Archive for February, 2012


There is a phrase in Agile which talks about it being a way of “making a good team great” or a “great team better”. Like much in Agile, it is a phrase that slips by without people really appreciating the true meaning and implications.

In fact, this innocent sounding phrase is absolutely critical.

If we accept that Agile is abut “making a good team great” we need to be clear about what “good” is: As I’ve said previously on these pages, “good” isn’t about technical skills, since we can assume people have them. We don’t ask the cleaner to do our development. “Good” means knowledgable (see here) and being in tune with the sector and industry we are in (see here) so that we use appropriate techniques. If these two things come together, then people will deliver anyway.

Agile is therefore about optimisation. Improving on situations that are already working.

What you can’t do is assume you can drop Agile in to any team with the belief there will be magical improvements.

in other words, if Agile is about “making a good team great” it equally means that it isn’t about “making a bad team good”. And again, we need to be clear about what “bad” means. It is quite likely it isn’t a reflection on the people. It may well not be due to a lack of skills. Not a sinister conspiracy or indication of corporate wrongdoing. It is simply that people find themselves in situations that are for one reason or another unproductive. In my experience this is almost always down to a knowledge management problem. If people don’t understand the fundamentals of what they are doing (a situation I encounter with depressing regularity) you don’t solve this by rigging up Kanban boards and telling people to write stories for everything. It’s great if it helps, but something else has to happen first before you contemplate any of this. Having done it, you might actually have a “good” team.

Question. Do you seriously believe that Boeing and Pizza Hut build their systems in the same way? Hold that thought.

The IT and computing industry is full of people searching for universal truths that can be applied to all situations. Techniques that are totally proven and infallible. Although this statement sounds somewhat confrontational, our industry isn’t alone in this and I suppose it is a reflection of our times: Doing stuff is risky. Dangerous. Not always easy to explain. So it’s natural that people try to look for ways of designing out the risk. That I suppose, is what analysis – in all it’s many guises – is mostly about.

In my 20-odd years in the industry, many different approaches have come and gone. But then again have they gone? Perhaps people have just learned to apply the right set of approaches (or MT&Ts (methodologies, techniques and tools) as people used to call them) to their particular sector: Because whilst it is true that individual projects vary enormously (applying agile to legacy applications is very different to applying it to brand new ‘green field’ developments) there is also an overarching fact that different sectors of industry require a whole different approach. In my view this is also a universal truth.

It seems pretty obvious that if you are working on a system to navigate a spacecraft, manage ambulance emergency calls, or to control train signalling, you need a very different approach to application development to that used if you are working on a data entry application to manage employee training records. Surely there can be no denying that.

In my particular case, I have never worked on spacecraft, ambulance, or train signalling systems and it is quite likely I never will. It doesn’t fit with my interests, skills and expertise. My area is information systems. So in a sense, my opinions – and those of the many writers, commentators and ‘experts’ who haven’t either, can’t really apply their ideas to those cases.

Would you seriously build the examples I quoted using Agile? Or perhaps a better question is “Would you want to rely on the default techniques of Agile? Or would you want to add in something else?”. I don’t know about you but I would. I would want to use something a bit more rigorous than a set of User Stories and scenarios to build something that had human life depending on it. That, before you throw your hands up in horror, doesn’t mean agile doesn’t have a role. I am not suggesting it is dropped. But it absolutely means it has to be augmented by something else, to take into account the specific demands of the sector. You must recognise the differences in how you would approach a project in a different industry.

So. Back to my original question. Do we seriously believe that Boeing and Pizza Hut build their systems in the same way?

Quite clearly: No they shouldn’t.

Conclusions

There are many that will throw their hands up in horror at what I have written here. I even encountered someone fairly recently who said to the effect that “everything should be built to the highest possible engineering standard”.

This is rubbish of the highest Order.

Well, it’s a view anyway. But it is like walking into a Ford dealership and asking why the cars aren’t Porches: As human beings we can clearly build something better than a Ford, so why aren’t we? We should all demand and expect Porches, right? Why would we settle for less? This argument is quite obviously nonsense. We live in an imperfect world with budgets, compromises and constraints and much as we may object to it, a Ford is often acceptable. The alternative, sadly, is quite likely to be an imperfect solution or no solution at all.

An interesting article appeared the other day in the newspaper I was reading, about on-demand catchup TV services. It made an interesting change from articles about reality TV shows, Big Brother and X-Factor. For those of you that follow this Blog, we’ve been here before: I’ve written about it a couple of times now, firstly in an article called ‘the demand for on-demand’ and latterly in one about radio. In both cases, my views are basically that on-demand services are great, but show no signs of replacing traditional broadcasting.

Quite refreshing then, than some industry figures seem to agree with me then – outside of the broadcasters themselves.

‘On-demand is a hugely important contributor to the consumer television experience but it won’t naturally replace or inevitably replace scheduled television,’ insists Simon Woodward, chief executive of ANT, which provides software for television sets and set-top boxes for clients such as Samsung.

What many of the technology ‘gurus’ and ‘experts’ often fail to grasp is simply that different technologies can co-exist. Just as microwave ovens didn’t replace traditional gas or electric ovens (though I dare say there were people around when microwaves first emerged that would have predicted exactly that), it is perfectly reasonable to have both. Radio listening continues to be strong despite iTunes, Spotify, LastFM, podcasts and everything else. People enjoy both. Cinema is still prominent, despite blu-ray and 3D. Theatre wasn’t killed off by television. I could go on.

Of course none of the above have remained unaltred and untouched over the years. They are not museum pieces from some bygone golden age. Television channels, though popular and with audiences going up if anything, don’t get anywhere near the audiences they once did. The infamous Eastenders ‘Den and Angie divorce’ storyline from 1986 got an audience of 30 million. Lets repeat that. Thirty million. Today the same programme gets audiences of around 7 million.

The days of 30 million viewers for TV shows is clearly over. And it is unlikely that we will see these sort of audiences again in our lifetime. But the point to remind the technology ‘gurus’ and ‘experts’ about is that those days were over long before the Internet. Long before on-demand, iPlayer, broadband, and the rest. The unstated subtext that the catch-up services – or Internet generally – is bringing about these sorts of radical changes and a decline in broadcasting, simply isn’t true.

How is it that in the internet age, audiences for traditional broadcasting services seem to be going up?

I haven’t the faintest idea. And neither do the ‘experts’.