Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Reflections on XP Day

I have spent the last two days at the XP Day 2008 conference here in London. A very good conference and highly recommended. Unusually for me I wasn’t speaking at this one which made for a nice change. No worries about presentations, rooms and being in the right place at the right time.

I picked up a whole bunch of ideas, and had another bunch of thoughts. Before I forget them I want to quickly record them - some of these ideas are probably worth an entire blog on their own.

Multi-media keynotes: Both keynote speakers incorporated multi-media elements in their presentation. Jeff Patton included music and Yvonne Rogers video. I think this is a sign of two things: multi-media is becoming the norm; second, people are increasingly bored with the PowerPoint (’death by’) and presenter talking at you (chalk-and-talk) type presentations.

Media companies are more receptive to Agile: A lot of the people attending XP Day had connections with media companies, the BBC and BSkyB were both represented, as were set-top box manufactures, advertising companies and others in the media. Of course there were old industry (pharma, banks, etc.) there too but they have always around.

This is a trend I’ve observed elsewhere. It seems to me that media companies are more receptive to Agile software development than others. There are perhaps two forces at work here. Firstly media companies are fairly new to software as a key part of their business. Yes they always had IT systems but not as part of the product. Agile is the current ‘best practice’ when the BBC, Sky, etc. started to development it was already the norm.

Perhaps more importantly, the second force: media companies expect just in time delivery. You can’t delay the 6 O’clock news because it isn’t ready, you know well in advance you have 30 minutes to fill, and you have to prioritise. The nature of media companies is closer to Agile development so they are more receptive.

Process as a substitute for team work? Of cause Agile software development is all about development process and practice. But scratch deeper and everyone agrees development depends on good people and team working. In fact team working has got more important as software has got bigger and more complex.

It seems to me that a lot of what we call process is actually trying to substitute for team work. We spend time talking about the process rather than the team, we devise process rather than build teams. Somehow we expect the process to substitute for a good team.

Another Agile failure mode: I forget who mentioned this but someone pointed out that Agile teams often fall apart when someone leaves, particularly if that individual is forces to leave by redundancy. This kind of fits with my experience. When an Agile team works well the team bond. The departure of one person is likely to trigger others to leave of their own accord.

Agile Business: This is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot, so has Chris Matts and others. David Stoughton and Nick Coutts did a great session on the future of business. Not necessarily Agile but a lot of the trends they see in society and the economy suggest the successful business of tomorrow look a lot like Agile organizations.

One point that stuck in my mind above all else was the suggestion that we have moved from a supply economy to a demand economy. Rather than successful companies being those who could produce things the cheapest, and persuade the most people to buy them - a push system - the successful companies of the future will operate a pull system. They will produce what the customer wants, when the customer wants it. Rather than being cost driven they will be value driven.

For my money this was the best session at the conference.

Future of Agile: There are many many software development organizations that are a mess. A little bit of Agile can fix make a great improvement. Agile software development thinking has a long way to run and an awful lot of implementation to deliver. However, Agile has flaws.

One of these flaws is that if you examine in too closely it collapses. The Agile manifesto is actually pretty meaningless, nobody could really disagree with it. If you try and write down a high level value statement of what Agile delivers it sounds pretty much like all the other methodologies and tools that have proved to be snake-oil in the past. Even some of the Agile practices don’t stand up to examination, e.g. pair programming - most developer hate it! Retrospective? - most companies don’t do them.

Agile is still state-of-the-art, the best we have.

It is also a marketing term; a term that collects together a bunch of ideas and allows them to be labelled and grouped together. As a marketing term it is open to abuse.

Increasingly people are increasingly asking: what next?

The people asking this question most often are those with the most experience so some of this questioning is simply boredom, they are looking for the next thing. Some of it is very real and necessary.

(There is some excitement about a new Agile methodology called Kanban, I don’t know much about it and I don’t think this is the next big thing. Something here, but I haven’t had a chance to read it myself.)

So what next?

To me the next big thing will represent a break with Agile. The Agile community came from the Patterns community, Agile is not Patterns. The Patterns community came from the OO community. Patters are not OO. So we shouldn’t expect the next thing to be Agile+.

The next big thing will be People and Team. Software development always comes back to people. Each successive move (OO --> Patterns --> Agile) takes us closer to people. As I said above, sometimes we use process as a substitute, sooner or later we need to address the real issue.

The trick to improving your software development efforts is quite simple: improve your people. Expose them to new ideas, get them learning, help them put those new ideas and learning into action.


  1. Kanban (as I understand it) is not so much a process in itself, but a tool/technique used in Lean Manufacturing to enable Pull and limit Work in Process. The Yahoo Group at is one place to find
    out more abour Kanban Systems for Software Development.

  2. The People and Team aspect of change makes me think of the sort of group therapy that needs to take place for people to gradually become honest and gracious towards each other. There's a book called The Different Drum by M. Scott Peck which I've read and recommend but I'm sure there are many others. Agile as Therapy, perhaps. Has anyone thought of that? (actually I now look on the Agile Manifesto Signatories page and someone has)

  3. Some interesting thoughts. Your comment on most developers hating Pair Programming - this is contrary to my observation over 20 years in the industry! Yes we were doing it before Kent Beck, and Brooks was apparently doing it in the 50's. A colleague of mine is also using the technique and claims a much lower defect density. There are some quanitative studies that also claim better productivity etc with PP. Maybe you should look them up.


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