How would you go about modeling the
requirements for a business application in an agile way?
Let’s consider an example, in this case how you
could approach modeling the requirements for the SWA
Online case study on
an Agile Unified Process (Agile UP) project.
Before doing so there are several issues that you
must be cognizant of:
The focus of this article is
requirements modeling. Whenever the discussion strays
into territory that pertains to another type of modeling
– I’ll stop the discussion.
Agile software development is highly iterative,
and as a result the lines between
requirements and other
forms of modeling quickly become blurred in practice.
This is one of many ways that you could
take and still be considered agile.
Remember, AM is a practices-based methodology, it
does not define a specific, prescriptive way to work and
therefore there are many ways to apply it appropriately.
Don’t worry, I’ll point out other
alternatives that I may have chosen at various points
but please keep an open mind.
The SWA Online team is
following an Agile UP process, therefore artifacts such as use
cases will play an important role in the requirements
modeling process. Had they taken more of an eXtreme
Programming (XP) approach user
stories would instead dominate.
and XP where I discuss this case study from an XP
point of view.
As I wrote this article I found it much
easier to discuss my approach as if it had actually
happened even though the case study is fictitious and
merely based on my experiences at real organizations
building e-commerce systems.
It is best to think about requirements
modeling from two different points of view:
modeling and detailed
Initial requirements modeling
occurs at the beginning of the lifecycle of your
project, in the case of the Agile UP during the Inception phase
and The Eclipse Way during the Warm-Up iteration. With
Agile Model Driven Development (AMDD) approach this
occurs during "iteration 0". During this
effort there are three main goals:
To identify the scope, at least at a high level,
of the system that you are building so as to define the
boundary of your efforts.
To define the
high-level requirements for your system.
build a consensus amongst your stakeholders and within
your development team as to what the requirements imply.
The initial requirements
envisionment effort can be as short as a few hours,
particularly if you are co-located with your project
stakeholders and they are able to come to a general
consensus as to what the system should do, or could
stretch on for several days or even weeks in situations
that are less than ideal (see
Common Requirements Challenges).
You will typically hold large modeling
Are long, sometimes several
days in length for large projects
Have many project stakeholders
involved so as to hear the requirements from a wide
range of people
Tend towards the formal end of
the scale (often due to the larger number of people
and sometimes due to a lack of familiarity of your
project stakeholders with more agile approaches)
Include some developers,
particularly when you want to start building an
understanding within your team of what the system is
The scope of your system may be defined by a single
statement, in the case of SWA Online it may be something
as simple as “To sell our products to customers via
the Internet” or a statement with greater detail such
as “To sell physical, but not virtual, products to
existing or new customers in the Continental United
system scope may also be defined using a context model
– a model showing how your system fits into its
overall environment – something that is often depicted
using a use case diagram, as you see in
2, or as a dataflow diagram (DFD) as in
1 (this style of diagram is often called a
It is important to understand the scope of your
system so as to limit your development efforts.
The first statement was too vague, it could be
taken to mean that you are selling to international
customers, a significantly greater effort than selling
only within the USA, as well as selling virtual products
such as online music which would require the addition of
an online delivery system as well as a physical one.
You may find that your scope changes over time, a
decision to be made by your project stakeholders, so be
prepared to embrace change.
data flow diagram (DFD) used to model the context of SWA
2. A use case diagram used to model the context of
|So which is the best artifact to
describe the scope of your system?
A statement, a DFD, or a use case diagram?
Depends on your situation.
Statements are straightforward but often not as
communicative as a diagram.
The DFD of Figure 1
shows the system in the center of the diagram and its
relationships with other external entities –
organizations, people, or other systems – that are
outside the scope of your control yet still interact
with your system. A
major advantage of this approach is that it depicts in
reasonable detail the major flow of information between
your system and the outside world.
The use case diagram of
2 takes a different tack, depicting the system in
the center once again and the actors (organizations,
people) that interact with your system.
The main advantage of this approach is that it
depicts both the external and internal actors that
interact with your system, as opposed to the DFD that
just depicts the external ones.
The main disadvantage is that it does not
indicate any details regarding the interactions between
the system and the actors.
