I’m not Agile, just a little eXtreme

The moment of epiphany came at OOPSLA ’97 when I went to Ward and Kent’s Pair Programming BoF. Here I saw in practice the things I’d heard Ward, Kent and others talk about: TDD, Pairing, Refactoring, Doing the Simplest Thing, User Stories, System Metaphor and more. I went back to work, full of fire, and managed to convince a sceptical manager that there was a better way of delivering software than what we were currently doing. Since then I’ve been an eXtreme Programmer.

In 1999 I started my first consultancy business and XP was at the heart of our development process and some of our business practices too. But we didn’t talk about it … we couldn’t because the “extreme” word worried people and the mention of such outlandish practices as Programming in Pairs and Writing the Tests First merely confirmed their view we were mad. In other words we did’t sell XP, we sold the outcome of an eXtreme approach to software delivery.

In 2001 the announcement of the Agile Manifesto left me bemused. By this point we were talking about XP and using it with big teams on big projects. Even though there were still customers who thought what we said we could do was “impossible”, that Pairing was “two people doing one person’s job” and so on we had enough of a track record to point to, as well as the experience of others, to overcome the scepticism. I could see where the Agile Manifesto was coming from, and had no doubts about the good intentions of the authors, I just couldn’t really relate the set of value statements to what we were doing: selling the delivery of software in a way that out-performed other projects by every measure. And to be clear, we were selling the delivery of software, not training people, not offering qualifications, not consulting, delivering software.

By 2004 the “Agile” word was in common usage. It was useful to short-cut a lot of the explanation about what we did by talking about an “Agile process”. It was easier to gain acceptance of what we did because this nice fuzzy word was a synonym for good software delivery. But this was also the time that the bigger consultancies started to rebrand what they did as “Agile”, that I started to meet people who described themselves as “coaches”, that I heard about the idea of being certified as a practitioner (I knew people who thought I was certifiable as a practitioner but that was a different thing altogether).

Now in 2010 I can’t help but hope this whole Agile thing has run its course. It was always a somewhat meaningless word anyway (as Mark Stringer once tweeted, “… ask people if their company’s Agile, nobody’s gonna say – oh no, we’re lethargic and arthritic”) but now the people who seem to be talking about it most are those that make money by selling the process, not the outcome. They sell coaching, process improvement, training, certification, tools, people, ‘value’, blah, blah, blah, but very rarely do they actually sell software delivery. You know, as in “we’ll deliver this software” as opposed to “we’ll help you deliver software”.

And that’s okay. I have nothing against people peddling Agile as a way of making money (and, mea culpa, for a brief period in 2008 I did a bit of this too). It’s just that it no longer has anything to do with what I do. I recently sat in front of a customer’s project manager – a very smart and reasonable person – and accidentally used the A-word when describing how we were going to deliver our product and required customisations to them, and they sneered.

They actually snorted in disgust.

When I then explained we would get them live and using the base product quickly, followed by weekly incremental improvements with regular reviews and plenty of opportunity for rework they were very happy.

But they didn’t see any connection between the two things.

Many years ago I tried to explain the concept of small-a architecture in software to a conference in Manchester. This was the idea (from Bruce Anderson) that every software system has an architecture than needs to be understood and cared for. Which is very different from what was considered Software Architecture at the time: people who hadn’t written a line of code in many years drawing lots of boxes and connecting them up in ininteresting ways to hand over to the poor schmucks who actually have to implement the thing.

It’s tempting to champion the concept of small-a agile: achieving agility rather than being Agile. But, do you know what? I can’t be arsed. Because its not about being agile/Agile or achieving agility, or being lean/Lean and efficient , its about delivering software. And I figure the best way to champion that is actually just to get better at doing it.

So, with a nod to Mr Stringer, I’d like to say “I’m not Agile” … I just deliver software.


2 thoughts on “I’m not Agile, just a little eXtreme

  1. Chris Pitts

    I would be careful about jumping to too many conclusions. In my experience, becoming a coach has been the ONLY way to get the leverage to sanitise the development process enough to actually deliver value in the vast majority of cases.

    1. pauldyson Post author

      I’m not entirely sure what conclusions you think I’m jumping to other than that I’m not part of the agile/Agile community/movement/bandwagon. To be clear: I’m not. However your comment confirms a lot of what I think is wrong about the Agile community/movement/bandwagon today.

      “Becoming a coach has been the ONLY way … to actually deliver value …”.

      That’s my problem with the growing Cult of Coaching in a nutshell. By badging and certifying individuals, and peddling the myth that the ONLY way a team can improve their software delivery practice is by hiring one of these individuals, the Agile community is pandering to an age old conceit: the ONLY way to make a change is to hire an expert.

      I ran consultancies for 13 years so I know how powerful an external change agent can be when an organisation really wants to change and the agent really does know how to help them effect that change. But I also know that there are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there and that there are many people in organisations who are only too happy to buy snake oil. “Look”, they say to their bosses, “you said we had to be more agile and now we have 3 CSMs and we do daily stand ups. I even know the difference between pigs and chickens. Can I have my bonus now please?”.

      I’m not saying there are no good coaches or that coaching has nothing to offer a team in need of help with a real desire to improve. The handful of coaches I know came out of the very early XP projects and businesses and I know they not only have great experience of delivering software using XP, but have also reflected on that experience and how others can benefit from it.

      But take a look around you. How many of the Agile Coaches today have worked on two or three genuinely successfull agile projects – where agility was achieved and the dev team delivered real business to a delighted customer – BEFORE badging themselves as coaches? How many really have that experience to draw on versus how many have got their CSM certificate and can answer all the questions on the PMI ‘how agile are you’ questionnaire?

      Now that the government has publicly declared its interest in Agile, how long do you think it will be before KPMG has an Agile Coaching Practice (for all I know it already does) with 3000 trained and certified coaches? How will the ‘real’ coaches – I assume you consider yourself one of those – differentiate themselves?

      But, to return to the real thrust of the original post, I only have a problem with this in a very notional way. It saddens me that what started as a grass roots movement – a movement I was lucky enough to have played a small part in when it was still very much grass roots – is now such big business that all the interests of big business (standardisation, commoditisation, economies of scale) have come to dominate. But this has very little effect on me personally … I’ve never sold coaching, I no longer sell bespoke software delivery or troubleshoot failing projects, I’m not part of the agile community, I just build a software product using old-school XP.


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