Is agile only for elites?
I’m back from the ESRI Developer Summit. While suffering from severe jet lag I’ve spent the last couple of days in slow reflection. The biggest impact the conference had on me was a keynote held by Alan Cooper.
Early in his talk he put me in a defensive mode by stating that agile processes are bad for developing quality software. Alan means that the idea of little or no upfront design is ridiculous and will result in either expensive development costs or crappy software.
Instead he believes in having all outstanding uncertainties removed with a thorough and detailed design, thus developing a “blueprint” for a production team to follow. Additionally, in opposition to the agile manifesto, change is nothing he seems to embrace.
Most business executives believe that writing production code is a good thing. They assume that getting to production coding early is better than getting to it later. This is not correct. Writing production code is extremely expensive and extremely permanent. Once you’ve written it, it tends to stay written. Any changes you might make to production code are 1) harmful to the conceptual integrity of the code, and 2) distracting and annoying to the programmers. Annoying your programmers is more self-destructive to a company than is annoying the Board of Directors. The annoyed programmers hold your company’s operations, products, and morale in the palms of their hands.
So he wants us to go back to Waterfall. Doesn’t that give me the right to discard his thoughts without further reflection? No, I don’t think so.
It’s easy to forget that the “traditional” development processes were not created to make our lives as developers miserable. They emerged from common knowledge of that time, and they were formulated to address real problems. We would be foolish to disregard that experience from the past.
Let me be clear with one thing. I don’t agree with Alan. I do believe we can produce high quality software with agile methods, where design evolves with the production code. But I did, after my initial defensive reflex, find his perspective refreshing.
Alan’s talk is not published anywhere, but the general ideas are documented on his company’s website.
Software construction is slow, costly, and unpredictable.
Unpredictable is by far the nastiest of these three horsemen of the software apocalypse. Unpredictable means 1) you don’t know what you are going to get; and 2) you won’t get what you want. In badness, slow and costly pale in comparison to unpredictable.
The key, it seems, is vanquishing unpredictability, which means determining in advance what the right product design is, determining the resources necessary to build it, and doing so. As the airline pilots say, “Plan your flight, and fly your plan.”
Alan’s solution to the development problems of today is to divide work into three separate fields of responsibilities, something he calls “The Triad”.
Interaction design is design for humans, design engineering is design for computers, and production engineering is implementation. Recognizing these three separate divisions and organizing the work accordingly is something I call “The Triad.” While it cannot exist without interaction designers, it depends utterly on teasing apart the two kinds of engineering which today, in most organizations, are almost inextricably linked. It will take some heroic efforts to segregate them.
Collaboration with the customer (or users), as the agile methodologies suggest, is out of the question according to Alan. Why let the least qualified make the most important decisions, he reasons. Instead, Alan Cooper advocates the use of interaction designers (HCI experts). Thus, he identifies three key roles: design engineers, production engineers and interaction designers.
Production engineers are good programmers who are personally most highly motivated by seeing their work completed and used for practical purposes by other people. Design engineers are good programmers who are personally most highly motivated by assuring that their solutions are the most elegant and efficient possible.
Interaction designers’ motivations are very similar to those of design engineers, but interaction designers are not programmers. Although most programmers imagine that they are also excellent interaction designers, all you have to do to dissuade them of this mistaken belief is to explain that interaction designers spend much of their time interviewing users.
Alan doesn’t rule out agile methods completely. He thinks they have a place, but only as a part of the design process.
Currently there is a pitched battle raging in the programmer world between conventional engineering methods and Agile methods. What neither side sees is a path of reconciliation; where Agile and conventional methods can effectively coexist. Providentially, the Triad reconciles them very well. The lean, iterative, problem-solving work of the software design engineer is the archetype of Agile programming. The purposeful, methodical construction work of the production engineer is the quintessence of conventional software engineering, particularly the type espoused by disciples of Grady Booch’s Rational Unified Process, or RUP. Both methods are correct, but only when used at the correct time and with the correct medium.
Despite Alan’s thought provoking keynote, I’m still a believer of agile methods for the whole development process. I think it’s possible to build rigid software with little upfront design, a readiness for change, rapid feedback and customer collaboration. The problem I see is that it demands a lot more from us developers. Knowing the language and how to program the platform is no longer enough. We need system and interface design skills, as well as social skills. We also need to master important but difficult techniques like unit testing and code refactoring.
Maybe agile is only for teams of elites?