Agile and Hammers: They Don’t Fix Stupid

By Adrian Lane

I did not see the original Agile Ruined My Life post until I read Paul Krill’s An agile pioneer versus an ‘agile ruined my life’ critic response today. I wish I had, as I would have used Mr. Markham’s post as an example of the wrong way to look at Agile development in my OWASP and RSA presentations. Mr. Markham raises some very good points, but in general the post pissed me off: it reeks of irresponsibility and unwillingness to own up to failure. But rather than go off on a tirade covering the 20 reasons that post exhibits a lack of critical thinking, I’ll take the high road. Jon Kern’s quotes in the response hit the nail on the head, but did not include an adequate explanation of why, so I offer a couple examples.

I make two points in my Agile development presentation which are relevant here. First: The scrum is not the same thing as Agile. Scrum is just a technique used to foster face-to-face communication. I like scrum and have had good success with it because, a) it promotes a subtle form of peer pressure in the group, and b) developers often come up with ingenious solutions when discussing problems in an open forum. Sure, it embodies Agile’s quest for simplicity and efficiency, but that’s just facility – not the benefit.

Scrum is just a technique, and some Agile techniques work in particular circumstances, while others don’t. For example, I have never got pair programming to work. That could be due to the way I paired people up, or the difficulty of those projects might have made pairs impractical, or perhaps the developers were just lazy (which definitely does happen).

The second point is that people break process. Mr. Markham does not accept that, but sorry, there are just not that many variables in play here. We use process to foster and encourage good behavior, to minimize poor behaviors, and to focus people on the task at hand. That does not mean process always wins. People are brilliant at avoiding responsibility and disrupting events. I couch Agile pitfalls in terms of SDL – because I am more interested in promoting secure code development – but the issues I raise cause general project failures as well. Zealots. Morons. Egoists. Unwitting newbies. People paranoid about losing their jobs. All these personality types figure into the success (or lack thereof) of Agile teams. Sometimes Agile looses to that passive-aggressive bastard at the back of the room. Maybe you need process adjustments, or perhaps better process management, or just maybe you need better people.

If you use a hammer to drive a screw into the wall, don’t be surprised when things go wrong. Use the wrong tool or technique to solve a problem, and you should expect bad things to happen. Agile techniques are geared toward reducing complexity and improving communication; improvements in those two areas mean better likelihood of success, but there’s no guarantee. Especially when communication and complexity are not your problem. Don’t blame the technique – or the process in general – if you don’t have the people to support it.

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