Wednesday, 19 November 2008

That's right: blame Agile

Before we start a small warning. This is a rant and as such contains certain properties common to rants such as emotionally overstating unimportant points, glossing over and confusing important ones, over decorative language and taking the odd innocent as victim.  Bearing this in mind please remember though serious my tongue is sometimes placed firmly in cheek for dramatic effect.

There has been a great debate happening over the airwaves of the blogosphere recently. Sparked of by James Shore's post The Decline and Fall of Agile it has gotten to some people declaring the death of agile and others calling for the rejection of the term altogether [link]. It's as if the Nazi party has just announced that the Third Reich was built on Scrum and suddenly everyone is trying to distance themselves: "no we never agreed with that agile stuff, what we were talking about is something completely different".

Around the same time another debate is picking up steam started by Roy Osherove's post Goodbye Mocks, Farewell Stubs. Apparently people find testing too difficult to grok so we need to reject terms like mocks and stubs ('cos though accurate they are apparently confusing) and replace it with another: Fakes. Oh the glaring irony as one side of the movement is rejecting marketing terms because too many people who use it don't know what it means while the other side try to introduce more marketing language to attract the people who don't know what it means.

Uncle Bob has dropped in like Batman at the Jokers party and delivered his direct, powerful blow: "the problem is you're all f*ing lazy". Although I feel that Uncle Bob is much closer to the truth than many other commentators he's not really offering a realistic solution out of the mess.

So what exactly is the problem we've got here? Both of these posts have something in common. James Shore's issue stems from teams picking up words like Scrum and Sprint and forgetting that they have to write decent code as well. Roy Osherove's post stems from the fact that getting teams to even write tests is met with constant failure. Both posts talk about a general lack of engineering skill in IT. In reaction different parties are offering up different solutions but they all fail to address the core issue.

For those jumping the agile ship and getting onto the next coolest speedboat what exactly is that going to prove? Rather than improving the industry it leaves it helpless and sinking. This is a rotten attitude that resolves nothing: when every PHP and VB programmer converts to Ruby what you gonna do then? Oh it's OK Ola's writing Ioke and if that doesn't work we've always go Lisp (they'll never get that). Roy Osherove's solution of lowering barriers to entry is more commendable but will achieve just as little and is guilty of another great crime: dumbing down (though he's spot on about tool support). I don't think the solution to poor engineering skills are to withdraw important technical terms: can you imagine the Bar rebranding legal terms because, y'know Lawyers just find it too difficult to understand this stuff or Doctors calling for less names for the organs 'cos med students these days just can't get the point of having the terms stomach and intestine and they keep operating on the wrong one. Why can't we just call it the food processor? Jay Fields' novel idea is to ask them all to politely leave  (50% of them in fact). And if they don't? Well then I guess we'll all get together and go around with a big seal club and sort it out that way (it's what I refer to as "The Great Culling" - there's those Nazi's marching past again).

The real problem, the root cause to all this is simple (and on this most agree especially Uncle Bob and Jay): the gross under valuing of the skills which enable you to do your job. The thing is it's nothing new. It was there before agile and TDD had the impact they do today (they just laughed then). Remember those not so long ago days when people thought the solution to delivering software wasn't skills or focus on quality but getting some glorified secretary to type up several hundred pages of requirements and then handing them to some supposed genius to design everything for the monkeys to punch in? Well we're still there people: it's just they thought the solution to the mess that disaster caused was to do something called iterations, standing up and getting the monkeys to skip around the genius guy wrapping him in his own ribboned UML diagrams chanting "architect, architect, architect".

Nothing's changed, agile or not. The majority of the industry still doesn't value the basic, fundamental skills it takes to write software of acceptable quality. It didn't before and it still doesn't now. Instead it's obsessed with solving the problem by bringing in the right highly paid manager with the right powerpoint presented methodology. Until the industry gets that ain't the way it will drag every shining beacon of light (agile, Ruby whatever) down into Hades with it.

Writing software is about people People! That's what agile and Lean and all their friends tell you again and again. The fundamental principles are about people, not iterations, continuous integration and story boards. Go check out the Agile Manifesto and tell me where you see any of that stuff? This bastard form of agile which only talks about tools and processes is like someone got the manifesto and spun it round (People OVER Process read it Again). The practices and tools are there to actively encourage developers who are skilled, committed and know what they're doing and make them more empowered and productive and ultimately deliver MORE value and success, they are not there to replace them.

