Tiempo Talks Episode 1 – Is Agile Dead?

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Hello and welcome to the first episode of Tiempo Talks. I’m your host Perla Gomez. Tiempo Talks is a platform dedicated to all things software development. Each month we will feature an expert guest who will share their perspective on a current software topic. This month we will be discussing the state of Agile today, and whether or not it has fulfilled its promise to help organizations build better software, faster. To help us shine some light on this topic, we have with us a very special guest, Francisco Ponce from Tiempo Development. Hello Ponce, welcome to the show, can you please tell us a little about yourself.

Hello, everybody! Hello Perla, thank you for the invitation. Well, yeah, my name is Francisco Ponce and I’ve been working in the software industry for almost twenty years now, ten of them have been as part of Tiempo Development! I started here as a software engineer, then I became a technical lead, later I jumped into a Scrum Master position and now I’m a Senior Delivery Lead. I’m managing multiple teams to ensure their delivery to our customers, including Fortune 1000 ones! I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in all the areas and activities related to software development and I’ve become a true agile enthusiast after all this time, after experiencing real-world challenges and successes applying the agile values.

That’s quite a resume! Thank you for sharing a little bit from it with our listeners, and thank you for being on the show.

It’s my pleasure.

Because of your background utilizing Agile and assisting other organizations mature their Agile practices, we thought you would be the perfect guest to bring on the show, and discuss your perspective of Agile. 

Over the years there has been some sentiment that Agile has become a buzzword, that it failed to deliver on its promise. In fact, two of Agile’s founders have recently spoken out about the current state of Agile, with one saying that “Agile has become sloganized; meaningless at best, jingoist at worst. We have large swaths of people doing ‘flaccid agile,’ a half-hearted attempt at following a few select software development practices, poorly.” Now, this is a pretty strong statement. What’s your take on this?

Well, yeah. Agile may have become a hyped up buzzword, that’s a reality, but it is a problem derived out of its own success. Companies wanted to have a successful model and Agile was a lot of what they were looking for. Now, consulting companies took a note of this and just used the word to attract customers, without thinking first a real strategy and using the promise of a one-size-fits-all process, something like that, which is essentially everything Agile is against. Because of that, we have to accept that the word itself may have lost some power as everyone now is supposedly “agile”, but its core principles and values still apply to the current development world. For example, here in Tiempo we have an internally developed framework of practices and activities that we don’t force onto all of our projects: we just pick the ones that make sense and add value, and leave out anything that is not necessary for the project. In fact, we sometimes adopt an already mature process a customer may have, instead of assuming ours is better just because we can charge for it.

There has also been a growing trend for industries and functions outside of software to adopt Agile. What do you think is driving this trend?

I love it, and reality is that agile drew inspiration first from other industries for its conception. Practices and concepts from manufacturing, like lean or six sigma, were used as a basis for the practices, values and principles of agile. So, it now makes sense for agile now to be permeating those industries too, or other industries, especially the ones that already have in practice some of the original concepts used to create agile. Now, the most important concept that agile is exporting to other industries and functions is that stakeholders, that is, the concept of someone interested in having the product out, or product finished; They are as responsible for the success of a project as the manager and the teams themselves, and their constant involvement in the project and interaction with the team is key. Return on investment should be top priority and responsibility and applying agile concepts and practices will help stakeholders to adapt to changes that any industry or business will eventually face.

So, do you feel that this widespread adoption is positive, or do you think it has fueled some of the frustration with Agile within the software development community? 

Great question! The impact is positive. As other industries understand what it means to be agile, the easier the interaction with other areas and software development it’s gonna be. A lot of agile methodologies do apply perfectly to non-software projects. For example, Tiempo Development itself operates like an open- ended, agile development project, where progress is measured at 24-hour intervals in daily standups and two-week sprints are commonplace. And I’m talking about not the projects we work for our customers, I’m talking internally. 

Yeah, the function of the company itself.

Exactly! Business planning and management by Tiempo executives rely on high-performing teams practices just like development teams do. Each quarter, five high-performing teams pursue five strategic initiatives, which comprise user stories and backlogs organized in the form of EPICS. Teams track their commitments to validate their outcomes and document a trajectory of continuous improvement. This has led to tremendous success stories: we have been able to implement company-wide strategies in a very short time, thanks to being focused on specific targets, plus quick delivery and feedback. So much that we have been doing this for years now. I mean, three? Four? Maybe more. It’s been a while since we started this. It’s been really successful.

So, do you think what most organizations are practicing and are calling Agile is actually Agile? 

I think all the companies that say they are doing agile are somewhat agile. It’s just that companies are more worried to tell the world that they are agile, than to actually be agile. In fact, any development company that is worth their salt is focused on building quality software, delivering exceptional client experience and outcomes that improve business performance. Agile is just a great way to achieve that, but only when done right. In the end, we are just using the word “agile” to describe a philosophy and practices that are useful for software development, and projects in general. But it doesn’t matter if it’s being named some other way, or even if we don’t have a specific name for it. It’s just that the word “agile” is the first one that truly got track as is recognized.

