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Introducing Agile Analytics: A Value-Driven Approach to Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing

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This chapter outlines the tenets of Agile Analytics and establishes the foundational principles behind each of the practices and techniques that are introduced in the successive chapters in this book.
This chapter is from the book

Like Agile software development, Agile Analytics is established on a set of core values and guiding principles. It is not a rigid or prescriptive methodology; rather it is a style of building a data warehouse, data marts, business intelligence applications, and analytics applications that focuses on the early and continuous delivery of business value throughout the development lifecycle. In practice, Agile Analytics consists of a set of highly disciplined practices and techniques, some of which may be tailored to fit the unique data warehouse/business intelligence (DW/BI) project demands found in your organization.

Agile Analytics includes practices for project planning, management, and monitoring; for effective collaboration with your business customers and management stakeholders; and for ensuring technical excellence by the delivery team. This chapter outlines the tenets of Agile Analytics and establishes the foundational principles behind each of the practices and techniques that are introduced in the successive chapters in this book.

Agile is a reserved word when used to describe a development style. It means something very specific. Unfortunately, "agile" occasionally gets misused as a moniker for processes that are ad hoc, slipshod, and lacking in discipline. Agile relies on discipline and rigor; however, it is not a heavyweight or highly ceremonious process despite the attempts of some methodologists to codify it with those trappings. Rather, Agile falls somewhere in the middle between just enough structure and just enough flexibility. It has been said that Agile is simple but not easy, describing the fact that it is built on a simple set of sensible values and principles but requires a high degree of discipline and rigor to properly execute. It is important to accurately understand the minimum set of characteristics that differentiate a true Agile process from those that are too unstructured or too rigid. This chapter is intended to leave you with a clear understanding of those characteristics as well as the underlying values and principles of Agile Analytics. These are derived directly from the tried and proven foundations established by the Agile software community and are adapted to the nuances of data warehousing and business intelligence development.

Alpine-Style Systems Development

I'm a bit of an armchair climber and mountaineer. I'm fascinated by the trials and travails of climbing high mountains like Everest, Annapurna, and others that rise to over 8,000 meters above sea level. These expeditions are complicated affairs involving challenging planning and logistics, a high degree of risk and uncertainty, a high probability of death (for every two climbers who reach the top of Annapurna, another one dies trying!), difficult decisions in the face of uncontrollable variables, and incredible rewards when success is achieved. While it may not be as adventuresome, building complex business intelligence systems is a lot like high-altitude climbing. We face lots of risk and uncertainty, complex planning, difficult decisions in the heat of battle, and the likelihood of death! Okay, maybe not that last part, but you get the analogy. Unfortunately the success rate for building DW/BI systems isn't very much better than the success rate for high-altitude mountaineering expeditions.

Climbing teams first began successfully "conquering" these high mountains in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. In those early days the preferred mountaineering style was known as "siege climbing," which had a lot of similarities to a military excursion. Expeditions were led in an autocratic command-and-control fashion, often by someone with more military leadership experience than climbing experience. Climbing teams were supported by the large numbers of porters required to carry massive amounts of gear and supplies to base camp and higher. Mounting a siege-style expedition takes over a year of planning and can take two months or more to execute during the climbing season. Siege climbing is a yo-yo-like affair in which ropes are fixed higher and higher on the mountain, multiple semipermanent camps are established at various points along the route, and loads of supplies are relayed by porters to those higher camps. Finally, with all this support, a small team of summit climbers launches the final push for the summit on a single day, leaving from the high camp and returning to the same. Brilliant teams have successfully climbed mountains for years in this style, but the expeditions are prohibitively expensive, time-consuming to execute, and fraught with heavyweight procedures and bureaucracy.

Traditional business intelligence systems development is a lot like siege climbing. It can result in high-quality, working systems that deliver the desired capabilities. However, these projects are typically expensive, exhibiting a lot of planning, extensive design prior to development, and long development cycles. Like siege-style expeditions, all of the energy goes into one shot at the summit. If the summit bid fails, it is too time-consuming to return to base camp and regroup for another attempt. In my lifetime (and I'm not that old yet) I've seen multiple traditional DW/BI projects with budgets of $20 million or more, and timelines of 18 to 24 months, founder. When such projects fail, the typical management response is to cancel the project entirely rather than adjust, adapt, and regroup for another "summit attempt."

In the 1970s a new mountaineering method called "alpine-style" emerged, making it feasible for smaller teams to summit these high peaks faster, more cheaply, and with less protocol. Alpine-style mountaineering still requires substantial planning, a sufficient supporting team, and enough gear and supplies to safely reach the summit. However, instead of spending months preparing the route for the final summit push, alpine-style climbers spend about a week moving the bare essentials up to the higher camps. In this style, if conditions are right, summits can be reached in a mere ten days. Teams of two to three climbers share a single tent and sleeping bag, fewer ropes are needed, and the climbers can travel much lighter and faster. When conditions are not right, it is feasible for alpine-style mountaineers to return to base camp and wait for conditions to improve to make another summit bid.

Agile DW/BI development is much like alpine-style climbing. It is essential that we have a sufficient amount of planning, the necessary support to be successful, and an appropriate amount of protocol. Our "summit" is the completion of a high-quality, working business intelligence system that is of high value to its users. As in mountaineering, reaching our summit requires the proper conditions. We need just the right amount of planning—but we must be able to adapt our plan to changing factors and new information. We must prepare for a high degree of risk and uncertainty—but we must be able to nimbly manage and respond as risks unfold. We need support and involvement from a larger community—but we seek team self-organization rather than command-and-control leadership.

Agile Analytics is a development "style" rather than a methodology or even a framework. The line between siege-style and alpine-style mountaineering is not precisely defined, and alpine-style expeditions may include some siege-style practices. Each style is best described in terms of its values and guiding principles. Each alpine-style expedition employs a distinct set of climbing practices that support a common set of values and principles. Similarly, each Agile DW/BI project team must adapt its technical, project management, and customer collaboration practices to best support the Agile values and principles.1

Premier mountaineer Ed Viesturs has a formula, or core value, that is his cardinal rule in the big mountains: "Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory." (Viesturs and Roberts 2006) I love this core value because it is simple and elegant, and it provides a clear basis for all of Ed's decision making when he is on the mountain. In the stress of the climb, or in the midst of an intensely challenging project, we need just such a basis for decision making—our "North Star." In 2000, a group of the most influential application software developers convened in Salt Lake City and formed the Agile Alliance. Through the process of sharing and comparing each of their "styles" of software development, the Agile Manifesto emerged as a simple and elegant basis for project guidance and decision making. The Agile Manifesto reads:2

  • Manifesto for Agile Software Development
  • We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
  • That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

With due respect to the Agile Alliance, of which I am a member, I have adapted the Agile Manifesto just a bit in order to make it more appropriate to Agile Analytics:

  • Manifesto for Agile Analytics Development
  • We are uncovering better ways of developing data warehousing and business intelligence systems by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working DW/BI systems over comprehensive documentation
  • End-user and stakeholder collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
  • That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

I didn't want to mess with the original manifesto too much, but it is important to acknowledge that DW/BI systems are fundamentally different from application software. In addition to dealing with large volumes of data, our efforts involve systems integration, customization, and programming. Nonetheless, the Agile core values are very relevant to DW/BI systems development. These values emphasize the fact that our primary objective is the creation of high-quality, high-value, working DW/BI systems. Every activity related to any project either (a) directly and materially contributes to this primary objective or (b) does not. Agile Analytics attempts to maximize a-type activities while acknowledging that there are some b-type activities that are still important, such as documenting your enterprise data model.

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