Has Agile Hit Main Street?

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The first unified conference on Agile software development begins next week in Denver. Agile 2005, which succeeds XP/Agile Universe and the Agile Development Conference of the past, will showcase the latest Agile practices for programmers, architects and testers, but also for project managers, middle managers, customers and executives. This article poses the observation that when COOs, marketing VPs, and especially CEOs, start to show interest, we might wonder whether Agile has finally made it to Main Street.

So, is Agile being considered by everyone? With project failure a well-known beast, executives have been in search of solutions for many years. The CHAOS studies, begun in the 1990s, have continued to show software methodologies are not at all reliable or consistent in delivering what is needed according to the plan. (The best case is that IT organizations are not using their methodologies, so the error is not in the process itself). Anecdotal-and increasingly research- evidence is proving that Agile techniques are wildly successful in reducing time-to-market, increasing productivity and morale, and making customers happy. Naturally, executives have begun to notice.

But has Agile actually crossed Geoffrey Moore's famous chasm and made it to Main Street? We started with the technology enthusiasts of the mid- to late-1990s, then moved to the visionaries who adopted the Agile Manifesto in 2001, and more and more we are seeing the pragmatist executives who will be in attendance for this year's Executive Summit at Agile 2005.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development is a little more than four years old, having been signed in February 2001 at Snowbird, Utah by 17 revolutionaries. However, Agile methods were in development and used prior to that (and arguably before). The technology enthusiasts of this early period were dominated by a programmer mentality. Comprised mostly of hotshot developers, this group sometimes had a hard time seeing the value of management other than to provide "food and toys." Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP), Feature Driven Development, DSDM and Crystal were the most common at the time and remain viable today. OOPSLA conferences of the period began to buzz with discussions of Agile techniques that were the kind of thing a developer could love.

Pragmatists, however, don't care about labels or the leading edge methodology. They care about ROI and business value. Some of the early adopters may not like it, but the conversation has shifted over time to how can we make Agile work in today's business reality, with its offshoring and outsourcing, fixed price contracts, constant cost cutting, and managers and customers who focus only on business value -- not which side to take in the religious wars between rigorous-waterfall and Agile.

If the Agile conference is a microcosm of the state of Agile in the world, we can examine the evidence of where we are in relation to the chasm. Representative presentations this year include many areas: engineering practices (for example on FIT testing, pair programming, test-driven development, re-factoring), team practices (such as facilitation, collaboration, how to introduce new practices to a team), customer practices (negotiating Agile contracts, how to be a good product owner, collaborating with technical folks), manager practices (collaborative leadership, Agile project management), and business practices (value-based focus, metrics and performance measurement, outsourcing, and how to create an Agile organization). The sessions oriented toward developers and other technical people-key in an early adopter environment-remain plentiful, but clearly are not the majority of topics this year.

The two dominant "market players" have become Scrum and XP (with apologies to their founders for the competitive metaphor). As with many maturing markets, the players and their offerings are converging, with Scrum and XP sharing many practices together and gradually pealing off the most salient techniques from the lesser-known methods. The ultimate expression of this trend is that "homegrown Agile" is the label that most companies claim when asked what Agile methodology they employ. This is reflected in the conference program, with the titles of most presentations referencing Agile. XP and Scrum are distant seconds. No other major methodologies can be found in a title scan. Sounds like the proverbial "big tent" with room for everyone not just zealots. Such lack of differentiation may be anathema to some, but for pragmatists the Agile world now appears to be less risky.

The extreme example of this may be found in the day long Executive Summit session oriented toward "C" level executives, Agile methods may barely be referenced there, except by analogy. The conversation will focus on how to create an Agile organization, not an Agile software team. Agile results (rather than methods) are driving a changing conversation in the business. For instance, how do you compensate a sales force when customer collaboration may be more important to the firm than the dollar value of their sales? Or what happens to marketing and other customers when IT is no longer the bottleneck in software development? And how do we overhaul performance management and other systems oriented toward rewarding individual performance when we desire collaborative teams. The keynote speaker for the Summit-Lee Devin-is actually a Professor of Theatre, with no technical degrees or experience, but who has lessons from the world of the to share with the technology sphere. The executive panelists all have Cs in their title. If any of them do have development experience it most likely was in Fortran or Cobol, not Java.

For those of you wanting to sample the fare on the emerging Agile Main Street, better make plans for next year's conference in Minneapolis: except for the Executive Summit (which is a standalone session on Wednesday July 27), Agile 2005 sold out several weeks before it begins on July 25. Ten years into the Agile movement, it is clear that pitfalls lie ahead, but the chasm appears to be behind.

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