agile Agile

In today's blog post I'd like to talk about the Agile methodology, specifically about good Agile, bad Agile, and agile Agile. In particular, I will champion Agile as a flexible and agile tool and condemn Agile as a cult and a religion. 

What is Agile?

The Agile methodology is a set of principles commonly used for software development. Under the Agile methodology, requirements and solutions evolve through adaptive planning, early delivery, and continuous iteration with the goal of flexible and fast building of software. The philosophy of the Agile methodology is described here. The motivation of Agile is that in a world where requirements are unpredictably evolutionary and estimates, plans, and predictions are almost invariably inaccurate, it is more efficient and makes more sense to iterate frequently and adapt to changes as they come. There are a lot of different processes and tools under the Agile methodology, but they generally promote and facilitate communication, collaboration, and adaptability throughout the software development life-cycle.

The term "agile" was coined in 2001 with the creation of the Agile Manifesto, and since then, the Agile methodology has been hailed & evangelized by many people who bring it up as a lightweight alternative to previous development philosophies, such as Waterfall and Cowboy, to name a few. There are now Agile conferences and training and coaches, and I find that "Agile," just like all popular business/ development ideas, has become a bit of a meme, joining the hallowed hall of business buzzwords along with "synergy," "organic," and "growth hack."

Good Agile

Memes aside, I think there are a lot of great things about Agile. Both engineering teams at my last two internships (OTC Markets and Riot Games) used Agile heavily to develop their software, and for good reason.

 N.B. this is not one of the reasons

N.B. this is not one of the reasons

Emphasis on Delivering Value

One of the biggest pros to using Agile is its focus on delivering user value. A good analogy is League of Legends. The primary focus of any player in League is to destroy the enemy nexus. CS-ing helps, killing enemies helps, taking objectives helps, but you win by destroying the nexus. Similarly, in my opinion, the primary focus of any engineer is to deliver user value in some way. Working with new technologies helps, using different languages helps, and learning theory helps, but ultimately the goal is to serve some kind of user value. Product development in the Agile way is split into "sprints," set periods of work in which specific work is completed. At my last two internships, each sprint was a two week period of development. Each sprint begins with a planning period, during which the scope of the work for the sprint is determined, and ends with a review and a retro. During the sprint, the development team works on "user stories," small tasks the team commits to during the planning period. This entire process is very focused on user value, from planning to execution to review. Each user story describes and provides some kind of user value, and at the end of each sprint something tangible (should) will be provided to the user. As a engineering newb, I found this super helpful. I tend to get distracted by interesting problems or fancy new technology that are not always the most relevant or useful, so by focusing on user value through user stories in sprints, I can best ship, deliver and improve a useful product.

Small, Quick Iterations

I heard this from one of my coworkers at Riot, Kyle (source here). There was an experiment done where two groups of people were tasked to make the best ceramic pot they could. One group (group A) was asked to do one iteration, and take as much time as they needed. The other group (group B) was asked to do multiple iterations under a short time frame for each pot. It turns out, at the end of the experiment, those who had made multiple pots had much nicer ceramic pots than those who had dedicated their time to one pot ("waterfalled" it, if I may). The same idea, I think, extends to software. Software is cheap (relatively) and easy to write (relatively), so the cost of iteration tends to be low. In that case, the more iterations that a software development team can churn out, the better and the more accurate the final product will be, since it becomes easier to evaluate and reassess and learn from past prototypes. Agile processes lend themselves to these benefits because of the segmented & shorter nature of these processes (e.g. Sprints, user stories, etc.)

Fast and Flexible Improvements

Because Agile is so focused on delivering value to the customer and promotes quick iterations, a third big benefit of the Agile methodology is that it becomes easier to determine what is important to iterate on and improve. In a world where requirements are often incorrect, unclear, uncertain, and very mutable, the tighter the feedback loop the faster the improvement. By putting out a minimum viable product (MVP) and then iterating upon it, the development team can figure out what features to add or to improve. To extend the ceramic pots analogy, imagine you're asked to make some open-top ceramic container. An Agile-y way to go about it is by first making a really shitty bowl

 fig. 1: a shitty bowl

fig. 1: a shitty bowl

learning that you actually want a pot, and then making a shitty pot

 fig. 2: a shitty pot

fig. 2: a shitty pot

learning what a nicely shaped pot is and then making a pot with a better shape

 fig. 3: a better shaped pot

fig. 3: a better shaped pot

wanting decorations and then making a well shaped pot thats nicely decorated. 

 fig. 4: a nicely shaped, better decorated pot

fig. 4: a nicely shaped, better decorated pot

But by using quick iterations and a tight feedback loop, you can rapidly prototype ceramic pots and end up with a nice result.

