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From Utah to Sri Lanka: Agile Grows Up

Chris Tepedino chronicles the growth of agile from its origins in a ski resort in northern Utah, to a research group in Italy, to organizations in Sri Lanka.

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In the winter of 2001, 17 software developers met at a ski resort in northern Utah, just miles from Salt Lake City. Their names are now synonymous with a movement that altered the software development landscape. New principles, a methodology built on collaboration and interaction, and a term that would resonate to the present day: Agile. 

Their manifesto contained 182 words and has since been translated into 68 different languages. The Manifesto for Agile Software Development advocated for a new perspective that would contrast greatly with the dominant methodologies of that time period—continuous delivery versus single delivery, iterations versus a single sequential process. Speed. Volatility. Results. 

It seemed like a novel idea, and it largely was—in America. The roots traced back to Japan, where car manufacturers like Toyota and Honda implemented lean development strategies to increase productivity. Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, professors at Hitotsubashi University, wrote "The New New Product Development Game" in 1986 and "unknowingly caused a worldwide transformation of software development...." 

Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, two of the signatories on the Manifesto, wrote that commendation of Nonaka and Takeuchi in The Scrum Papers, which defined and explained the Agile process. For them, scrum was a term that encompassed both the daily stand-up meetings where team members share goals and obstacles, sprints where it's important to not change the end date, and a sprint review—and then on to the next sprint. It's a continuous development model based on iterations, far from traditional top-down models of software development. It's also "cool." 

"Scrum is an Agile methodology that delivers software to customer and end users faster, better, and cooler," Sutherland writes. And he adds, "...coolness is a requirement at Google, Yahoo, and most software game companies. It must be highly suited to a creative approach to development of complex and innovative systems...." 

However, close to the time that Sutherland and Schwaber were writing The Scrum Papers, a question still needed to be answered. Anecdotal evidence had shown that implementing Agile for small to mid-sized projects could be successful. But would it work for a large-scale, mission-critical project? Three researchers from Utah State University attempted to find out. 

The case study took place in a company founded in 1978. There were 30 software developers and QA personnel and they were divided into five software development teams. The company specialized in sophisticated public safety software, such as electronic 911 dispatch, fire/emergency medical service, and jail management. 

It was rough at first—very rough. Twice as many bugs developed after implementing scrum and interviews revealed that developers had a tendency to complete tasks in a "quick and dirty way." Teams were not assembled correctly, as they were organized "without considering the knowledge and skills of developers." Microsoft Excel gave way to VersionOne. 

However, over time efficiency developed. Bug rates dropped, and moderate social gains were observed. There were net benefits when an employee helped a coworker, perhaps with a language the other did not know, and the sprint review meeting led to increased motivation and a desire to impress. 

Also: "...it is tempting to state that an autonomous Scrum team is ideal for efficient product management." 

That study was published in December of 2006, ten years from the present day. Since even then, the use of Agile and its application to software development teams has continued to grow. There are popular Agile blogs that spread knowledge from individuals who are considered leaders in the field. 

Paul Krill of InfoWorld quotes Scott Ambler, the then chief methodologist for agile and Lean at IBM Rational, who states, "It's had a pretty significant effect on the industry. You'd have a hard time these days trying to find people who don't want to be agile. [And] the expectations for success for agile and iterative seems to be measurably higher [than with traditional development]." 

The Agile Alliance, a nonprofit organization that offers membership and promotes initiatives for all things agile, quotes Joshua Kerievsky (of Modern Agile) as saying, "Modern agile is the result of courage, feedback, simplicity, communication and respect for people." 

Agile has been applied successfully to research groups in Maryland to Italy. A survey showed that the focus on collaborative techniques that agile requires help to improve stakeholder satisfaction and that agile overall enabled more productivity when developed software, and a higher quality product when it was delivered. Even organizations in Sri Lanka are getting into the act. 

In their 10th Annual State of Agile report, VersionOne surveyed 3,880 people in companies of various size all around the world. 95 percent of respondents said their organization practiced agile. 16 different types of organizations were included. Far from that winter of 2001 when 17 software developers met at a ski resort miles from Salt Lake City. 

"...unknowingly caused a worldwide transformation of software development...." 

At least one signatory would say so. 

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