16 June 2009

A New Generation, A New Perspective

At the beginning of May I attended the Cutter IT Summit in Cambridge, MA. I quite enjoyed it, since it was not just about Agile but many other aspects of the IT industry. The summit gave me the opportunity to soak in knowledge from many thought leaders from various sectors of IT.

A common theme that I encountered is that we are in the midst of a sea change in IT. The current economic circumstances are certainly a driver of this, with organizations abandoning old business relationships to save incredible amounts of money moving their operational IT work to the cloud, and its natural extension of Software as a Service (SaaS). Indeed, I'm an advisor for (and did a pile of development work with) local social media startup Favequest that is entirely run in that manner.

The other change vector we are seeing is a new generation of people both entering into the IT industry and consuming its services. I'm talking about those kids (which is now anyone more than 5 years younger than me!) who can send text messages from their smartphone while it's still in their pocket. To them, technology is a given - it's always on, always available, and these "kids" have very little brand loyalty. If your product or service no longer appeals to them you're done! Many of the traditional rules of business have been turned upside down.

This reminded me of a presentation I gave at the CUSEC conference in 2005 on Extreme Programming. After giving my talk, I fielded the usual questions. One question, though, absolutely stunned me. A student asserted more than asked that "XP seemed like a very heavyweight process". I hadn't realized that my perspective, and that of those who have been in the IT industry for any more than a few years, had skewed my view of what constituted a lightweight process. In the absence of any other perspective, XP looked very prescriptive and heavyweight to this student. Indeed, most if not all of the development processes that form Agile were reactions to what were perceived by my generation as heavyweight and prescriptive.

The lesson in this, I believe, is that our perception of something is precisely that - our own! We may share that perspective with others who have similar experiences, but we must be judicious in the use of that assumption.

So what, then, will the software development world look like when the Agile methods are indeed heavyweight and prescriptive? I think the App Store is a hint of what's to come. There was also a session accepted for Agile 2009 entitled, Agile's Too Slow: Developing a Facebook App for the Obama Campaign. Finally, at a recent Agile Ottawa gathering, Luc Levesque of TravelPod described the development process his company uses, which includes a deployment to production as soon as a developer commits to source control.

These micro-processes are all predicated on gathering usage statistics and user feedback in near real-time and executing immediately on the results. The business environment can literally change hour to hour, so everything in the process must be geared towards handling that flux. As a business, you simply can't afford to complain that things change - you have to adapt or you'll go out of business.

Essentially, in the always on, always available world even Agile circa 2009 isn't sufficently lightweight. I'm sure there will be those that say micro-processes don't apply to them.
What about life-critical software such as that in medical devices and avionics? What about control systems for nuclear power stations? There's no way we could use a micro-process for embedded software development!
Funny, I heard the same questions almost 10 years ago about XP and other Agile processes.

The sea change discussed at the Cutter IT Summit is happening whether we want it to or not. We need, therefore, to decide if we want to ride the wave, get washed away, or just get the hell out of the water altogether. For the latter two cases, there are plenty of young people ready to cast off the burden of our overly prescriptive Agile processes and get down to really delivering some value!

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