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in defense of agile

There are two sorts of people in the world right now who are fucking up the production of software. The first, people who have no clue about software, is still the larger group. The second though is experienced programmers so focussed on programming they can't see the world around them. Erik Meijer's latest diatribe against agile puts him firmly in the second group.

Meijer stood up in front of the crowd at and delivered this:

One Hacker Way - Erik Meijer from Reaktor on Vimeo.

If you don't want to watch the whole thing I'll try and summarize his argument here:

He doesn't really offer a clear argument of why agile is crap it's more threaded through the talk. But pulling out specific things:

Maybe the most sensible way to do this is to follow Erik's list.

Agile is crap

Erik begins with...

Standups are crap

Religiously having a stand up meeting every day for 10 minutes, whatever the situation, would be pretty stupid. It's even more stupid to do it literally standing up.

People don't tend to start things because they are stupid though. There must be a reason for standups. There is. In a complex software project there are usually quite a lot of people doing a lot of different things. So it's good to catch up fairly frequently to exchange information. Why are these things held standing up? The original intention was to stop them going on for ages, because people don't like standing up.

So what is stupid? is it the the need for information exchange or the bit where we all stand up at 10am and stay standing till everyone vaguely thinks we are done? Do you think the former or the latter is what agile is proposing?

When I first joined ThoughtWorks my first engagement was at a Government client. We did a standup meeting. They started to go on for a while. More than 10 minutes. I used to get bored. After we'd had the first one then we'd have another one for the programmers. I got even more bored. I had heard about ThoughtWorks sometimes cargo culting and so one day, I deliberately sat down. The project manager told me, abruptly, to stand up. She was a young, relatively inexperienced project manager and I was an old, grizzled hacker. I was shocked. I wasn't shocked because she thought you had to standup at a standup meeting, I was shocked because she was rude and rigid. Maybe she thought I was being rude but the right approach was surely to come up to me afterwards and ask why I was not conforming to the acccepted practice. That would have given her the opportunity to learn, maybe I was just being lazy, maybe standing up does have good things about it, or maybe I had a real point.

In fact standing up does have good things about it, it's different from what we normally do so it's supposed to keep us alert and concentrating. But that state is highly individual and contextual. Will we still have standups if everyone gets a standup desk? Will we have one if if everyone's remote? If someone is more alert lieing down why not do that? And the real point is to be short and to the point. It's not the standup at all.

This story has a happy ending, I met the project manager on another gig later on and we talked it over. She learned why I did the opposite to everyone else at standups and I hope she's better for that knowledge. I think she is. She thought she was. What would she learn from Erik? Would it make her better at helping get software built?

So what should you do if you feel standups are bullshit? Should you refuse to attend? Maybe you could engage in the process, explain your concerns to your team and try and make it better? Also, if people do go on forever, stop them, because this is a short meeting.

I've done standups on irc, over skype, in person, on the phone... all sorts of ways. You don't need to standup and if anyone says you do take them aside and have a chat about it.

Next up...

Snake oil

There's certainly is a lot of Snake Oil in Agile. By which I mean salespeople saying Do this and your software will be better! Cargo Cultists is another way of saying it (cargo cults have a fascinating history by the way). I tend to think of the Cargo Cultists being more naive than the Snake Oil salesmen.

One of Meijer's criticisms is there's no empirical evidence! and he then goes on to propose a quite disgustingly anti-people system as a suitable alternative, again with NO emprirical evidence that it works.

We do know some things about agile methods though. For example, we know that shorter cycle times (the length of time it takes you to deliver a system to your customers) mean getting more feedback. Erik calls that out as a good thing without once admitting that it's a central tenent of agile.

But let's go back to Erik's proposed solution: there is no proof that his solution works. His proposal is based on Facebook and Netflix. But his proposal isn't the summary of how those companies work. Human systems are hard to judge. Social science is soft and fuzzy and not at all easy to do because practicising on humans is at best difficult and at worst unethical.

What we have instead of lots of proof is experience. Things that seemed to work in one place that maybe we can replicate in another. And in this talk we have Erik Meijer doing exactly that, pointing at Facebook and Netflix and saying "this works! copy this!". I think, if he continues down the road of trying to help companies build better software, he'll find that he spends a lot of his time analyzing case studies from companies where things have worked, to try to replicate the good things, and from companies where things have not worked to try to eradicate the bad things. As he does this he'll build up a base of knowledge about how people work that maybe he didn't have before. If he starts to talk about it he might find himself sounding like one of those agile snake oil salesmen.

In other words Erik Meijer can rage about Snake Oil but perhaps that's because he has a good dose of Dunning Kreuger syndrome about social science.

While standups seems trivial and snake oil seems nebulous now we have something concrete:

TDD sucks!

I was at a gig last year in a big failing gambling firm. I asked different teams over and over what TDD stood for and always recevied the same answer Test Driven Development. It doesn't. That's quite wrong. It's *Test Driven Design*. Erik is making the same mistake I think. He's right, there is often no point in writing unit tests, they are quite useless in the face of systems failure. But writing unit tests is not what is good about TDD. The process of writing the test causes us to think about the abstraction that we need to put into the code to make it testable. It turns out that these same abstractions are the very ones we need to be making more reliable software. Abstracting the database from the code, for example, so we can test the logic of the code without the database, is something that we can turn into a shippable code. It's the same code the chaos monkey will exercise when he trashes the db underneath us.