So what is the solution? The simple truth is that those of us who understand the problem have got to keep doing a great job, we've got to help those who want to do a great job but aren't sure how to do a great job and we've got help those who don't understand how to do a good job and may never will and may not even want to. Sure it's depressing sometimes, it's frustrating but we can't just give up on the industry and jump away on the next term or simply dumb the whole thing down so the next generation can get it a little more but ultimately still fail to get it.

Agile was never, is never going to be an quick, faultless success forever preserving an eternal purity. Our industry is sick, real sick. It's a beer guzzling, chain smoking, couch potato who's been told by his doctor to eat healthily, give up smoking and booze and get some exercise but instead just swallows the agile pill and hopes that's enough to save his sorry fat arse. And surprise surprise when the casualties start coming in their gonna blame those pills.

We have generation after generation bought up on bad practices and incorrect assumptions (smoking isn't bad for you, exercise gives you heart attacks) and what's worse most of them don't even know how bad things are: they think this is NORMAL (sadly because IT IS), they've adjusted to a certain degree of failure. IT projects are like lifts: sure your pissed off there broken down but your not surprised, you even kinda expected it.

The mess is big and it's gonna take years to sort it out and a lot of hard work. And yes, along the way people are going to buy the agile weight loss pill from some dodgy site on the Internet without seeking professional advice, get it wrong. And why? Because they're desperate!

It was totally delusional to think agile was going to result in everyone suddenly rejecting their bad habits and come crawling on their knees and go XP Kosher. And when that didn't work well there's always the prophesy of the True agile warriors standing in the post-apocolyptic world looking down on the dying as the last breath of those Tragic Lost sigh the now infamous regretful words "we wish we'd read our Domain Driven Designs". Well don't worry because to become agile all you have to do is close your eyes and say "please Kent forgive us our hacks and deliver us not into Waterfall" and mean it, really mean it, and wait, above the mountain there what's that? is it who I think it is? It is: the heavens are open and Martin Fowler is ascending into them.

Let's get real here: developers who have never come across TDD before, who've never experienced it's value first hand, who've spent years doing things a certain way are struggling to grasp the concept and oh sorry that's surprising why? I guess you were doing TDD from that first Hello World in Pascal? And those people who go in and try Scrum for the first time and find they are riddled with technical debt because gave into pressure and didn't invest in quality. Now stand up and be counted all you who never made that mistake.

I'm not saying that we should just let these things go, hold our noses, ignore the smells and step over the shit. Quite the opposite. But we've got to accept that we're not going to walk into a room of professionals and get them to convert overnight (or year or possibly even decade). How many years did it take before doctors accepted germ theory and started washing their hands?

Though there is hope: the most effective weapon we have is success. By being successful and then telling people about why and how we were successful. That's how this whole agile thing started, that's how it built up it's great reputation and that's how it's going to survive and get better. The more success the more people will start to realize that what they're doing now isn't as good as they think. Right now not testing, not caring about quality, high technical debt: that's the norm, that's expected. Keep being successful and people will start asking the others those awkward questions: why does this application crash when my last team were virtually bug free, why does it take a weekend to get a release out when my last team did it in a few minutes? Why does it take six months to implement a new feature when my last team took a week? What do you mean there are ramifications and complications? The more we deliver quality software the less room people will have to worm out of those questions and then the tipping point will come.

Let's not be mistaken, it's going to be hard work: but isn't that the whole point? Writing software is hard, agile doesn't change that and at first TDD certainly doesn't. Yes it's frustrating and somedays you really want to scream and kick in the can but what's the alternative IT ghettos sucking in grads and with no way out?

If, in the years to come, we want to work in a different industry then we've got to take some responsibility for helping create it.


Robin Clowers said...

Great post, I really think you hit the nail on the head. I'm realizing that my company's Scrum effort is ineffective because of a fundamental skill problem, not because we are doing Scrum wrong or because it does not work.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. Really echoes everything that's been on the tip of my tongue but haven't been able to put my finger on.

About Me

My photo
West Malling, Kent, United Kingdom
I am a ThoughtWorker and general Memeologist living in the UK. I have worked in IT since 2000 on many projects from public facing websites in media and e-commerce to rich-client banking applications and corporate intranets. I am passionate and committed to making IT a better world.