5 Questions on Agile Development

  1. Posted on October 8, 2007 12:37:PM by Steve McConnell to 10x Software Development
  2. Methods & Processes, Agile

PM*Boulevard interviewed me earlier this summer about Agile development. Below I've excerpted the PM*Boulevard interview, updated some of my answers, and added a little additional commentary.

5Qs on Agile with Steve McConnell
Readers of Software Development magazine once named Steve McConnell one of the three most influential people in the software industry. The CEO and Chief Software Engineer at Construx Software, Steve has generously agreed to kick off our "5Qs on Agile" feature by answering the following five often-asked questions about Agile development.

Q1: Why use Agile methods?
Agile methods focus on shorter iterations, in which the software is brought to a releasable level of quality fairly often, usually somewhere between weekly and monthly. Short iterations provide numerous technical and management benefits. On the technical side, the main benefit is reduced integration risk because the amount of software being integrated is kept small. Short iterations also help to keep quality under control by driving to a releasable state frequently, which prevents a project from accumulating a large backlog of defect correction work. On the management side, the frequent iterations provide frequent evidence of progress, which tends to lead to good status visibility, good customer relations, and good team morale.

Agile methods also usually treat requirements as more dynamic than traditional methods do. For some environments that's a plus and for some it's a minus. If you're working in an environment that doesn't need a lot of long range predictability in its feature set, treating requirements dynamically can save a lot of detailed requirements specification work and avoid the "requirements spoilage" that often goes along with working through a lengthy backlog of detailed requirements.

Q2: What is the biggest challenge when implementing Agile methods?
The biggest challenge we see in our consulting and training business is walking the walk. You can't just say you're doing Agile. You have to follow through with specific actions. Of course that's the same problem we saw years ago with object oriented methods, and before that with structured methods, so that problem isn't unique to Agile.

The most common specific challenges we see are simply the challenges of "turning the battleship" in a large organization to overcome the inertia of entrenched work practices and expectations and getting reoriented to do things in a different way. You have to muster the resolve to actually work in short iterations. You have to build frequently, at least every day, and you have to develop the discipline to keep the build healthy. You have to push each iteration to a releasable level of quality even if that's hard to do at first. As before, this problem isn't unique to Agile. If we're working with an organization and find that their biggest need is to do a better job of defining requirements up front (which isn't very agile), "turning the battleship" to define better requirements up front will be just as hard.

Q3: In what environments will Agile be most successful?
Full-blown Agile seems to me to be best suited for environments in which the budget is fixed on an annual basis, team sizes are fixed on an annual basis (because of the budget), and the project staff's mission is to deliver the most valuable business functionality that they can deliver in a year's time with a fixed team size. This mostly describes in-house, business systems dev organizations.

Full-blown agile (especially the flexible requirements part) is less-well suited to companies that sell software, because maintaining a lot of requirements flexibility runs counter to the goal of providing mid-term and long-term predictability. We've found that many organizations value predictability more than they value requirements flexibility. That is, they value the ability to make commitments to key customers or to the marketplace more than they value the ability to "respond to change."

For anything less than full-blown Agile, however, we find that many agile practices are well-suited to the vast majority of environments. Short development iterations are nearly always valuable, regardless of whether you define 5% of your requirements up front or 95% up front. Keeping the software close to a releasable level of quality at all times is virtually always valuable. Scrum as a management style and discipline seems to be very broadly applicable. Small, empowered teams are nearly always useful. I go into more detail on the detailed strengths and weaknesses of specific agile development practices in my executive presentation on The Legacy of Agile Development.

Q4: What is the future of Agile?
Agile has largely become a synonym for "modern software practices that work," so I think the future of Agile with a capital "A" is the same as the past of Object Oriented or Structured. We rarely talk about Object Oriented programming anymore; it's just programming. Similarly, I think Agile has worked its way into the mainstream such that within the next few years we won't talk about Agile much anymore; we'll just talk about programming, and it will be assumed that everyone means Agile whenever that's appropriate.

Q5: Can you recommend a book, blog, podcast, Web site, or other information source to our readers that you find interesting or intriguing right now?
I'm most excited about the Software Development Best Practices discussion forum that we launched a few weeks ago. That's at http://www.construx.com/ . I also started blogging recently, and you can read my blog at http://www.construx.com/Blogs/10x_Software_Development/?id=15082 . Feel free to contact me by e-mail at stevemcc@construx.com

Additional Commentary (October 2007)
After this interview posted back in August 2007 I received an interesting email that said, "Wow, you seem really pro-Agile now. What happened?"

I was surprised at that email because I didn't think my comments in the 5Qs were especially "pro agile." I thought they emphasized the strengths of agile and also some of the common failure modes. Another reason that comment was interesting was the hint that I'd been "anti-agile" before. I've never been either pro-agile or anti-agile -- I've always been pro-whatever-practices-work-best. In many situations the practices that work best are the practices that today are associated with agile development. And in some circumstances, other older practices still work best.

So I'm not pro-agile or anti-agile. I'm not pro-CMM or anti-CMM, pro-BDUF or anti-BDUF, or pro-pair programming or anti-pair programming. For that matter I'm not even pro-waterfall or anti-waterfall. At Construx we've worked with such a tremendous variety of companies over the years that we've encountered at least one environment in which each of these practices will work best. The big wide world of software projects is amazingly diverse, and that calls for software development practices that are just as amazingly diverse. Agile has simply added more tools to the toolbox so that we have a richer set from which to choose the right tool for any particular job.


Franck said:

October 10, 2007 2:24:AM

I will say that one of the main challenge for Agile approaches is the high-availability request for customers/end-users. Having intelligent/knowledgeable business people that could collaborate closely with development teams for a long period is... not always easy to achieve ;o)

Kalpesh said:

October 10, 2007 12:21:PM


I really like the idea of neither being pro or anti.

If it is applied to the day to day struggle, much of the religious fanaticism will be history (including fanaticism in software)

Whatever works best for current situation & context should always be the way to go than being pro for something & anti for another.

Nice post !!


Maksym Shostak said:

October 16, 2007 7:22:AM

1. Can "pro-whatever-practices-work-best" be called as "pro-common sense"?

2. Currently, I know the project with the "green-field" methodology... It is also called by management as an Agile/Scrum. This is a business application.

The distributed team has only: 2-years old source code, VCS, <1% of test coverage, daily meetings, 2-week iterations, Issue Tracker, any requirements, design or whatever documents (including code comments). There are only developers and managers in the team.

Is it a "Cargo Cult"?

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Steve McConnell

Steve McConnell is CEO and Chief Software Engineer at Construx Software where he consults to a broad range of industries, teaches seminars, and oversees Construx’s software development practices. In 1998, readers of Software Development magazine named Steve one of the three most influential people in the software industry along with Bill Gates and Linus Torvalds.

Steve is the author of Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art (2006), Code Complete (1993, 2004), Rapid Development (1996), Software Project Survival Guide (1998), and Professional Software Development (2004). His books twice won Software Development magazine's Jolt Excellence award for outstanding software development book of the year.

Steve has served as Editor in Chief of IEEE Software magazine, on the Panel of Experts of the SWEBOK project, and as Chair of the IEEE Computer Society’s Professional Practices Committee.

Steve received a Bachelor’s degree from Whitman College, graduating Magna Cum Laud, Phi Beta Kappa, and earned a Master’s degree in software engineering from Seattle University.
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