So TDD doesn't suck. It's not for everyone and it's crucial that proponents seek to understand that. Particularly there seems to be something about TDD that makes it useful for languages like Java and C# and less useful for functional languages. There are lots of reasons for that I think, but mainly it's about the checks and balances on your thinking about a piece of code. With object oriented programming there is no way to see the weaknesses your contracts create except compiling and using them. Tests achieve that. TDD achieves that with a fast feedback loop. With functional languages we nearly always have a REPL and so we tend to design and use our functions that way. Some proponents even say TDD is my REPL and they specifically mean in Java.

Another trusism is that people who like a technique often fixate on it and think it's the solution for everyone. The Agile Manifesto has an answer to that: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools - I like to say People Not Processes.

Erik has a whole section of his talk where he explains the best understood ways of finding breakage in big systems. It's simple deliver fast, respond fast to breakage. Facebook used to say move fast, break things. But it's good to understand that Facebook had to change that to move fast with safety. Why did they have to change it? Because it turns out when you break things you don't make much money. So try not to break things. Don't try so hard that it stops you working though; but have good monitoring and ways of abstracting things from breakage before you deliver them.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't have a chaos monkey. But would you roll out a chaos monkey on a system that wasn't prepared at all for it? I think that would be easy. I could write a chaos monkey that would take down the systems of most companies I've been at. It wouldn't need to be sophisticated at all because the software it's testing is so crap.

So maybe the thing is you should work towards having a chaos monkey.

Self organizing sucks because managers are in charge

Meijer was beginning to lose it at this point for me. This is such an utter bullshit attack on agile it's hard to respond.

Let me respond this way. I do not believe managers are the answer to economic problems.

I've been working in software for 30 years. I've been trying to help companies adapt to the changes wrought by information technology the whole time. Over my whole lifetime I've seen the problem more and more as C.P.Snow did in his famous Two Cultures:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question - such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.

In other words technologists don't tend to explain technology very well or engage in details about management and humanists doing management don't try and understand technology. Worse, I have often seen managers wearing luddite attitudes as a badge of honour:

Oh I have no idea about technology, I'm absolutely useless! I leave it to my children!

What could be a more trivializing dismissal: technology is for children!.

And here we have Erik Meijer following the same track. Programming is hard and like war, leave it to young people who we can pay well but burn out. Older fellows (and I do get the sense while listening to Erik that he's talking about fellows) can be the managers. Meijer is dismissive of the people in the room who aren't coding. But what does he think they're doing?

Making money through rigid structure

So at this point I'd like to start taking a step back from Meijer's argument and starting to point out what I think the problem with building software is.

We know that software is changing the world. Many companies are finding the reality is that they have ignored technology or pushed it to one side for too long and now it's eating their bottom line. This is absolutely a result of the ignorant attitude that Meijer is proposing: command and control, heirarchy, do what you're told, have a load of slaves do the work for you.

Meijer starts his talk by lauding Facebook and Netflix as being ideal companies. And then he goes back to talking about rigid structures being the way forward. But neither Facebook nor Netflix are run rigidly. In fact, Facebook is run with what is described as programmer anarchy. This is where programmers decide what they're going to work on next. You don't have managers, you don't have product owners, scrum masters or any of that. You have people who commit code.

And that sounds great. It sounds a bit like the hacker culture that Meijer says he is seeking. But it's not command and control. It's not the Army. Which he also says he's seeking.

It appears to be anarchy. But it's not anarchy of course. The programmers can be trusted to do the right thing because they're all super smart and mature programmers. Among the best programmers in the world. And that's because Facebook is an attractive place to work. Netflix have the same attitude. They hire what they think are the best people.

Who doesn't hire what they think are the best people? Well, most firms as it turns out. It turns out that not even Facebook and Netflix do that all the time. Why? Economics. Meijer talks a lot about how some people are paid huge amounts by Silicon Valley and there is this marvellous appreciation of talent... but we know that for years Steve Jobs ran a cartel between Apple and other silicon valley firms to push salaries of programmers down. So it's not just about appreciating talent.

In my experience most companies are playing a numbers game with technology. It is an accountants solution to a problem they don't understand:

Let's throw some money at this and then we'll cut if off if it doesn't work

It's a dim view of investment and it's a bullshit answer to the problem of building software and it's exactly what lets snake oil salesmen, shoddy programmers and other fuck ups take over and ruin everything. Unless you have your hand on the rudder you're going to get lost and it's plain that most CEOs of non-technology companies have no idea about technology.

