The Boss Wants Us All to Get Agile

Opinion: Management enthusiasm requires management of expectations.

Is it good news or bad news when nontechnical management gets enthused about a software development meme such as agile development methods?

Yes. As in, it is both.

Management support brings increased access to training, notoriously neglected in the building and maintenance of enterprise development teams. When I Google the three words, "software developer training" (not as a quoted phrase), the first hit that I get relates to offshore development in India. Thats not what Id call a good sign.

In a parody of the Capability Maturity Model® Integration (CMMI) meme of the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute, an Air Force researcher has put forth a "Capability Im-Maturity Model" (CIMM) in which "Level -2" is labeled "Contemptuous" and includes the following descriptive passage:

"All new people are expected to know their jobs already or to be trained by on-the-job training (by the person who left two months before they arrived for work). If trained software engineers are hired, they are criticized for having book learning but no real-world software development experience. If new hires have software development experience, they are criticized for having software "development" experience instead of software "maintenance" experience (or vice versa depending on the circumstances). If they have both types of experience, they are told that this system (the one being developed or maintained) is different, the organization is different, or the end user is different and that those software engineering ideas will not work in this environment. Any existing experienced software engineers are either disinvited from any forums that would enable them to air their views or are congratulated on their keen insight and then quietly reassigned to administrative positions far away from software development."

I hope that this comes across as ironic comedy instead of all-too-familiar tragedy.

But you may be able to look forward to something better, since a survey released at the end of last month by Agile toolmaker VersionOne LLC suggests that agile-method support is rising into higher levels of the organization. I discussed the survey results with VersionOne President and CEO (and also blogger in chief) Robert Holler: four years ago, he told me, it was individual programmers who got enthused about agile methods and acted as their champion in the organization. Two years ago, it was development teams who took that role. Now, he said, more than half the time its someone at the executive level—and the survey results bear that out with a finding that a president, VP or project manager is identified 57 percent of the time as "the initial champion of agile development" in the organization.

The back edge of that two-edged sword is the risk of unreasonable expectations. "Management by Book of the Month Club" is identified by my own editorial director, Mike Vizard, as No. 8 of the Thirteen Scariest Things in IT. We have to hope that management support for agile methods represents an arrival at balanced enlightenment, not a short stop on a continuing restless search for instant satori.

Managers are increasingly open to discussion of software development as a critical, strategic capability rather than a trolls-in-the-basement technical function. Its up to development leaders to nurture the flame of that interest without letting it burn out into disillusionment.

Tell me how you keep the fire burning at