Friday, October 10, 2008

Is doing Agile like having a jam session?

This post opens what I hope will become a series of posts on Agile in general and Distributed Agile in particular; about challenges adopting Agile in a geographically diverse environment; about injecting Agile in originally CMMI-oriented environment; all about running Agile with offshore. And to open a series I felt like I needed a metaphor, something to describe Agile in a new fashion, something fancy .

Yesterday I happened to be dragged into a chat in the office of one of our executives mangers (Alex, sales and marketing). People were talking about how to better position our experience and expertise in Agile.

Alex suddenly asked me a question:

- ok. so tell me. what do you do differently in your job [running projects and saving projects that are not going that well, to put it short] when you do it Agile? explain a fundamental difference to me without software jargon terms, make me understand it.

Then he paused and looked straight into my eyes. I felt like I really needed to explain it, and I wanted to explain it.

Think about it. There's no straight answer to this question. Agile manifesto declares principles that don't make (force) project teams do something fundamentally different from a "regular" (plan-based) approach. Iterative, continuous, open, transparent, collaborative, backlog, priorities, changes, test-driven, etc. - all this can be equally true regardless of the approach. I mean, we exploit all these techniques even in a big corporate high-profile, highly-political, and thus heavy on governance and formal processes accounts. None of this was the answer I was going to give...

- Hm... here's what I do different. I am actually always doing it but Agile setup just makes it very natural. Imagine me communicating with my customer (business representative, business analyst, architect, anybody) about requirements and priorities. I would listen to what they're telling me and actively engage in the conversation by running a funny background process in my head. I would convert what I'm hearing into a software abstraction, that is how would I build it. This abstraction is a very abstract abstraction - assumption-based pseudo architecture. It's like if I hear that there's a format conversion I can think "make it XML, there's always an XML-2-XML, we're done. doesn't matter if we end up doing it completely different, enough to know there's a viable approach that makes sense to me now." Or when I hear there's a report and tabular data I think "make it a relational model and I'll query it out, then slice and dice, we're done". And so on. If I couldn't build an abstraction I would ask for more details. Once I have a fuzzy abstraction that I'm comfortable with (I just need to feel it's feasible) I convert it back to the business functions to see the gaps in what I ended up with and what I was hearing in the first place. And here I would challenge the gaps and clarify the concept, redo the conversion, and go on and on in cycles. It's like I'm always actively thinking and building software in my mind as requirements get progressively elaborated on. I do the same in plan-based environment too, but I do it offline (!). In Agile environment I do it online. That's the difference.

And Alex gave me the metaphor I very much liked:

- so it's like jamming, like a jazz band having a jam session, true ?

here you go. It is like a Jam session, don't you think? The only thing is: you've got to be a damn good musician to do a remarkable jam session...


Anonymous said...

To jam you need to be on a par with others in the band, to feel them and to be able to flex :)
There can be 2 absolutely ingenious musicians but it may happen they will not fit to jam. So the key is the proper band. It can open any door.
Agile... is like baking cookies for your clients... but baking at their homes together with them.

Alex Romanovich said...

Good analogies. Music, cookies - I like it! Indeed, to be a good 'Agile' programmer, marketer, or businessman, you need to be good to begin with, have experience of working in a team setting, and have excellent peripheral vision. But that's what a good developer is anyway. As well as a good musician. If you don't feel the code, or notes, or the market, you can't take advantage of the Agile environment. in music, you always have a lead anyway - it's the one setting the tone (or a conductor), maybe a SCRUM Master in development, etc.