Monday, January 5, 2009

Some Personal Thoughts on Agile Development - Finale

So far, I’ve talked about my personal experiences as a programmer that have led me to anticipate – apparently correctly – that agile development would deliver consistently better results by cost, profit, and agility metrics. What about the down side? Or, to put it another way, what else could users do that agile development hasn’t done?

After I left Prime, I started as a computer industry analyst at The Yankee Group. I will always be grateful to Yankee for giving me the broadest possible canvas on which to paint my visions of what could be – as I used to put it, I covered “everything below the mainframe”. Of course, in the early 90s that was only ½ of the computing field … Anyway, one of the things I wrote was a comprehensive report called “Software Development: Think Again or Fail”. [yes, I know; I was a bit immodest in those days]

The reason I bring this up is that two things mentioned in that report seem to be missing in agile development:

1. High-level tools, languages, and components; and
2. Tasking programmers with keeping track of particular markets.

As far as I can see, agile theory and practice doesn’t give a hoot whether those programmers are using Java, Perl, Python, or Ruby on Rails. I use those examples because they all have been touted as ways to speed up programming in the Java/open-source world, and because only tunnel vision leads people to conclude that they’re anything but dolled-up 3GLs that do very well at handling function-driven programming and only adequately at rapidly generating data-access and user-interface code. Compare that to M204 UL, drag-and-drop VPEs (visual programming environments), and the like, and I am forced to conclude that in some respects, these tools are still less productive than what was available 13 years ago. The point is that, even if agile succeeds in improving the speed of the individual programmer, the other productivity shoe will never drop as long as the first instinct of managers and programmers is to reach for a 3GL.

The second point is that although agile does well with making sure that programmers talk to individual end users, that is different from following the entire software market. Following a market gives context to what the end user wants, and allows the designer to look at where the market appears to be going, rather than where end users have been.

So my caution about agile development is that my experience tells me that so much more can be done. The results are startling and consistent; but they could be more so. Agile development deserves praise; but the worst thing for software development would be to assume that no more fundamental changes in the paradigm need be done.

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