So what does real Agile look like then? When can one factually say, my company does Agile development?

Well, as long as you comply with the values and principles of the agile manifesto, I think you are being agile. Is as simple as that. Does your team constantly collaborate with the customer? Is your team focused mainly on solving business problems? Do you continuously refine your desired set of features to adapt to market changes? Are you getting early and constant feedback from end users? Is everyone more focused on having working software of quality than getting good documentation, KPIs or metrics? I mean, those are the indicators that you’re being agile; true, real agile.

I really want to ask you this because Dave Thomas, one of the original writers of the Agile Manifesto, he said that “What passes for an agile community seems to be largely an arena for consultants and vendors to hawk services and products, and has become a marketing term for anyone with points to espouse, hours to bill, or products to sell. Now, do you think that the push from consulting and outsource companies to essentially “Sell” agile has damaged its reputation? Because Agile is about culture, about a mindset, and would likely look very differently for each organization. Can you truly package all that and sell it? 

There’s a reason why we are talking now about this topic, right? Hahaha. Definitely the fierce competition from companies in the software industry has derived into sales speeches that cause confusion between customers and users alike about what is agile. Having inexperienced people involved in failed projects that tried to “follow agile” certainly doesn’t help. Nonetheless, the wrong aspect of this is that software companies are selling “agile”, and not “the benefits of being agile”. Remember that the important part is not that they do refinements, daily stand-ups or retrospectives. Is not that they have experienced Scrum Master or Product Owners either. Nor the fact that they use Jira or TFS. The important part is that being agile allows teams to create the software that the customer needs with great quality. The message needs to focus less on the practices, less on that, and more on the results, elevating success stories.

You just mentioned projects that failed while trying to follow agile methodologies. What do you think are the biggest mistakes organizations usually make? Where do they go wrong?

I think that not understanding that, at its core, agile is about constant collaboration and adapting to the inevitable change. Thinking that by following an agile methodology to the book, either Scrum, Kanban, SAFE, XP, whatever, will bring success on its own is completely wrong. One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced companies that want to have successful software projects do is that they hire professionals and expect them to do all the work, thinking “they are agile and have the experience, they will do what I want”, and they abandon the project altogether. The stakeholders, never interact with them again. But it’s super important to have the customer understand they also need to be agile themselves, and will have to be constantly involved during the lifetime of the project. The best agile companies, like Tiempo, are the ones that help and guide the customer to be participating along the rest of the team in the day-to-day work. This work will help to make better decisions, and adapt to the upcoming changes that will derive from the business and early feedback from users and stakeholders.

So what happens after the mistakes? How can organizations regain confidence in agile, after failing with a previous attempt when they want to try again?

Best way is to look and research successful examples of agile implementations. Understand why they did well, how did they solve the problems others have faced in their projects. I would never recommend doing something like a full reset or restart. All good agile methodologies have a tool or practice that will allow the process itself to improve over time. You would need to have a good agile coach, like for example, a Scrum Master, that enforces the process and helps the team to focus the conversation into the things that are not working well, or help them find those things. It’s really easy to lose the focus into things that are symptoms instead of the actual problems. And, I have an example: during one retrospective of one of my teams, some members brought out “communication” as an issue for the process. They insisted that they were not getting the required info as clear as they needed. And the proposed solutions included things from extensive templates for the user stories with a lot of information, to even training on how to communicate effectively. In the end, after using the “5 whys” technique, which is really good by the way, we found out the root cause to be poor availability of the Product Owner, who was being swamped with other tasks beyond the scope of the project. We weren’t able to get all the time we wanted from the Product Owner, but to solve this specific issue, we decided to have the Product Owner reserve two hours a day exclusively for the team to solve questions and discuss ideas. That turned out excellent!

We have spent some time here today discussing the current state of Agile and how it relates with the work you do, but I am curious however, in your opinion what does the future of Agile look like?

It’s been about twenty years of agile as a way to do software, so it’s reasonable to think it will soon evolve. But, I have to say, as the famous “No Silver Bullet” paper says, “there is no single development, in either technology or management technique, which by itself promises even one order of magnitude improvement within a decade in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity.” Whatever comes after agile, will be just a small improvement. 

Ponce, we would like to thank you for coming in today to share some of your expertise. I hope you can join us again in the future. And thank you to those of you listening in to our first show today. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. All episodes are posted on our website www.tiempodev.com and each new episode will be announced on social media @TiempoSoftware on Twitter and @Tiempo Development on LinkedIn and Facebook. You can also email us to podcasts@tiempodev.com if you have any questions, comments or you have a topic you would like us to cover next.

Please tune in next month, where we will be hosting a special discussion around one clients migration to Microservices. Our guests will be CTO of CBT Nuggets, Sean Sullivan, COO of Tiempo Development, Mike Hahn, and Director of Software Delivery at Tiempo Angel Almada.

Until the next one, I am Perla Gomez and you’ve been listening to Tiempo Talks.