. More about experiments another time.

An experiment we are running at the moment, in our Platform Team, is asynchronous Story Kick-offs. To understand what problem this experiment is trying to solve it serves to first understand what a Story Kick-off is, and what we intend it to achieve.

For us, a Story Kick-off is where an engineer, or a pair, who are about to start working on a user story, discuss the story together. This preferably happens with other roles from the team, such as the designer, the product manager (PM), and/or, if applicable, a quality engineer (QE/QA).

The goal of a Story Kick-off is to:

  • ✔️ confirm the requirements and approach
  • ✔️ create clarity and alignment within the team
  • ✔️ call out any potential risks and/or uncertainties
  • ✔️ share knowledge and ideas
  • ✔️ potentially split the story into smaller slices of incremental value

The motivation for us having Story Kick-offs is that we believe changes are less expensive to implement further upstream, and they become more expensive as you move downstream. When questions about an approach and/or acceptance criteria are only asked at the review stage or during QA, the developer and wider team may have to pay for lost time and effort. This ultimately affects delivery.

There is also the risk of making assumptions and/or failing to mitigate risks. When we catch something early, we shorten the feedback loop, reduce waste and inefficiency, and help minimize impediments the team may face later.

Story Kick-offs are usually synchronous. As we are a remote first company, for us that means video calls. We have found that it can be difficult to facilitate these just in time when the team members live in different time-zones and have vastly different schedules. Asynchronous kickoffs can be done using whatever communication best suits your team. For us that's over threads, in slack, or in the jira ticket comment section. Usually they will be initiated and led by the engineer (or pair of engineers) intending on starting the work.

During the Story Kick-off you'll want to confirm:

  • ✔️ acceptance criteria with the product manager
  • ✔️ mockups with design
  • ✔️ technical requirements with other engineers
  • ✔️ test plans with other engineers

In closing, Story Kick-offs can be a really useful cross-functional activity that can help towards team alignment, avoid misunderstandings and encourage small incremental stories that continuously add value. With any process, it's important for teams to first ask "will this provide value", if the answer is yes then it's equally as important that the process can be (and is) adapted to the teams needs.

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