Monday, February 8, 2010

Intro to Agile

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to present agile development to most of my team mates at Paragon. For some of them it was the first time being formally introduced to the concepts  and practices and I'm happy to say it seemed to go really well. I promised a followup post on my site summarizing what was covered and providing a copy of my slides. This is part one of that post. I will provide a copy of the slides on both posts but for this first post I'm only covering the first half of the presentation.

Agile is a state of mind

There's a misconception among a lot of developers that agile is the sum of the practices, tools and processes that make it up. In other words to many people agile is doing test drive development, pairing and working in sprints. The problem with this view is that it really misses the fundamental reason why agile came to be. In fact when the agile manifesto was written it explicitly included the phrase "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools."

Agile is about how we interact with our team and our customers. Agile is about how we embrace change. The tools we use to accomplish those goals are simply a means to an end.

There are four points that, to me, making up a successful agile team.

Delivering the right product at the right time

The right product is composed of the product that delivers the most business value to the customer. Agile teams do this by allowing the business to prioritize all the work and performing that work in priority order.

The right time is when the remaining tasks no longer convey a competitive advantage to the business. We identify when this is by showing the product to real people (users, business, stakeholders) as early as possible and acting on the feedback we receive from those people.

Focusing on Communication and Collaboration

Agile teams work in close quarters. All the members of the team (project management, development, testing and the business) should all be in close physical proximity if at all possible. This allows the free flow type communication that teams thrive on. It is true that remote teams can accomplish great things in an agile manner but collocated teams are preferred.

Agile teams work with an embedded business representative. Ideally this individual is an actual employee or stakeholder of the company the product is being built for. Unfortunately that isn't always possible. In their absence any individual who can make an authoritative decision on the functionality of the application and who can set task priority can represent the business. Regardless the customer needs to be involved in key planning meetings and demos.

We strive to create short feedback cycles. This means developers working closely with testers to test the code they write as it is completed. This also means working with our business customers to show them what we build as we build it and getting feedback on it. Short feedback cycles allow us to act on problems or inconsistencies and respond to shifting priorities quickly. "Throwing the code over the wall" to QA is no longer acceptable.

Finally we learn from the past. We constantly evaluate how we are doing and adapt quickly to make sure the project is successful.

Embracing Change (even late in the process)

Agile teams deliver what the business needs and not what they think they want.

Traditionally changing the requirements of a project in midstream is frowned upon. Its scope creep or against the design and makes our jobs as developers more difficult. We introduce elaborate change management processes to punish any poor business person who should dare change our requirements.

Agile teams move past that mentality. We recognize that as we build our customers product their priorities will change. As they see the progress we are making some items will become higher priority than other and sometimes entirley new areas of functionality will become apparent.

The result of embracing change is a happier customer and higher acceptance of the product. The real goal though is delivering the right product. We know its the right product because the customer has been involved the entire time, has shifted priorities as necessary and has told us that there is no more work to be done to deliver the benefit they need.

Deferring decisions till the last possible moment

We can't predict the future but we love to try. Agile teams defer decisions until they have as much information as possible to make the right one. Very rarely is this the beginning of the project. This means we generally don't write comprehensive design documents or requirements documents well in advance of the development process because we don't know enough to accurately write those documents.

As developers this means only introducing software design elements we need. Agile has a phrase for this - YAGNI or "You ain't gonna need it." Generally if we need something once we build it in the simplest way that could possibly work, if we need it again we refactor our solution to be more flexible or anticipate future changes.

To be continued

So the message of the first part of this presentation is that agile is inherently philosophical. It's how we look at a project and how we interact with our team.

In the next post I'll cover the second half of the presentation, which goes over some of the practices that are used to help run an agile project. If you want a sneak peek here's a copy of the slides.

Into to Agile (PDF)


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