Which diagram should you create?
Both have their advantages and disadvantages, so
perhaps you should consider creating both?
Hmmmm… doesn’t sound very agile to me.
A better approach would be to create one diagram,
breaking the rules a bit and combining the best of both
diagrams in one as I’ve done in
how I’ve indicated the internal entities with an
“I” in the top corner of the two entities, my own
style, and dropped the numeric identifiers with the
entities: id numbers are difficult to maintain manually
and I’d rather have a rule that entity names are
unique and thus they can take on the role of the
identifier if needed.
I could just as easily used use case notation,
although had I chosen to show data flow I would have
broken a serious use case modeling rule, but luckily my
project stakeholders liked DFDs so I went with their
that the principle
Model With a Purpose
recommends that you know your audience, enabling you to
pick the artifacts best suited to them.
Don’t be afraid to break the
general practice is to not include internal entities on
a level-0 DFD, the idea is that you introduce internal
entities when you start digging into the details, I’ve
chosen to do so anyway in Figure
3 because it enabled me to avoid drawing a second
important thing to notice is that the world hasn’t
come to an end and the modeling police haven’t charged
me with software process malpractice.
Yes, I have arguably gone against the practice
Modeling Standards, but in doing so I have reduced
both development and maintenance costs, which indicates
to me that my organization may want to rethink this
standard if it becomes a huge issue for someone.
DFD including internal entities to model the context of
To identify the high-level
requirements for a system I prefer to take a usage-based
approach, one in which your primary focus is on how your
users will work with the system.
My experience is that this is a valid approach
for most software development efforts because if you
don’t understand how people will work with your system
it is incredibly difficult for you to build software
that will support and enhance the way that they work.
I would use this approach to build business
applications to be used internally within your
organization, for business software to be used by
customers of your organization, for shrink-wrapped
software (such as a CASE tool or word processor), for
the development of a
data warehouse, and even for the
integration of commercial off the shelf (COTS) systems
such as SAP R/3 or Oracle Financials. In the case of a
data warehouse a common mistake is to gather “data
requirements”, lists of data elements and/or data
entities that people want to store in the data
warehouse, an approach that seems like a good idea at
first but if you don’t know how people intend to work
with that data then it is difficult to prioritize your
effort or even know if you are providing what your
project stakeholders actually need.
In the case of COTS systems you need requirements
against which you can evaluate competing packages.
Artifacts such as
user stories are good options for this.
Following the practice
Apply The Right
Artifact(s) I would likely choose use cases to
describe SWA Online because SWA Enterprises used the
as the primary base for their software process and use
cases fits best with this process.
Had they chosen XP as the primary base then user
stories would be more appropriate or if
Development (FDD) (Palmer
& Felsing 2002) was the
base then features would have been my choice.
4 depicts a high-level use case diagram, a digital
picture of a whiteboard sketch, that I created with my
This is an
essential use case diagram because it shows a technology independent
view of the system – you could implement a fully
manual system or a fully automated system based on this
the use case “Post Product Review” could be better
renamed “Write Product Review” to make it more
general but my project stakeholders chose the other name
because it suited them better.
I always strive to make requirements as
technology independent as possible but the reality is
that many systems are already constrained to a subset of
architectural options, for example SWA Online is
constrained to an Internet-based solution, so investing
time trying to abstract away from this constraint is
likely of little value to your immediate efforts.
Remember the principle
maximize stakeholder ROI and focus your requirements modeling
efforts on tasks that provide positive value.
high-level use case diagram for SWA Online.
The use cases would be described
simply, during your initial modeling efforts a point-form description
of the logic for each use case may be sufficient.
You don’t need to specify the system in detail
at this point, you only need to gain a basic
understanding of what the system should accomplish and
to identify the initial scope for the system, and a
point-form description of each use case and actor does
your project stakeholders allow it you may not even need
to go this far – perhaps
identifying three or four use cases is enough for now.
If it is then apply the principle
Model With A
Purpose and stop your initial requirements modeling efforts for now, moving
on to detailed modeling efforts that drill down into the
modeling and implementing the requirements you have
4 you see that I have applied the UML stereotype
<<Include>> on a requirements diagram, yet
Object Primer 3/e I recommend that you apply
stereotypes on analysis-level use case diagrams,
typically referred to as system use case diagrams
because they often reflect architecture and design
issues, but not requirements-level use case diagrams.
