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In Defense of Agile Development (and Their Ilk) September 21, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in development, Management.
Tags: , , , ,
10 comments

In my previous post I asked the question “why doesn’t Agile work?”. I’m not sure the nuance of the question came over correctly.

I’d just like to highlight that the question I asked was “Why does agile not work”. It was not “Why is Agile rubbish“. I’ve said a few times in the past couple of weeks that I like the ideology of Agile and I am (and have been for years and years) a strong proponent of prototyping, cyclic development, test driven design and many other things that are part of the Agile or XP methodologies.

That distinction in the title is a really important distinction and one I’d hoped I’d made clear in my post. Looking back at my post though, I think it is clear I failed :-(. I highlighted reasons why I think Agile does not work and in my head I was thinking “if we avoid these, Agile could work” – but when you write something down it does not matter what is in your head if it does not reach the paper.

I’m actually frustrated that in the last few years I have not seen Agile really succeed and also that this must be the normal situation, going on the response you get when the topic of Agile comes up with fellow technicians and comments on my own blog.

However, on that post about Agile two people who’s opinion I deeply respect came back at me to say “Agile does work!”. Cary Millsap, who many of you will have heard of as the “Method R” guy and the person behind Oracle Flexible Architecture. And Mike Cox, who most of you won’t have heard of but Mike taught me a lot about sensible development back in the 90’s. He’s one of the best developers I have ever had the pleasure of working with and I know he has had great success with Agile and RED. I’m not sure if they read my post as “Agile is Rubbish” or they are, like me, simply frustrated that it can work but so often does not.

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot this weekend and I was helped by Cary’s paper on the topic that he mentioned in his comment. I’d highly recommend downloading it as it is an excellent description of not only why Agile can help but describes how and some of the pitfalls {I’d started my own post on that, but go read Cary’s}. I should add, you can see Cary present his case for Agile at the UKOUG conference this year.

So where does this bring me to? Well, I think “Is Agile good or bad” has become almost an “IT religion” topic, people love it or loath it and it is based on what they have seen of the methodology in real life. No, that’s wrong, it is based on what they have seen that has been labelled with that methodology in real life. Or worse, it is based on anecdotal opinion of those around them. The thing is, if you look at what XP is supposed to consist of or what Agile Programming is supposed to consist of, most of us would agree that a great deal of it makes sense in many situations. I’d disagree with some of the details in Cary’s paper but overall I’m in strong agreement. Sadly, What Agile and XP is supposed to be is not well matched by what you see on the ground in most cases. So even if these methodologies are right for the situation, what has been implemented is not the methodology but probably more a slap-dash process that simply jettisons documentation, design and proper testing. This whole thread sprung from my lamenting the demise of database design and several of the comments highlighted that the introduction of Agile seemed to equate, at least in part, with the demise of design. As MIke and Cary say, and as I think anyone who has successfully utilized Agile would say, Design is an integral part of Agile and XP methodology.

Agile can and does work. But many things can and do work, such as taking regular exercise to keep healthy or regularly maintaining your house to keep it weathertight. Like Agile, both take effort but the overall benefit is greater than the cost. And like Agile, do it wrong and you can make things worse. If your window frames are starting to rot and you just slap a new layer of top-coat on them all you will do is seal in the damp and rot and hide the problem – until the glass falls out. Going for a regular 5 mile run is good for you – but not if you are 10 stone (60KG) overweight and have not run in years. A 5 mile run is also not a good idea if you want to be a long-jumper. Right training (methodology) for the right aim. Also, just like keeping healthy, house maintenance or anything that takes effort but works, proponents tend towards extremism – probably as a reaction to the constant {perceived} pig-headedness of critics or the failure of people to just do what now seems so sensible to them {think reformed smokers}. I’ll have to buy Cary and Mike pints to make up for that jibe now, and promise them it was not aimed at them personally…

Sadly, the reality is, Agile does not work 90% of the time it is tried. So, does that mean Agile is actually rubbish? Or at least, not fit for purpose, because many companies are not able to use it? Companies are there to achieve something and the IT systems are part of achieving that something. If Agile cannot aid that IT department then Agile is the wrong way for that department and company.

*sigh* I’ve gone on and on about this and still not got to my own main point, which is this.

- Can we identify reasons for Agile and XP Failing.
– Having identified the Reasons, can we fix them in simple ways?
– Can we create some simple guidelines as to when a project should be more Agile and when it should be more Up-Front design.

I’d love to know people’s opinions on those three points above.

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