There’s No Such Thing As “Agile”. There’s Just Software Development.

Okay, so this Sunday morning rant’s been a long time coming. And, for sure, I’ve expressed similar sentiments before. But I don’t think I’ve ever dedicated a whole blog post to this, so here goes. You may want to strap in.

20 years ago, a group of prominent software folk gathered at a ski resort in Utah to fix software development. Undoubtedly, it had become broken.

Broken by heavyweight, command-and-control processes. Broken by unrealistic and oftentimes downright dishonest plan-driven management that tried to impose the illusion of predictability to something that’s inherently unpredictable. Broken by huge outsourced teams and $multi-million – sometimes even $multi-billion – contracts that, statistically, were guaranteed to fail, crushed by their own weight. Broken by the loss of basic technical practices and the influx of low-skilled programmers to fuel to the first dotcom boom, all in the name of ballooning share prices of start-ups – many of which never made a red cent of profit.

All of this needed fixing. The resulting Manifesto for Agile Software Development attempted to reset the balance towards lightweight, feedback-driven ways of working, towards smaller, self-organising teams, towards continuous and rich face-to-face communication, and towards working software as the primary measure of progress.

Would that someone in that room had been from a marketing and communications background. A fundamental mistake was made at that meeting: they gave it a name.

And so, Agile Software Development became known as “another way of doing software development”. We could choose. We could be more Agile (with a capital “A”). Or, we could stick with our heavyweight, command-and-control, plan-driven, document-driven approach. Like Coke Zero and Original Coke.

The problem is that heavyweight, command-and-control, plan-driven, document-driven approaches tend to fail. Of course, for the outsourcing companies and the managers, they succeed in their underlying intention, which is to burn through a lot of money before the people signing the cheques realise. Which is why that approach still dominates today. I call it Mortgage-Driven Development. You may know it as “Waterfall”.

But if we measure it by tangible results achieved, Mortgage-Driven Development is a bust. We’ve known throughout my entire lifetime that it’s a bust. Winston Royce warned us it was a bust in 1970. No credible, informed commentator on software development has recommended we work that way for more than 50 years.

And yet, still many do. (The main difference in 2021 being that a lot of them call it “Agile”. Oh, the irony.)

How does Mortgage-Driven Development work, then? Well – to cut a long story short – badly, if you measure it by tangible customer outcomes like useful working software and end user problems being solved. If you measure it by the size of developers’ houses, though, it works really, really well.

MDD works from a very simple principle – namely that our customer shouldn’t find out that we’ve failed until a substantial part of our mortgage has been paid off. The longer we can delay the expectation of seeing working software in production, the more of our mortgage we can pay off before they realise there is no working software that can be released into production.

Progress in MDD is evidenced by documentation. The more of it we generate, the more progress is deemed to have been achieved. I’ve had to drag customers kicking and screaming to look at actual working software. But they’re more than happy to look at a 200-page architecture document purporting to describe the software, or a wall-sized Gantt chart with a comforting “You are here” to make the customer think progress has actually been made.

Of course, when I say “more than happy to look at”, they don’t actually read the architecture document – nobody does, and that includes the architects who write them – or give the plan anything more than a cursory glance. They’re like a spare tire in the boot of your car, or a detailed pandemic response plan sitting on a government server. There’s comfort in knowing it merely exists, even if – when the time comes – they are of no actual use.

Why customers and managers don’t find comfort in visible, tangible software is anybody’s guess. It could come down to personality types, maybe.

Teams who deliver early and often present the risk of failing fast. I took over a team for a small development shop who had spent a year going around in circles with their large public sector client. No software had been delivered. With me in the chair, and a mostly new team of “Agile” software developers, we delivered working software within three weeks from a standing start (we even had to build our own network, connected to the Internet by my 3G dongle). At which point, the end client decided this wasn’t working out, and canned the contract.

That particular project lives in infamy – recruiters would look at my CV and say “Oh, you worked on that?” It was viewed as failure. I view it as a major success. The end client paid for a year’s worth of nothing, and because nothing had been delivered, they didn’t realise it had already failed. They’d been barking up entirely the wrong tree. It took us just three weeks to make that obvious.

Saving clients millions of pounds by disproving their ideas quickly might seem like a good thing, but it runs counter to the philosophy of Mortgage-Driven Development.

I’ve been taken aside and admonished for “actually trying to succeed” with a software project. Some people view that as risky, because – in their belief system – we’re almost certainly going to fail, and therefore all efforts should be targeted at billing as much as possible and at escaping ultimate blame.

And, to me, this thing called Agile Software Development has always essentially just been “trying to succeed at delivering software”. We’re deliberately setting out to give end users what they need, and to do it in a way that gives them frequent opportunities to change their minds – including about whether they see any value in continuing.

The notion that we can do that without frequent feedback from end users trying working software is palpable nonsense – betting the farm on a proverbial “hole in one”. Nature solved the problem of complex system design, and here’s a heads-up: it isn’t a design committee, or a Gantt chart, or a 200-page architecture document.

Waterfall doesn’t work and never did. Big teams typically achieve less than small teams. Command-and-control is merely the illusion of control. Documents are not progress. And your project plan is a fiction.

When we choose to go down that road, we’re choosing to live in a lie.

Author: codemanship

Founder of Codemanship Ltd and code craft coach and trainer

One thought on “There’s No Such Thing As “Agile”. There’s Just Software Development.”

  1. Seems kind of ahistorical. But I agree with your conclusions.

    Contracting companies earn money as a percentage of billable hours. It’s often easier to negotiate more people “for a difficult project” than higher bill rates. So long-running projects with lots of people on them are much more important for their profitability than the success of the projects.
    And while we generally think that it’s in the interest of the customer’s managers to counter that, in large organizations, one’s power and influence, and pay and promotion is often based on how many people work for you. And as long as you can make it look reasonable, having a lot more people working for you, appearing to do useful things, is good for your raise, bonus, and promotion chances.

    Accounting tricks to avoid taxes have made it even more difficult: If it takes years to develop software, you can treat your expenses as assets, and then depreciate them over many years, once the system goes into production. But you *cannot* do this if, at any point during the long development cycle, you actually get any business value from it.

    And, of course, while “failing fast” does actually save the business a lot of money, it gets you marked as a failure. And so you’re “out the door.”

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