Once again the world hasn’t ended and the
modeling police haven’t charged me with crimes against
software development humanity.
The diagram is interesting because it shows that
it is common for models to cross process boundaries, in
this case the diagram reflects what I would consider to
be both requirements and analysis issues.
It’s easy to say that you need to reach a common
consensus between project stakeholders but much more
difficult to achieve it in practice, even if you have overcome
the common challenges to requirements efforts.
Individual project stakeholders have different
backgrounds, different priorities, and different
build a consensus everyone needs to recognize this fact,
communicate what they need from the system, listen to
what others have to say, and be prepared to work towards
a common goal. Whenever
I’m working with a group that is having a problem
coming to consensus we’ll write down everyone’s
issues on a
plain old whiteboard (POW) where everyone in the room can
see and discuss them – this visually depicts the
extent of the group’s differences and provides a focus
for their discussion. Sometimes we’ll remove an issue from the board,
or better yet simply cross it out because I often want
to record scoping decisions (more on this soon), after
the originator of the issue recognized that it wasn’t
required or at least wasn’t important as other issues.
I also like to draw lines between contradictory
issues so as to highlight the need to discuss them,
often using a specific color of marker for just that
As the group focuses on high-level
usage requirements they will often identify related
business rules and constraints, as well as technical
requirements and requirements that the system may or may
not need to fulfill at some point in the future.
During initial modeling you should prefer
“park” business rules, constraints, and technical
requirements, often writing them on flip chart paper or
POW, capturing just enough information so
that you know what the requirement is when you explore
it in greater detail later.
The goal is to get out of initial modeling as
quickly as possible so you want to avoid investing time
exploring details – when you start to explore details
in these initial requirement sessions you put your
project at risk because you are not obtaining concrete
feedback regarding your work and of suffering from
analysis paralysis. Remember the principle
Software Is Your Primary Goal
and not to produce models and documents describing what
your software is supposed to do.
For example, as in the initial requirements
modeling session for SWA Online my project stakeholders
identified several business rules and constraints
pertaining to fulfillment of orders, such as how to pack
certain types of goods, how some products have finite
shelf lives, and the pick-up procedures of our shippers. Whenever I hear requirement such as this I ask someone to
write it down, either on the
POW or on an index
card that is then placed on a shared desk where everyone
can see it.
This leads to an important point:
modeling sessions are interactive.
At the start an experienced modeler will need to
start the effort, explaining the techniques and prodding
people to pitch in.
This prodding may be something as simple as
asking someone to come to the
POW and explaining
what they’re talking about, filling out an index card
to summarize a business rule, or writing on a Post It
note to record a data requirement for a potential
people become accustomed to these sorts of modeling
activities, in accordance to AM’s
Stakeholder Participation practice, you will find
that you need to do less prodding to get them to
some people are shy at first and may need more prodding
than others but that’s human nature (given the choice,
I prefer to have very outgoing project stakeholders
involved with development efforts as opposed to shy ones
that don’t speak their minds).
As your team identifies
requirements for the current release that you are
working on they will often identify requirements for
future releases, or potential requirements that you may
need to implement at some point.
You don’t want to lose this information,
although at the same time you don’t want to invest too
much time exploring it nor do you want to invest any
time overbuilding your software to fulfill these
However, there is some value to your
architectural efforts – potential requirements may
provide insights into the merits of one architectural
alternative over another.
Change cases are a simple technique for documenting
potential requirements, as you can see in
5 which depicts two change cases for SWA Online.
An important part of your scoping effort is to
identify both what is currently in scope and what is
currently out of scope, and by identifying a requirement
as a change case you are explicitly stating that it is
currently out of scope for your project efforts.
The effective use of change cases as
architectural requirements is described in detail in the
Agile Architecture article.
change cases for SWA Online.
Change: Expansion into North
Likelihood: Very Likely
Timeframe: 12-18 Months
Must support shipments to
customers in Canada and Mexico.
