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Monday, December 20, 2010

My Agile adoption story, and why it matters to you

Every person has their own different story of how they found out about Agile and how they came to experiment and ultimately adopt it in their projects.
Mine is also different than most, I started as a skeptic. I was one of those that said "it will never work". But I did come around. Here's the story of how it happened

The downfall of traditional waterfall

As many of the people that entered the software development industry during the 90's, I also had my first job in a small company. A start-up that was growing very fast and exhibited all the usual growth pains: more projects than people, lots of extremely hard-working but not experienced people, egos to match, etc.

As it happens, the typical way start-up companies deal with the growth pains is to hire a couple of experienced people that come in and "install the process" that will deliver us from all problems. And that's what happened to us. The company hired a few experienced project managers, they slashed the number of projects and created a process to structure and organize our work. We badly needed it.

However after a while we figured out that the new process was not helping us finish projects on time or with the right features or quality. It was better than chaos but not really that good. At this time I got interested in processes and organizational issues. My thinking was: "there must be a better way".

Re-discovering the wheel

What followed was something many of us in the industry have gone through and will continue to go through in the future. I started reading about other companies that had faced the problems we faced and discovered that it was not only us, and especially it was not only the software industry that was trying to apply the same old ideas and finding that they failed when applied in real projects.

I discovered Deming first, then Toyota, Six Sigma, the whole nine yards. I started understanding some of our problems: focusing on schedule and forgetting that quality is more important; separating work and creating handovers architects to designers, to developers, to testers, etc.

It was clear that what we were doing at that time (Rational Unified Process) was not a good option for us. That's when I started experimenting with different approaches.

My Path to Agile

I started by using simple RUP and focusing on managing the scope, but this not your garden variety of scope management. This was aggressive scope management, negotiated from start to finish of the project. The whole idea was to plot the progress against expected progress and remove content every time we saw a deviation.

This solution was OK for schedule-driven projects, but we still had the same basic problems of leaving risky or valuable things to later in the project, our teams were still very much silos working on partial features which lead to a lot of work partially done. This was not the droid solution we were looking for.

Agile appears on the scene

At that time a local research institute was pushing for more research on Agile Software Development projects. As luck would have it I was switching projects and the new project was selected as one of the pilots. Now, keep in mind that this was 2004, not the heyday of Agile yet, and I was a skeptic. I decided to take the project and prove conclusively that Agile was not the success story we were being told it was. Boy, was I wrong!

The Agile pilot project

We decided to do everything by the book to ensure that we really learned from the project execution and would then be able to find better ways of working based on that experience. A new team was hired, and we started slowly designing the process based on Scrum. Other teams were using XP for comparison's sake.

Then, a funny thing happened. As I read more and more about Agile, I started to find similarities between Agile and what I had read in Deming and Jeff Liker's work. There was the uncompromising focus on the customer, the respect for people, the empowered team with a Product Owner to steer the scope (which I had learned could work well), and more.

I was starting to feel that Agile was no longer a small thing to improve a dead wrong process. It was much more. It was, and is a paradigm shift the consequences of which are still dawning on me today, a good 5 years after the first project.

This is my story

I wanted to share this story with you because I know that many have had similar experiences or are going through that transformation right now. There are a lot more of us, going through the evolution and learning from our application of Agile. That collected knowledge and learning will hopefully improve our industry in the long run.

Agile Finland, a Finland based non-profit association wants to support more of these transitions and that's why we put together a program to support those of us that have started the Agile transition process.

Agile for the experienced

Myself and a group of other Agile Finland members decided that we would create a program to support those of us that have started the transition to Agile and are at a cross-roads, looking for improvements that cannot be found in the available literature. We also don't want to visit every single conference on Agile Software Development we can find. We want to learn from each other and from the top practitioners and researchers in the industry.

The Agile Coaching and Leadership Academy was created from this cooperation. But this is no longer a project by a small group of Agile practitioners. Agile Finland was able to attract a much bigger training institution to help us and vouch for the curriculum that we are putting together.

University of Helsinki joins the effort

Together with the Computer Science department at the University of Helsinki we created the basic program for the course, but now we need the most important ingredient: you, the people who want to learn and improve the performance of your organizations. We want to offer this opportunity to 15 people interested in not only listening to the best minds in the field, but also actively contributing by sharing your experiences and learning from other's experiences.

Check out the program and the details of the training program here and join us in improving our Agile knowledge.

Photo credit: jillclardy @ flickr

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