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Agility Futility

April 30th, 2009
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Agile development methods have really taken the IT world by storm. In the last few years Agile has become THE way to manage and develop software, especially among young, emerging companies. It brings to the table a flexible model for communication and progress as well as a sense of anti-corporatism which is heavily embraced in many IT workplace cultures.

While this almost hippie-ish movement of peace, love and agileness has really relaxed a lot of work cultures and has been a boon for productivity and customer interaction, there are some often ignored pitfalls which eventually leave a work culture devastated and disallusioned.

Do it for the right reasons
It’s not enough to adopt Agile just because it works well for some or because you read about it on a trade blog. Agile, or any other hastily adopted process or methodology, cannot solve all your problems. It will simply make you more of what you already are. Your weaknesses, if not already apparent, will eventually surface and you must be ready and willing to acknowledge and address them.

Successfully adopting any methodology like this requires that you have an adequate paradigm about people, business and clients which instills respect and integrity and is in sync with the methodology. If your efforts are only surface-level rhetoric, and no paradigm shift occurs, the process will fail and you’ll be looking for the next “great thing” to fix your woes.

Use best practices
While Agile lends itself to a more rapid pace of development, it can be easy to leave crucial parts of the SDLC out of the equation in the interest of time. Adequate quality assurance and testing are often the first to go. Test-driven development, which utilizes a testing process as part of your development, is a great way to minimize QA overhead while maintaining work quality. Building test code as, or before you develop may add a little to your initial timeline but will result in fewer deployment panics and provide built-in specifications for your code to adhere to.

Don’t sacrifice quality
Cutting corners is a big no-no. Decide what are features and what are bugs. Determine which of them are in your critical path and develop them properly. If you can’t do them right, choose not to do them or arrange for more time to complete the project. NO ONE benefits from poorly thought out, shoddy work. Management only seems happy until they realize the problem they rushed you to fix ends up worse than before. It is the developer’s job to speak up and communicate risks and issues which then translate into proper timeline and feature negotiation.

Don’t ignore problems. Moderately plan for the future and proactively address problems and improvements through iterations. Ignored problems build up over time and eventually result in a complete rewrite. Iterative development can be your friend. Keep track of issues and slip some into each iteration so you can keep up with the change.

Be realistic
There is an old project management addage that explains how with every project, three factors are desired: speed, low cost, and great quality. You can pick two. Having all three is a fantasy propagated by poor sales teams. This is because any improvement in any one or two of the factors will negatively affect the third. For example, if speed is crucial, it will likely affect quality and cost. If very low cost is required, completion times will often be longer and quality will suffer. The only way to realistically improve one of the factors is to improve your effectiveness in all three of them. Attempting to use Agile development concepts to short-sightedly manipulate any of these factors is counter-productive.

Avoid burn-out
Finally, keep in mind that overworking your developers is counter-intuitive in an Agile model. With a more top-down, waterfall approach, you may get away with piling on extra hours, shoving more into a deadline and driving with a whip. Burn-out doesn’t make for solid code, good morale, communication and low turnover; all which are factors behind a well-functioning Agile machine. Utilize iterations to drive realistic deadlines and continually reassess based on top priorities to keep everyone focused on the same goal.

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