Relationships with new shippers may be
Relevant taxes and duties
would need to be calculated.
Product set sold within
those markets likely to be different due to
legal issues and local preferences.
Support for multi-lingual
site (English and French are official
languages of Canada, Spanish of Mexico)
Change: Sale of Virtual
Products (online music, video, books, …)
Likelihood: Very likely
Timeframe: 6-12 months
Must be able to bypass
physical shipping process
We may need to support
digital licenses for some products
There may be limits
(period of availability, number of copies) on
sales of individual items
So how much documentation should
you write to record your understanding of the
project’s scope and initial, high-level requirements?
As I suggest in Agile
just barely enough.
In the case of SWA Online we would likely create
an HTML page with the context diagram of
3, the use case diagram of
4, and a point form list indicating what is in and
out of scope. To
create the high-level requirements document I would be
tempted to have the use case descriptions transcribed
into individual word processing documents, or perhaps
even simple text files, because we’ll want to evolve
them as part of our detailed modeling efforts.
Having them as electronic files makes them easy
to share and manipulate.
As far as the index cards that we created – the
placeholders for business rules, constraints, technical
requirements, and change cases – I would ask my
project stakeholders to trust me and to leave them as is
because this items will be evolved during detailed
modeling efforts, if we find that we need them at all,
and we can deal with them as we need to at that point.
This enables the team to quickly get into
detailed modeling efforts, and then into implementation,
because they have avoided documentation efforts that
they may not even need (some of those business rules may
prove inconsequential and therefore any effort invested
in documenting them before you know their true value
would be a waste).
Once the scope and high-level
requirements for your system have been agreed to, the
result of your initial modeling efforts, you are in a position to
define a schedule for your development efforts where you
schedule the requirements into iterations.
With this plan in place, a plan that evolves over
time as your understanding of the requirements evolves,
you are now in a position to start actual development.
2.1 Starting an Iteration
At the beginning of an iteration
the various requirements will be spread amongst the
an Agile UP project people volunteer to work, in pairs, on a
given use case (or portion thereof), repeating the process of signing up
for new use cases throughout the iteration until none are
left. The first step is to understand what your project
stakeholders want, in detail, which will likely entail
some requirements modeling.
There are two basic approaches to
modeling that development teams will take at the
beginning of an iteration:
Group modeling of all the
requirements for that iteration.
With this approach the entire team, including
available project stakeholders, work together to
explore the detailed requirements, to analyze those
requirements, and to propose changes to the existing
system design to support those requirements. Assuming your iteration is two-weeks long, my expectation
would be that this modeling session would last from
anywhere between one hour and a half day – if your
iteration is longer, say between four and six weeks,
you may decide to invest an entire day in this
You don’t want to go any longer than a day
with this effort because you are not receiving the
concrete feedback that you get when you
The strengths of this approach is that it
builds a concrete vision of what the team is working
on for that iteration and how they intend to
approach their work and it garners the input of all
team members and therefore increases the chance of
identifying a good initial approach. The weaknesses of this approach is that it only works for
small teams, typically of less than ten people, and
it wastes time on an individual basis because not
everyone will participate on every aspect of the
Note that once the initial modeling effort is
performed for the iteration that the individual
subteams will still need to model the specific
details of what they are working on at appropriate
times throughout the iteration.
Individual subteams model
Some development teams will choose to forgo a
group modeling effort at the beginning of an
iteration and simply let the individual subteams
dive right into implementation (see below). This works well when the requirements are not related to one
another, or at least not too much, and when
developers are following the practice
Ownership and working from a shared code base.
The advantage of this approach is that it
enables your team to get right into the details on
the very first day of the iteration.
However, there are several disadvantages.
First, when the requirements overlap within
sections of your design, perhaps two subteams are
working on something related to calculating the
total of an order (e.g. calculation of taxes by one
team and calculation of discounts by another team),
then you run the risk of the two subteams doing
This shouldn’t be a serious problem because
each subteam should know what the others are doing
and should therefore work together as needed.
Second, it takes longer for your team to gel
its implementation vision for the current iteration.
Third, you may initially have contention for
access to project stakeholders because the
individual subteams all need input to get started.