Bad Agile

So if Agile is so awesome, why doesn't everyone and all companies use Agile? Well, Agile is a tool, and just like any tool, there is the good and there is the bad, and there is, unfortunately, also a lot of bad Agile.

Agile Hammer, Stiff Nails

The first point is that when all you have is an Agile hammer, everything tends to look a lot like nails. Unfortunately, not all problems are appropriate for the Agile methodology. For example, one of Agile's tenets is fail fast, because by failing quickly, we can learn from our iterations and prototypes and improve upon them. However, in the case of rocket launches, it is both cost prohibitive and morally wrong to fail fast on a rocket launch, as a lot of money and people's lives are at stake. So Agile may be inappropriate for something that cannot be iterated upon due to high costs per iteration. 

Another example is building a bridge- it is pretty unlikely, once the design is finalized, that the requirements of the bridge will be changing drastically midway through construction. In cases where the requirements are very well known, I think Agile is less appropriate. It is true that this is of no fault of Agile, but it remains something to consider nonetheless.

Housekeeping and Spring Cleaning

Another con of Agile is because of its emphasis on user value, some things get put aside and live on the backlog permanently. Things that do not directly provide user value in the form of new features or improved features are often de-prioritized (in my experience) in the Agile process. As a result, there isn't a lot of time dedicated to housekeeping, and prototypes are often treated as products. This is of course heavily dependent on the team and on its members and on the company, but it seems like because stuff like refactoring or cleaning up code is not direct user value, it is often tossed on the backlog as a nice to do.

In addition, because of an emphasis on providing user value immediately, things that would provide longer term value are sometimes ignored.

It is difficult in a short sprint to work on the long term goals and easy to postpone them when the
team is driven to do the tasks that would most immediately make an impact. For the same reason, I find it easier to convince myself to do the dishes and take out the trash than to clean out the closet and do my spring cleaning.

Educated Estimates and Bad Guesses

An important aspect of Agile is the ability to estimate progress and to continually iterate. This is obviously very difficult because of unexpected complexities. Everyone knows how it feels to take on a 1 day piece of work and have it grow to take a week instead, like decapitating a garden snake and finding out it's really a hydra. Work is really hard to estimate, and oftentimes accurate estimates are only possible after the work is finished. In addition, it's really hard to measure motivation and energy. People don't always operate in two week sprints, and sometimes people are less motivated or have less energy in that sprint, and less work gets delivered.

Disciplined Team, Disciplined Agile

I think however, the biggest negative of Agile is that it requires an intensely focused and disciplined team to be able to properly use Agile. Because Agile so heavily relies on every team member during the development process in every sprint to determine what to iterate on and how, Agile requires a very disciplined and motivated team. In a world of continuous iteration and improvement, there is a ton of pressure to always deliver and it's very easy, in my opinion, to slack and lose discipline. Agile relies on a good product owner to figure out business direction, a good team of engineers to solve relevant problems and estimate reasonable work, and a good development manager to maintain and overlook sprint rituals and Agile processes. Most importantly, in order to continue to improve upon a product, you need a team that is motivated and invested in the success of the product- and that is not the easiest thing to have.

agile Agile

However, ultimately Agile is just a tool. Just like the development of the product, the Agile process itself should be agile in iteration and improvement. Taking a hammer and trying to staple a piece of paper will fail, and I would not blame the hammer or the paper for the failure. It is important, I think, to recognize which tools are suitable for which job and to continually tailor and improve upon your tools for your most appropriate use case. For example, for some of the problems I brought up above, such as Housekeeping and Spring Cleaning, one idea I have seen is to introduce cleanup sprints dedicated to improving and refactoring and clearing up some of the accumulated technical debt. Another option is to put those items in as specific user stories so they are not merely acknowledged as nice to dos but planned intentionally within the sprint. For Educated Estimates and Bad Guesses, appropriate planning plus retros will help determine what is feasible to take on in the future, and in a communicative team, motivation and level of energy is easy to share and discuss. All of these problems can be attributed to and solved by the teams using Agile, and are not necessarily reflective of the Agile methodology itself.

I think the danger comes (as it often does) with the evangelists, who live and die by Agile and have the Agile Manifesto tattooed on the inside of their eyelids. Agile is a tool, not a prescription and definitely not a religion. The goal of Agile is to BE agile, and the philosophy and the tools are supposed to help with that. Agile is a good process for creating software, but the same principles of iteration can be used for Agile itself, so applying Agile to Agile. I find that tools tend to become unhelpful once people become rigid about them and stop treating them as tools that are flexible. So what does agile Agile look like? In my opinion, just like products are continuously iterated and improved upon, processes should be continually iterated and improved upon. Take the general toolkit and essence of Agile, sift out the good Agile, remove the bad Agile, and work towards the agile Agile for your project and your team. Like company culture, if you do not curate and evolve your development process, you will have one regardless- it might just not be the one that you want.