I had some useful, and awkward, feedback from a colleague on my recent CAREful Design Documents post. The feedback was basically “I read the CARE attributes, but you always tell us the most important thing to bring to a review is scope”. This is absolutely true, I do. So how does scope relate to CARE (henceforth the CARE framework)?

Defining scope is actually answering the question “why?”; why are we doing this thing, why is this thing hard, why do we need advice, and so forth. When presenting a design document you need to define what the system you are describing is expected to do, and not do. In a design review you need to define what you need from the reviewers, and what you don’t need. Let’s look at these questions in more detail.

It is often the case that when acting as a design reviewer we do not have context on the system we review. As such a brief description of the scope of the system helps to determine if the system is fit for purpose. For example, a high performance, highly scalable, six 9s system is a wonderful thing, but of the scope is to run as a batch every 24 hours for a dozen items it’s probably over engineered. I once sat in on a review for a system nicknamed toaster, and the document to read just jumped right into details of the component internals. So I asked “does your service actually make toast, and if so how do I select the done-ness?” This was met with blank stares, but as I have no scope, no discussion of why this service needs to exist I am going to make wild assumptions. For larger design reviews, or especially reviews for customer-facing systems I recommend the team bringing their product folks as they are often well placed to answer this particular why. In this way it makes clear that documenting the scope of the system is related to the assumptions attribute in the CARE framework.

Sometimes it is not possible to describe the system in a discrete manner, you have to describe some of the context within which it operates. In this case it is really important to be clear about the scope of the system lest you find yourself unnecessarily reviewing a related service. This form of scope can often be as simple as a block diagram with a red border around the things that are in scope of the review. This use of scope, and in particular the need to document how the in scope system relates to others, is related to the constraints attribute in the CARE framework.

One question that can often come up when you are reviewing large or complex systems is why now, or it’s friend why all of it now? This is a reasonable discussion which addresses urgency, dependency management, and opportunities for iterative delivery. This is another example where product managers and development managers can be useful to understand the natural tension between product managers tendency to want everything tomorrow, and the engineering team’s desire to make sure they maintain standards and can deliver a quality product. This use of scope is related to both the constraints and risks attributes in the CARE framework.

Finally, at least for now, there’s a useful aspect mentioned above, meeting management. As a senior/principal engineer teams outside of your direct organization will ask for your participation in a review. This means you may not have a lot of context to be productive in a 1-2 hour meeting. This often means we jump to our favorite cognitive tool to understand what we hear (the data guys try to understand the data model, the systems guys are looking at runtimes, etc.) and favorite issues to pick at. This is reasonable up to a point, it is easy to rat hole on irrelevant details as those details jump out at us as our internal pattern matcher overfits. Now, get more than one reviewer doing the same and we move from rat hole to rat king! I tell teams asking how to prepare for a design review that if you have $n$ Principal Engineers (PE) in a room you can expect a minimum of $n+1$ opinons to deal with as we are extremely good at arguing with ourselves. To make matters worse it is usually the case that the team owning the review are of a lower level than the reviewers, so the dynamic makes it hard for them to keep the meeting on-track and therefore useful. My advice is for that team to write down the scope of the meeting itself, what do you need from the reviewers and what area of the system needs review. This allows even a junior member of the owning team to redirect conversations “hey, that’s not in the scope we agreed” and bring things back on track. This does also mean that it is a responsibility of the reviewer to recognize and acquiesce to the redirect. Or, if they feel strongly that something needs more attention, to table the discussion or propose a follow-on meeting. This use of scope relates to the effort attribute in the CARE framework, respecting the effort and time of the owning team.

So I guess I need to add Scope to CARE which results in SCARE, or CARES but it doesn’t feel right to have the scope at the end, and anyway the SCARE Framework sounds awesome.

  • Scope — a what are we doing and why are we doing it. Scope should address:

    • Why are we building, or enhancing, the system.
    • What the system must do and just as importantly, not do.
    • How will measure, or otherwise determine, the success of the system?
    • For a design review: what do you need, and not need, from reviewers.
  • Constraints — a set of restrictions, or limitations, within which a system must operate.
  • Assumptions — the set of things we think we know (but will hurt us if we’re wrong).
  • Risks — the set of known concerns that we need to address or mitigate.
  • Effort — the enumeration of resources required to accomplish the design, and operate/maintain the resulting system(s).