2.2 During An Iteration
Once you’ve gotten over the
initial kick-off efforts for an iteration your team
quickly falls into a constant effort of
coding, testing, building, and potentially deploying
your software. It
is during this period that the majority of your
requirements modeling efforts with your project
stakeholders will occur, the goal being to explore their
requirements in detail.
Actually, it is more accurate to refer to these
efforts simply as modeling sessions because you will
very likely iterate through requirements, analysis, and
sessions are typically performed in an impromptu fashion
by small groups of people, typically a development
subteam working on a requirement and one or more project
stakeholders providing input. Impromptu modeling sessions are typically sort and often
initiated along the lines of a question such as
“Sally, do you have a couple of minutes to explain how
customers search for an order item?”
So how would I approach detailed
requirements modeling for SWA Online?
First, let’s assume that the two of us are
working together as a pair and that our team will be
implementing the order definition and placement portions
of the basic course of action for the “Place Order”
use case in this iteration.
We won’t be implementing search functionality,
any sort of error or exception handling, tax
calculations, or discount calculations right now.
This example reveals a
common problem with use cases – they are often too
coarse-grained to schedule into a single iteration.
You are often motivated to either schedule a
single use case across multiple iterations, something
that is uncomfortable from a project management point of
view, or refactor your use case into a collection of
smaller ones which is often uncomfortable from a
modeling point of view.
The basic course of action is often called the
“happy path” because everything works in the basic
course of action – the alternate courses of action
describe when things don’t work well, in the case of
placing an order this would include being out of stock
of an item that the customer has requested.
However, our goal this iteration is to focus
simply on a portion of the happy path for now, the other
requirements will be worked on either by other subteams
or perhaps by us at a later date.
The first thing that we do is flesh
out the logic for the basic course of action, which is
presented in Figure 6,
and in parallel work on
(abstract) UI prototypes relevant
to this use case.
We work on these two artifacts in parallel
because they each approach the problem from a different
direction, the use case describes what the customer does
to place an order and the essential UI prototype
specifies what the user interface of SWA Online must
include to support this behavior.
Notice how the use case invokes the “Search for
Item(s)” use case on line two, consistent with the
application of the <<Include>> stereotype in
Even though this functionality is invoked in the
part of the use case that we’re currently focused on
we won’t be implementing that functionality yet
because it’s not in scope.
Instead we’ll stub out what we need, perhaps
going straight to a results page listing the theoretical
results of our search.
Later on in the project the searching
functionality will be added as appropriate, just not now
(remember, we’re working incrementally).
Also notice how the use case doesn’t take into
consideration any sort of technology issues yet, issues
that we may decide to address later.
Right now we just want to understand the basic
process of placing an order, we can worry about
implementation details later (potentially in a few
minutes from now).
The use case describes logic that we won’t be
implementing this iteration, such as the calculation of
taxes and discounts, functionality that we’ll need to
stub out when we’re coding.
Figure 6. The
basic course of action for placing an order.
The use case begins when a customer chooses
to place an order.
The customer searches for items via the use
case “Search for Item(s)”
The customer selects adds an order item to
The customer indicates the number of a
given item they wish to order.
The system calculates the subtotal for the
item by multiplying the unit price by the number
The customer repeats steps 2 through 5 as
necessary to build their order.
The customer finishes adding items to their
The customer provides their ship to and
bill to information, including their name, phone
number, and surface address.
The system calculates the subtotal for the
entire order by adding the subtotals of the
individual line items.
The system calculates the taxes applicable
for the order according to the business rule Calculate
Taxes for an Order.
The system calculates applicable discounts
for the order according to the business rule Calculate
Discounts for an Order.
The system displays the applicable taxes
The system calculates the grand total for
the order by adding the applicable taxes to the
order subtotal and subtracting the discounts.
The system displays a summary of the order.
The customer verifies that the order is
what they want.
The system schedules the order for
fulfillment (see the use case Fulfill Order).
The system produces a receipt for the
customer summarizing the order.
