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July 4, 2016

Why Uber is so applicable in the agile delivery of software

After a short week abroad and various discussions with some excellent developers over there, it is clear to me; Uber is not just very convenient when you want to go from A to B in Cairo, but it is also extremely applicable when discussing the way we develop web-services.
Let me explain to you how Uber got into being. In fact, how Uber Black got into being. It all happened in New York City, a buzzing city where it pays not to have a car and have somebody else drive you. Reason being that parking in NYC is rather problematic if not costly. So when you walk around in the Big Apple, you're bound to see those yellow cabs, the iconic taxis in New York City. And while you're at it, you'll see those large limousines, Lincoln Towncars mainly. These are black, and these are very convenient, luxurious means of getting around in New York. The problem with these limo's is that you have to call them, they're not allowed to respond to the cab-hailing crowd on the sidewalks. The crowd is for the yellow cabs, the customers of the limo's are at home. You have to call them. They're somewhere out there and you have to wait for them to arrive. And that's where the problems start since neither driver nor drivee knows where the other person is. So when it takes too long for the limo to arrive, you're bound to become impatient and call another one, or just walk out the door and hail a yellow cab. They're in abundance. So eventually the limo driver shows up at your doorstep with you already gone. A situation that's not cool for the driver and so next time he hits a traffic jam, he'll just ignore you and wait for another ride, even though you're all patience and waiting for the limo to arrive... soon. It's a bad experience for everybody.
Uber solved this by providing both customer and driver with an app that shows exactly where the other person is. So you know where the heck the driver is and the driver knows exactly where he has to pick up his customer. Furthermore, as everywhere in the world, customers in New York don't trust the cab-meters so there's always a dispute about the cost of a ride. Another problem that was solved by Uber as they want you to state where you want to go and by means of the GPS of your phone they know where you are. So you get a quote of the price and that's it. No more disputes about your fare and since you've provided your credit card, no need for change. Oh, and those weird, rude and above all smelly drivers are getting a bad rating, so when a badly rated driver is responding to your request for a car, you just cancel the ride and try again.
Image result for lincoln towncarSo now let me explain the way Uber works, from a consumer perspective, for those that are not (yet) familiar with the disruptive nature of Uber; First of all, you need to have an account with Uber, that holds your name and your payment method, as well as your phone number. So basically Uber wants to be able to know you, wants to know how you'll be paying for the services and how to contact you. Once you've got your account all setup, you can use their service. Even in cities without limo's you can use Uber, it's called UberX and it's an alternative to other taxi services.
When you need a car, you typically start the App on your phone and it recognizes where you are, based on your GPS location and it asks you where you want to go. Then you can see the cost of the fare and when you're okay with this, you request a car. This is where the fun starts, because a driver accepts the ride and you can see who it is. And you can see his rating. You like it, you ride it.
As soon as you get to your destination, all is done. No need to pay, because you're already set up to pay by credit card. And you're asked to rate the driver and maybe put some explanation on why you rate him the way you rated him.
Basically this is exactly how we develop or should web-services. I'm sure I don't have to explain this uncanny analogy. But I will, while I'm at it. Why stop?
When we develop web-services, we know where we are and where we want to go next. Actually, it's so much like traveling by any means other than driving yourself. We always need to know where we want to go. It is the first thing you do when you take a bus, a train or a taxi. You decide where you want to end up. Since it's pointless to just start driving, moving around and around and only stop when you've reached you're destination. Fun when you're backpacking, but very inefficient when you're not.
So basically, when we develop web-services, we start within finishing as we start with defining what we want. These are the requirements. Mind that the more specific the requirement, the more likely we get what we need. So next we check what it's going to cost to get there. Determining the cost of creating the service will allow us to decide whether it's worth it. We already know how to pay for it, typically it's in terms of time. Then, if all checks out, we request an implementation. There's a lot of different ways to develop a service and we have to decide whether we go for a quick online solution, a more solid standard product, or a custom made solution. It's basically all about the rating of the driver, nothing more. Then we develop. Once we get to our acceptance testing we verify whether the destination is exactly where we wanted to be in the first place. The more stars the closer to what we wanted.
So let's put a little agility in to the mix. The Uber driver is using a navigation tool on his phone to determine where he needs to go and when he strays from the route, the navigation tool will make sure to get him back on track. But the awesome part here is that the navigation is turn by turn, in other words, only at specific points on the route, it will provide input on how to adjust the course. This is what we do as well during the development of products. We have defined points in time to determine whether or not we are on the right track. And just as the customer can tell the Uber driver that she wants to go somewhere else, we can adjust our destination as well. Mind that the customer of the Uber driver can't tell him verbally, but instead has to provide a new destination in the Uber app. Reason for this, is that both the customer and the driver know exactly what the new destination is by using the exact same terminology. And the Uber driver is adjusting his route to get her there. In effect, the customer will tell the driver under what circumstances she's happy to accept the end of the ride, i.e. she's driven to her (adjusted) destination. We do the same, we change our to be developed product, by redefining the requirement and accept the product when the adjusted requirements are met.
Now folding the Uber analogy and the Agile software delivery into a single, stronger, strain of software engineering DNA, we have to look into some additional little tidbits.
For one, to get software delivery in an agile way really to work, you need to make sure that you deliver the features in a way that they are useful, which means that it is best not to focus on functionality but on behavior. This allows everybody to consider the software developed to be regarded as an actor in the business of the company. The difference is that you not only have the basic functionality of the Uber driver to get you at your destination, but you can also define how to get you there by means of non-functionals. So how fast to get you there, whether or not to stay on the highways as much as possible, etc. When describing behavior, the non-functionals are an integral part of the behavior instead of yet another set of requirements, typically those that are left out when discussing the system and only brought in at the end, right after we find out the system is not performing.
Just like we have, often untold, additional requirements for our driver that are typically related to his behavior, we have these as well for our services. And just like we first verify the by Uber proposed driver and cancel the trip when we don't want that driver, we need to do the same with our services. There are always many ways to solve the business service puzzle, but most will be rejected because they don't expose the right behavior.

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