Why IT Executives aren’t embracing Agile


Wille Faler has written an interesitng post Why IT Executives aren’t embracing Agile, referring in turn to another post on the same subject. Given my background, and my current role, I think I can comment on a technology executive’s opinion of agile processes.

Over the years I have worked on projects using a wide range of processes. Back in the eighties I worked on a team of very bright scientists, writing software primarily for their own use. We had almost no real development process (at best it was managed chaos). This was also one of the most successful software teams of which I have ever been a part. I do not think this is repeatable in most software development environments, because that particular environment had a number of unique characteristics:

  1. Really, Really smart people, especially in the domain in which we were working (satellite control).  
  2. Staff Retention: nobody ever left. When I joined the team, most of the people there had been there, working on the same code for 15+ years. Most had written the original versions of the code, and invented the algorithms.
  3. The developers were the users of the software – eliminating alot of problems of capturing requirements  and expectations. It is pretty hard to have unfulfilled expectations when you are writing software your own software.

Shortly after that, I was was involved in a large military project (10 years, billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of requirements). Needless to say, we had plenty of process. This was the epitome of the heavy process. Between the company I worked for, and the many subcontracting organizations, I was exposed to many flavours of software process (all of them heavy). I was also involved in ISO 9000 certificatiom programs, CMM assessments, 6-sigma programs and Design for Manufacturability programs (we did hardware, too). One of the things I learned in all of that was that you can have all the process in the world, and still fail. While having a strong software development process (whether it is heavy, agile, or otherwise) may vastly increase your chances of success, it by no mean guarantees it.

In the past 10 years, I have become a great proponent of “just enough process” – trying to take what I have learned from the heavy processes on the military projects, and apply what makes sense in a small, product-oriented environment, while leaving much of the “weight” behind. In the period from about 1998 through 2002 (the last time I directly managed development projects) I was greatly impressed with agile processes. While we never fanatically applied any of the agile methodologies, we did adopt many aspects, such as user stories, iterative incremental development, and test driven development. Some aspect just did not fit our environment (such as pair-programming). We had a fair amount of success using this approach, and many aspects of agile development are still in use.

Getting back to the topic at hand (why IT executives do not embrace Agile processes), from my perspective, agile processes are definitely viable and advantageous in certain contexts. Also, “heavy” processes certainly do not guarantee success. My feeling is that there is a time and place for both kinds of process. As in most things, it is important to have a number of tools at your disposal, and to have the knowledge of when it is appropriate to use these tools. Remember, an idea is a dangerous thing when it is the only one you have (didn’t I use that a couple of days ago?).

For example, I think it is entirely innappropriate to use “heavy” processes in small, commercial product development. Similarly, as an IT executive, I would be extremely hesitant to use an Agile process on a large, complex development project, because I have not seen sufficient evidence of the viability of the approach.

It all comes down to using the right tools in the right situations.

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About

I have been working in the world of technology for 25-odd years. I am an entrepreneur and consultant, focused on software solutions, social networking, and innovation processes. Currently, I am a Principal Consultant with T4G Limited, specializing in Portal Technologies (including SharePoint), software/systems development, service oriented architectures, and many other things which I will probably not remember until I need to use them. Prior to that, I was VP of Technology at Whitehill Technologies, Inc., where I spent almost 9 years helping to grow the company from a start-up to one of the most successful private software companies in Canada. Prior to that I worked on internet conferencing using early VoIP, and on large military communications projects. Before even that, I worked in satellite control, and remote sensing. Going way back to university, my focus was on theoretical physics and astrophysics. Currently my interests revolve around most aspects of software development, from technologies to management, and in the area of defining sustainable, repeatable processes for innovation within technology organizations. I also have a particular interest in Tablet PC technologies – I have been using one for several years, and I love it. On the personal side, I still have a strong interest in all aspects of science, especially physical sciences, as well as philosophy and comparative religion. In addition, I am into music, playing guitar (badly, I am sorry to say), and reading almost anything I can lay my hands on. I am also a member of the IEEE/IEEE Computer Society, and of the Association for Computing Machinery.

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6 comments on “Why IT Executives aren’t embracing Agile
  1. […] has led me to what I have referred to previously as just enough process (I know I am not the first to use the term). The software development […]

  2. […] I have become a big fan of what I term "just enough process" (which I talked about in a previous post). Always use the right tools and processes for the right […]

  3. […] I have become a big fan of what I term “just enough process” (which I talked about in a previous post). Always use the right tools and processes for the right […]

  4. […] I’d like to launch a new concept, that I’ve stolen from elsewhere: “Just Enough Process”. Let me elaborate: All this talk of process is good, it is […]

  5. Fred says:

    Wille,

    This is true, no amount of process will make up for stupid people doing the work.

    however, on a large project you are always going to have a distribution of people of varying talents and abilities. One of the purposes of process is to make the performance of the team more predictable. Yes, this might frustrate the “top 10%”, and probably will not make the “bottom 10%” be much more useful. However, having the right process (not necessarily the heaviest or most complex) can make all those “average” people in the middle much more productive. Having the wrong process can make them perform like the bottom 10%.

    Maybe that is why a small team is easier to work with – you can hand pick “only the best” and just work it all out.

    Another issue with large projects is predicability when you have a greatly varying pool of talent. Sometimes it is more important to be predicable rather than optimal. It may be frustrating for those in the pool (especially for the over-achievers), but it may serve the organization better.

  6. Wille says:

    I’ve always been of the opinion that “smart, motivated people will work it out, including the appropriate level of process”.
    On the other end, no amount of process will ever save stupid people.

    ..which makes the never ending obsession with process all the more pointless. The obsession should be hiring and retaining the right people, not having the “right” process flow chart and number of boxes to tick.

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