Is Agile Doomed?

At NDC 2011, there were a couple of presentations about the state of the agile today. Of note, were Uncle Bob Martin’s excellent “The land that Scrum forgot” (That man can give a show just by reading from index cards!) and Michael Feathers’ “The mistake at the heart of agile”.  Until the videos are out, you can get the latter’s description on Gojko Adzic’s blog.

Kent Beck’s vision, the purpose of agile, was supposed to bring developers and customers together. But something happened on the way to paradise.

According to Uncle Bob, the developers lost the lead when scrum was taken over by project managers. At the beginning, XP practices were the basis of the agile movement. But when Ken Schwaber started his scrum training courses, it was project managers, rather than developers that got the certifications. And as I’ve noted in my presentation, certifications speak the language businesses understand, and one of its keys to success.

Michael Feathers goes back further to see where the separation began. He states that It started because both XP and scrum saw the need to protect the development team within the organization. They needed to make sure that project managers, product managers and others do not rock the boat of development. The product owner in the team, is basically a gatekeeper, keeping all others outside. The abstraction kept development efficient. But it also made development less effective.

How can we overcome the division?

Uncle Bob suggests the craftsmanship movement may be the last chance to take back the ownership over the agile process, and realize Kent Beck’s vision.  Michael Feathers suggest another insight: Instead of the segregated development team, build heterogeneous teams that include not just developers, but also business specialists, support teams, etc..

Interesting stuff. While between the two, I feel more drawn to Michael’s utopic solution, both endgames seem far-fetched. I don’t see craftsmanship taking over, because business won’t let it. And as Michael suggests, re-organization of the business will be only due to business understanding that it will make it more competitive, and that requires better management. We’re a long way from there.

Is agile doomed?

Not necessarily.

In order to achieve the connection between developers and customers, more developers need to cross over to other business roles. They will be able to speak both languages: business and develop-ish. With more power and influence they can affect how organizations structure themselves, and maybe pull towards Michael’s solution.

Developers are key in realizing the agile vision. But for agile to succeed, they need to learn a second language.

:

migt

What is this "second language" that developers need to learn? Business language? What defines business language?

I feel (just a hunch then) that developers would be able to quickly learn a new language (they do it quite often with programming languages after all).

Maybe it's not a question of language, but of attitude: good developers desire to build things that are real, that work. Business desires only to sell something, real or not.

Dean

The heterogeneous team concept seems to be gaining some traction. One of the top 6 IT jobs is now Business Architect, described as an MBA-type with an IT focus:

http://www.infoworld.com/t/information-technology-careers/the-6-hottest-new-jobs-in-it-052

The idea that business managers would be the ones making technology choices worries me. They tend to make politically motivated decisions rather than decisions based on technical (architectural) merit.

Gil Zilberfeld

@migt

If this was only so simple.. learn the API of human behavior and use them. Alas, no such luck. Developers need to understand the consequences of what they do, and what the business expects and why. And this is no small task, because developers need to get fluent in order to understand and communicate correctly.

Business desires only to sell? Not only. But yes, it's one of its primary goals. And developers need to align with that goal (like it or not).

@Dean

Thanks for the link!
Architectural decisions by business. Interesting. I can definitely see that happening, for better and worse. But imagine how a decision like this occurs when there's a business architect in the team, or a bilingual developer. That can make a shift towards technical sound decisions, which are also business aligned.

Dennis Sellinger

The idea of learning a different language also means learning a different culture. Project Managers were often developers, so when did they go to the dark side?

We often say that all the goals of building good software make good business sense, but when the bills have to be paid, or concessions have to be made to large customers, development has to react (and can't just blame everything on bad management).

In large organizations often the link between business concerns and development concerns are fuzzy or perhaps arbitrary, but in small organizations you can not ignore business issues and they become more apparent. There is no question that isolating developers from business issues will cause tension.

Saying that developers have to learn a new language (the language of business) is perhaps too easy. Developers are often isolated from the businesses the support and removing that isolation is not easy (I don't think it is just a case of learning a new programming language).

But this is what having an on-site customer is all about, right?

Gil Zilberfeld

@Dennis,

Maybe some day I'll blog about how I came to be on the dark side... :) I can tell you this road wasn't easy, and I had to learn the new language on the way.

Agile practices make business sense... to those who understand them. That's why developers need to lead the way in bridging the gap, and not wait for business people to come to our yard (let's face it, this won't really happen).

The isolation, self imposed or not, is indeed a problem. The product owner acts as a translator, but even at the top of his game, this is not as effective as it can be when there is one language for all people.

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