Coconut Headphones: Why Agile Has Failed
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The 2001 agile manifesto was an attempt to replace rigid, process and management heavy, development methodologies with a more human and software-centric approach. They identified that the programmer is the central actor in the creation of software, and that the best software grows and evolves organically in contact with its users.
My first real contact with the ideas of agile software development came from reading Bob Martin’s book ‘Agile Software Development’. I still think it’s one of the best books about software I’ve read. It’s a tour-de-force survey of modern (at the time) techniques; a recipe book of how to create flexible but robust systems. What might surprise people familiar with how agile is currently understood, is that the majority of the book is about software engineering, not management practices.
So what happened? Why is agile now about stand-ups, retrospectives, two-week iterations and planning poker?
Somehow, over the decade or so since the original agile manifesto, agile has come to mean ‘management agile’. It’s been captured by management consultants and distilled as a small set of non-technical rituals that emerged from the much larger, richer, but often deeply technical set of agile practices.
It’s often said that ‘bad agile’ resembles a cargo cult. James Shore has an excellent post, Cargo Cult Agile, that describes how rigid adherence to the ritualistic forms of agile methodologies closely resemble South Pacific cargo cults:
“The tragedy of the cargo cult is its adherence to the superficial, outward signs of some idea combined with ignorance of how that idea actually works. In the story, the islanders replicated all the elements of cargo drops--the airstrip, the controller, the headphones--but didn't understand where the airplanes actually came from.
I see the same tragedy occurring with Agile.”
Current non-technical agile practitioners still don’t understand where the airplanes come from. They stand in their bamboo control towers with their coconut headphones on and wonder why their software projects still fail.
Agile has indeed become a cargo cult. Stripped of actual software engineering practices and conducted by ‘agile practitioners’ with no understanding of software engineering, it merely becomes a set of meaningless rituals that are mostly impediments and distractions to creating successful software.
The core problem is that non-technical managers of software projects will always fail, or at best be counter productive, whatever the methodology. Developing software is a deeply technical endeavour. Sending your managers on an agile course to learn how to beat developers over the head with planning poker, two week iterations and stand-ups will do nothing to save spaghetti code and incompetent teams. You might have software projects that succeed despite the agile nonsense, but that would be coincidence, not causation.
Because creating good software is so much about technical decisions and so little about management process, I believe that there is very little place for non-technical managers in any software development organisation. If your role is simply asking for estimates and enforcing the agile rituals: stand-ups, fortnightly sprints, retrospectives; then you are an impediment rather than an asset to delivery.
Please don’t put non-technical managers in charge of software developers.
I don’t have an answer, or an alternative methodology to offer you, but here are some things that any software development organisation must address:
- The skills and talents of individual programmers are the main determinant of software quality. No amount of management, methodology, or high-level architecture astronautism can compensate for a poor quality team.
- The motivation and empowerment of programmers has a direct and strong relationship to the quality of the software.
- Hard deadlines, especially micro-deadlines will result in poor quality software that will take longer to deliver.
- The consequences of poor design decisions multiply rapidly.
- It will usually take multiple attempts to arrive at a viable design.
- You should make it easy to throw away code and start again.
- Latency kills. Short feedback loops to measurable outcomes create good software.
- Estimates are guess-timates; they are mostly useless. There is a geometric relationship between the length of an estimate and its inaccuracy.
- Software does not scale. Software teams do not scale. Architecture should be as much about enabling small teams to work on small components as the technical requirements of the software.
Because the technical and motivational aspects of software development are so key, I’m very intrigued by the zero-management approaches of organisations such as Valve and GitHub. I thoroughly recommend reading the Valve employee handbook and Michael Abrash’s blog. Maybe that’s the way forward? The original agile manifesto was very much about self organizing teams, it would be great if we could get back to that. In the meantime, the word ‘agile’ has become so abused, that we should stop using it.