In Britain we have this situation in spades. 52 of the FTSE 100 CEOs had a finance/accountancy background in 2013, compared to 4 with a technology background. Since all companies are software companies now that's a pretty sad statistic. I could tell you 100 anecdotes about appalling management; about the IT director at Safeway Supermarket in 1998 who said:

the Internet is amazing isn't it? You should get me a meeting with the IT director there so we can get on the Internet

or in the last few years, the director of a company experiencing lots of critical failures who told me:

it doesn't matter that the database went down! that's an Oracle problem, not OUR problem!

These people weren't agilists. They were the managers that Meijer wants to put in charge of everything. They were in charge of everything.

Scrum and maturity

I do want to talk about Scrum a little bit. Meijer calls out Scrum directly. 15 years ago I was a Scrum advocate. I liked it. But times change. It seems to me now mostly a repository of practices that people think will help big companies adapt to less command and control. But slowly. So Scrum seems to have become deliberately adapted for large, poorly performing organizations. People in the Scrum community that I meet talk a lot about managing poor developers. Compare and contrast with Netflix and Facebook, even if they're not hiring the best they are at least hiring good. In many large companies there are plenty of bad people but did they start off bad or were they made bad because of the company?

Scrum is an attempt to build a system that accomodates and manages good and bad people. Personally I think Scrum is a disaster because it makes people stop thinking and start talking about whether this is Scrum or not. If it's not Scrum we shouldn't be doing it! But that is so obviously the enemy of better.

There is a huge amount of religion about Scrum, you need a Scrum master and they have to be this sort of person who helps developers and they don't code themselves. You need Sprints and they need to be about 2 weeks long. You need Sprint planning because otherwise how will we know what the people are doing in the Sprint?

All of this is rubbish. Unequivocally. You don't need a Scrum master for a team, in fact it actively discourages the team from looking after themselves. But in a situation where you have developers who have been tightly project managed day to day maybe a scrum master type who is more servant leader than project manager would help teams learn to work things out for themselves a bit.

Sprints are utterly ridiculous ways to produce software. They always create a situation where you can't deliver fast enough, they encourage programmers to hoard code and to make source code branches and more and more busy work in the process. They're useless. But in the situation where programmers have been fed day to day and week to week a long project plan of work maybe they're a way forward for setting tighter loops with the business.

Sprint planning is utterly ridiculous because estimates are stupidly hard and people always fixate on it... but maybe just maybe in a business where project plans have been top down and taken for ages they might help you understand the scope of what you're agreeing to do together, business people and IT people.

So Scrum is shit. Except when it isn't.

So. Much. Else.

Really, I could go on for another few days writing down everything that is wrong with the video. Here's a few more things:

the purpose of a company is to make money

Not if you're the BBC. Or a charity. Money is a great monitoring tool for companies that exist like that. But there are plenty of organizations that need to make software that don't work like that.

software is replacing everything - sorry non-programmers

But sorry programmers too because sofftware is replacing programmers as well. Erik doesn't own up to that though.

10th man is about yelling at each other

Or maybe it could be about critical thinking instead of adversarial bullshit Erik? Maybe?

There's a lot more on this, about how adverserial culture doesn't work that well for better engineering, the experiences are out there and documented. If you know what you're doing you'd have looked them up.

Code always wins. Always.

I call bullshit. Steve Jobs. Not a programmer. Steve Ballmer. Not a programmer. All those CEOs. Not programmers. Does the better code always win? No. Does the first code always win? No. What exactly does Code always wins mean??

Move fast break things

Doesn't work in regulated markets. You wanna tell a gambling regulator Sorry, we broke the gambling laws because, you know, we're a hacker firm! and see how long you stay in business.

Programmers are rock stars

Do I have to explain why this is bullshit? It leads to so much cultural crap I don't even want to get started. None of it is about agile it's about being a decent human being.

Programmers are useless after they're 30

Except maybe some of the best programmers we have in the world today. Ken Thompson, Rob Pike, Joe Armstrong, Richard Stallman, Ulrich Drepper, Erik Meijer himself and many more. I could go on.

Note that I didn't say all of the best programmers are old dudes. Some are though. You wanna throw them all on the scrap heap Erik?

Companies should be like Armies

Because, ya know, making money is just like killing people.

When you go and talk to officers in the army they use lots of agile techniques during actual war. Outside of war they tend to be quite rigid structures dominated by things other than competence at fighting.

Programmers should be professional computer scientists

The programming world would be a sad place I think. Larry Wall was a linguist before working on Perl. Joe Armstrong was a Physicist. Lots of people come from their own domains and start working on problems. That's surely a good thing?


So here's my final thoughts. It's not agile that sucks that is dragging programmers down. It's the inability of programmers and business people to understand each other.

I have worked hard all my life to try to make software better so I tend to rail against the business people who just can't be arsed changing anything:

oh, that's an IT problem


I don't know about that - you'd have to talk to IT

are not acceptable responses but I hear them all the time.

But on the other hand those business people have often been so conditioned by unimaginative, over-constrained IT people.

And yeah Erik, your anti-agile programmer monoculture will sure fix that problem.

So Erik Meijer and all you other programmer accusers - stop talking about how agile sucks. Instead, start engaging with the business you work in to help them fix their software delivery. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be hard. And it's not going to be anything like computer programming. But it's worth doing all the same.