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The Real Origins of Agile

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The Real Origins of Agile

As a member of the software development community, you probably think that you know about the origins of Agile; but do you, really?

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In February 2001, 17 people met at the Snowbird ski resort in Utah. They were the leading exponents of extreme programming, Scrum, and adaptive software development, and they were seeking a set of compatible values based on trust, respect, and collaboration.

They wanted to make software development easier, and they found it in the form of a manifesto. (Their only concern was that the term describing the manifesto came from a Brit and they weren’t sure how to pronounce it.)

The Agile Manifesto was, however, born:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

Working software over comprehensive documentation.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

Responding to change over following a plan.

While they saw value in the items on the right, they valued the items on the left more.

All of this is pretty impressive and it's become part of the myth and folklore of Agile. It's seen as the key to the door that opened up faster, leaner, better software development. It kind of made it sexy, too. A bunch of mavericks holed up in Snowbird in Utah, plotting against the suits, the corporate slave-drivers, the nemeses of the galaxy; you get the picture.

There's a problem, a big problem. One about the size of the USA's first ever jet fighter.

The Skunk in the Room

Step in, Kelly Johnson. You've probably never heard of him, but he was one of the most influential figures in 20th-century aircraft design. In 1943, he was Chief Research Engineer at Lockheed and he was given the task of developing a jet fighter to counter the growing threat from Germany.

What's this got to do with Agile? Everything. Bear with me here. A "wow" moment is on the way.

Kelly Johnson put together a hand-picked team who worked out of a circus tent because Lockheed was so busy building other aircraft for the American war effort and, in just 143 days, the XP-80 Shooting Star was designed and built.

That circus tent was the beginning of what was to become known as the Skunk Works at Lockheed which, under Kelly Johnson, was to go on and develop further revolutionary aircraft like the U-2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird.

It Ain't What You Do, It's the Way That You Do it

What's important here isn't the XP-80, or the U-2 spy plane, or even the founding of the Skunk Works. It's the way Kelly Johnson worked. He had 14 rules of management which you can still read on the Lockheed Martin website.

Remove the ones about security, program funding, performance-related pay, and military requirements. Four remain that refer directly to how work was organized:

  1. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted. Use a small number of good people; compared to the so-called normal systems.

  2. A minimum number of reports, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.

  3. Mutual trust between the military and the contractor with very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis.

  4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes.

These are actually number three, number five, number twelve, and number four of Kelly's rules, but I've deliberately re-ordered them because a funny thing happens if you compare them with the Agile Manifesto:

Introduced in 1943 Introduced in 2001

Use a small number of good people.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.               

A minimum number of reports, but important work recorded.

Working software over comprehensive documentation.

Very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

A very simple system with great flexibility for making changes.

Responding to change over following a plan.

So, before anyone in that meeting in Snowbird, Utah, was even born, the Agile Manifesto they would create 58 years later was already, in effect, in existence. Wow. That's a bit of a brain-flip.

Does It Really Matter?

Actually, yes. Rather than decrying the Agile Manifesto, it strengthens it. It demonstrates that the values behind Agile aren't just the result of some pie-in-the-sky thinking from a bunch of people out of touch with business realities.

Instead, they were based on principles which had already been tried and tested in industry. Principles that had resulted in hugely successful product development. Principles that may well be a natural response to bureaucracy, rigid systems, and hierarchical management structures.

I found Kelly Johnson at Skunk Works, who fortunately wrote down his 14 rules of management. There are undoubtedly other historical examples; I'd love to hear about them if you know of them.

Importantly, if you're introducing Agile or outlining its advantages to a skeptical audience, remind them that it's been around for a lot longer than most people think.

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