Although we know that we’ll be
implementing the UI in a browser we still choose to work
with Post It notes and flip chart paper, instead of an
HTML editor, because the paper is more flexible and
flexibility is what we need right now – as we
initially explore the requirements we will be adding UI
elements, moving them around, and moving them very
quickly and we want to use a tool that supports this
on, once the requirements for the page(s) have
stabilized we’ll switch over to an HTML editor because
we’ll want to make our UI more concrete for our
project stakeholders to evaluate.
For now we keep it simple.
We are following several of AM’s
practices during this effort.
We are clearly following the practice
Several Models in Parallel because we are working on
a use case and essential UI prototype, and
Others because the team is currently comprised of
the two of us and as least one project stakeholder that
is providing requirements.
We are also following the practice
Models Simply. I
would also argue that Figure
6 is a good example of an
application of the practice
Create Simple Content
because it provides just enough details to describe the
business logic of the use case.
We are also following
Apply The Right Artifact(s)
– business rules are being captured outside of the use
case, although you could argue that the logic for
calculating the grand total of an order is a simple
business rule, in a separate business rules artifact
(for now you would want to create placeholders for Calculate
Taxes for an Order and Calculate Discounts for an
Order, either sections in a word processing document
or as individual index cards).
Furthermore user interface requirements are being
captured in a separate artifact, the essential UI
prototype, and if we felt the need “data
requirements” could be captured in a conceptual model
(more on this below).
We also followed the practice
Another Artifact, moving back and forth between
working on the use case and the essential UI prototype
– as we added features to the UI prototype we realized
we were missing logic in the use case and vice versa.
Finally, we applied the practice
Simplest Tools – the UI prototyping was done using
paper and the use case logic was written on a
Assuming that we were satisfied
with our modeling efforts, more than likely an effort
that took between thirty and sixty minutes, we would
either continue on through analysis
and finally into implementation or we would first invest
a few minutes to update the project team’s domain
model with what we have just learned.
I prefer to keep domain models as simple as
CRC cards perhaps, because they are easy to work with and very
accessible to project stakeholders.
Not only can they be used to show the major
entities within your domain but their responsibilities
as well, including both data and behavior.
Your next best option for domain modeling is
to use a
UML class diagram, the advantage is that this
diagram can also capture details about the relationships
between classes/entities such as multiplicity and roles
– relationships between classes are implied by the
collaborators with an CRC model. The problem is that class diagrams are not as accessible to
your stakeholders as CRC cards, thus they inhibit active
participation, due to their greater complexity.
Traditionally data models were used for
conceptual modeling, and are arguably a viable option
when structured technology is used for implementation,
but are just as inaccessible as UML class diagrams.
Although the modeling effort that I
have described would very likely occur in less than one
hour you could very easily organize your modeling
efforts into an even finer slice, perhaps focusing on
the first few lines of the use case and the
corresponding UI at first, implementing that portion of
the functionality, then coming back to work on the next
couple of lines of the use case.
This approach works fine two, you should take the
approach that works best for you.
It is important to realize that you
will proceed iteratively throughout an iteration,
returning to requirements modeling efforts as required.
As you start to implement the order placement
functionality you will realize that you don’t quite
understand the exact details of how it should work, for
example perhaps there are limits on how many items of a
given type you may order. If this is the case you have new functionality that must be
prioritized, and assigned to a future
your logic is out of order – maybe the customer should
provide their billing and shipping information first.
Perhaps there should be a way for customers to
define a profile so as to define billing and shipping
information once, implying another new requirement that
must be dealt with in a future iteration.
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UML diagrams. They are based on sound, proven
software engineering principles that lead to diagrams
that are easier to understand and work with. These
conventions exist as a collection of simple, concise
guidelines that if applied consistently, represent an
important first step in increasing your productivity as
a modeler. This book is oriented towards
intermediate to advanced UML modelers, although there
are numerous examples throughout the book it would not
be a good way to learn the UML (instead, consider
The Object Primer). The book is a brief 188
pages long and is conveniently pocket-sized so it's easy
to carry around.
We actively work with clients around the world to
improve their information technology (IT) practices,
typically in the role of mentor/coach, team lead, or trainer. A full
description of what we do, and how to contact us, can be
found at Scott W.
Ambler + Associates.