“The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.”

– Albert Einstein

It’s possible to play chess and many other games completely solo, without anyone else to play against.

solo chess

Incredibly, our minds are able to take on the role of both players in a competitive match. Our brains allow us to place ourselves in the opposing player’s shoes. Even more impressively, we are able to hide certain information from our own decision making process – such as what we’re planning to do next turn. We can analyse this incomplete set of information and play a move based solely on that, even if it’s sub-optimal.

BDD can be done solo

Using Behaviour-driven Development (BDD) on our own is much the same as playing a game against ourselves.

Instead of playing the opposing role, we take on the role of the stakeholder. We put ourselves in the shoes of the person paying for or commissioning the project. Because the BDD practice of writing gherkin-style features forces us to think in plain English, we jettison the role of programmer for a moment, and drift in the non-technical solution thought-space.

Why is this important? It’s a valuable exercise for a couple of reasons:

  • We gain a fresh perspective on what we are doing. By taking our heads out of the code and putting ourselves into the role of the stakeholder, we are able to see the wood for the trees and get perspective on the code we’re writing right now. It might be interesting code to write, but does it matter?

  • We gain a fresh perspective on the stresses of others. Every developer should take the opportunity to be a stakeholder once in a while. It’s very helpful to see what life it like on the other side of the estimation table. If all the members on a team are able empathise with the constraints and pressures our colleagues from different disciplines have, our team will run much more smoothly.

BDD solo is why BDD matters in the first place

Sometimes we confuse the concepts behind BDD with the tools used to practice BDD, like 3 amigo meetings, story breakdown and Cucumber.

BDD isn’t about the tools we use, it’s about the communication in the team. It’s about having the right conversations at the right times, hammering things out together, airing and refining thoughts and ideas, beating out ambiguity and forging common goals. This is why it matters.

If it was just about the tools, BDD would have been lost in the noise years ago, and BDD solo would be an expensive overhead. Why add another layer of tool complexity if it’s just us?

However, because BDD is about the concepts, not the tools, BDD works just fine solo: the process of deliberately stepping outside our developer role and thinking through our project from a product perspective gains us insight and understanding. This works no matter what tools, languages, frameworks or practices we may prefer.

When we’re solo, we dispense with a lot of the tools we don’t need. We don’t need to schedule a 3 amigo meeting with ourselves, for example. We’re left with a very pure form of BDD, set free from the needed constraints of multi-person teams.

Then we can begin to understand which of the common practices of BDD are only there to work around problems and can be discarded as needed, and which are truly foundational.

Try it out

Try using BDD on a personal project. Play the product owner, and write some Gherkin-style features. Pretend you can’t code. Really think about your problem without thinking about exactly how you’re going to solve it.

Whilst doing this, reflect on what practices you really need, and which you don’t. Which tools are less useful on your own? Which are more useful?

If you feel we’re just wasting time, I’d challenge us to think about what that’s telling us about our own ‘standard’ agile practice. How much of it is truly making us more agile, and how much of it is simply getting in the way?