Friday, June 25, 2010

Day 1: Why I hate Agile methodologies

Earlier today, our boss announced that we would be trialling Agile methodologies. Agile development, for those who haven’t heard of it, is the latest buzzword in IT management. It’s one of those management theories that cheats by naming itself for some nebulous and universally desirable ideal that nobody could possibly object to. But – how could you not want to be agile?

Arguably the first of these was Total Quality Management, popular during the nineties. How could anyone want less than total quality? If you were opposed to Total Quality Management, were you not by definition anti-quality? Weren’t you opposed to the organisation’s success? Weren’t you, in fact, really some kind of corporate saboteur out to ruin the organisation? Security!

The Agile zealots employ this McCarthyist logic in similar ways. If you oppose Agile management, you are branded “anti-agile” (instead of “un-American”). I predict that one day someone will invent “Fluffy Kitten Management” or “Smiling Baby Management” so they can really vilify their methodology’s detractors. Those anti-agile, kitten-killing, baby-eating commie bastards.

But really, it is any big news that management like to label things in ways that control our emotional responses? (see “downsizing”). What is really involved in Agile development? Is it really that bad? Let’s take a look at some of the practices and methods that make up the Agile methodology.

“Stand-Up Meetings”
Unlike stand-up comedy, stand-up meetings are no fun at all. The daily stand-up meeting is a key component of the Agile approach, and is also referred to as a Scrum meeting, after one of the most popular flavours of Agile development.

A stand-up meeting, simply put, is a meeting where you… have to stand up. All the time.

That’s right – during a stand-up meeting, you are not allowed to sit down. Ostensibly, this is to keep your mind clear and focused. Because we all know that highly educated professionals turn into five-year-olds with the attention span of a carrot when permitted to assume a seated position. For heaven’s sake, what if students were allowed to sit down during their most important exams? Our universities would be empty! What if pilots or air traffic controllers were allowed to sit down on the job? Planes would be falling out of the… Oh. Right.

Despite the apparent wealth of evidence to the contrary, Agile devotees profess the belief that all human mental processes will cease the minute any personal comfort is allowed.

I say they profess this belief. I don’t think for a moment that they actually believe it. But why else would they force people to stand during meetings?

Let’s take a look at what making people stand up traditionally means in the corporate world. What does it mean, when you are asked into a manager’s office but not offered a seat? How do you feel in those moments, wanting to sit down but not entirely sure it’s safe to do so? Why is the manager making you stand?

They are doing it to demonstrate their authority and control over you. You are the employee, the lowly peon. They are the manager, the top dog in this interaction. You are being made to stand in order to deliberately upset and humiliate you. And this, I am afraid to say, is also why Agile managers delight in having employees stand during daily “stand-up meetings”.

In recent years management have come to feel increasingly threatened by their IT departments. Those whizz-kids who refuse to behave like normal people, and do things management could never hope to understand. If you’re a reasonably competent developer, you probably have access to all kinds of privileged information with which you could hold your company to ransom. And the people whose job it is to prevent you from doing this are… other people who work in the IT department. No wonder management feel powerless.

Back in the day, management would assert their control by forcing you to wear a suit. They would justify it by saying the client expected it. But even that doesn’t wash these days, when more often than not, the client isn’t wearing one. So it’s no wonder managers consider Agile methods, with their potential to bring back micromanagement and total control over the IT employee, to be a godsend. Their ability to make you stand up, sit down, or bark like a dog on command will work wonders for their bruised egos.

That is, unless you happen to be one of the many…

Agile consultants
Until today’s meeting, the friendly Agile consultant at my company has spent his time photoshopping the team leader’s face onto pictures of Yoda, and researching the motivational properties of various colours of magic marker. And he gets paid for it.

Paid far, far more than I do, when I can personally cite several projects on which I have made or saved the company millions of dollars. That’s right, the same managers who complain (sometimes justly, I must say) that their IT departments behave like children, go on to spend a fortune paying expensive consultants to… behave like children.

Several times during the meeting, our consultant has observed aloud that I look upset. He reassures me that I can choose any Star Wars character I like to be my “avatar”. When I appear underwhelmed, he pulls out the big guns, and offers me a chance to be a Na’vi from the movie “Avatar”. I politely decline.

I can’t help but be reminded of the old lady who swallowed the spider to catch the fly. Management’s feelings that their IT employees are immature and childlike may well be justified (especially when it comes to me). But is the best solution really to hire someone ten times more immature (and more expensive) to play with crayons all day? His attempts to be “cool” and appealing to IT employees grate on me. He has completed an expensive Agile management course, where they assured him they can teach him to be hip and reach any modern IT employee. I don’t know how to tell him, but in the words of Freddie Mercury, “I don’t like Star Wars.”

But Agile development must be “cool” and favoured by grassroots developers – it even has its own manifesto ( Wow, a manifesto! That’s so “open source’-like, so reminiscent of the FSF and GNU. Wait a minute… aren’t all these signatories Agile consultants? Don’t they all have some kind of financial rather than altruistic interest in having their manifesto adopted? Isn’t this sort of like the Exxon Mobil Manifesto on Why the Electric Car Would Suck?

Our particular consultant is a little puzzled at my failure to conform to any of the stereotypes he has been told all IT employees conform to. But he continues on bravely, gesturing enthusiastically towards his wall of…

Bits of coloured paper
You could be forgiven for thinking that Agile methodologies were developed at 3M Corporation, inventors of the original Post-It™ Note. They must have certainly seen an increase in revenue since the Agile methodologies adopted the Post-It™ Note as their tool of choice.

Who would have thought that all our sophisticated source control systems, ticketing systems, configuration management systems were a waste of time, compared to the awesome power of the Post-It™ Note Wall?

Our consultant rapturously explained to us the benefits of the Wall, including the ability to subdivide the wall into units he called “columns”, the ability to move a note from one of these “columns” to another, and the many fun colours of Post-It™ Notes that are now available.

I couldn’t help wondering if there was a disaster recovery plan for the Wall, perhaps involving a staff member maintaining a duplicate Wall at a remote location, able to shadow our movements in rearranging the notes at a moment’s notice by phone. I can only speculate that this and other innovations lie in the Post-It™ Notes Wall’s future. We may have a long way to go, but at least management won’t feel threatened by us doing it on those damned computers.