Where Executives and Agile Beliefs Diverge

It is a commonly held belief that Executives and Agile are aligned and the problem with Agile adoption lies with the Frozen Middle (Management). Although Agile and Executives are aligned on many things, there are some core beliefs where some executives diverge. This is the first post in a series that explores those areas where the divergence occurs.

Sustainable Pace

The easiest way to spot an IT executive who does not have experience on the front line as a developer or manager is their attitude to overtime. Anyone with experience as an agile developer or working closely with developers knows that any code written after six in the evening has to be rewritten at some point, ideally the following day but often at a later date when it costs more to fix. One of the core tenets of Agile is the concept of “sustainable pace“, that developers work at a pace that can be sustained over an indefinite period. This sustainable pace leads to more predictability regarding the delivery of value that gives business sponsors confidence and reliability. Sustainable pace reduces cost because it reduces staff turnover , especially experienced developers who have a choice as to where they work. In order to maintain a sustainable pace, managers need to ensure they have slack which is also contrary to the goals of many executives.

Sustainable Pace is particularly important when developers are following an Agile approach to development, or more precisely Extreme Programming (or Dev Ops as it often called these days). Extreme Programming is a very disciplined and rigorous approach to developing software. Developers follow the disciplined “Red-Green-Refactor” pattern. This approach requires discipline and focus that is enhanced by the practice of pair programming which further keeps developers focused on a problem and reduces interruption. Extreme Programming is rigorous and relentless, requiring both discipline and focus. Simply put, if a developer is following extreme programming practices, they are simply unable to work beyond 6pm for an extended period without becoming tired and making mistakes. These mistakes lead to reduced productivity and introduce uncertainty into the development process.

Cheap developers reduce costs

Associated with the belief that sustainable pace is unimportant is the belief that some executives have that cheap developers reduce cost. Experienced Agile Developers and managers that have worked with them know that good developers are much cheaper than inexperienced ones when you consider productivity. Experienced Agile developers “shave the Yak” as they go along. They ruthlessly refactor legacy code bases so that they can deliver value faster. They do not have have to do massive refactorings as a big batch but rather have the skills to continuously improve the code base. All of this whilst continuously improving the velocity at which they deliver value using the “Red-Green-Refactor” pattern.

Book of Dead Code

A few years ago I visited Nat Pryce and his team. They were looking after a complex code base to support a web site for complicated financial derivatives. Nat showed me a graph that plotted the number of lines of code over a six month period. Over six month his team had reduced the code base from a million lines of code to one hundred thousand. The code base was approximately ten percent of its original size.

I once worked with Steve Freeman on a project. In a few short weeks he reduced the size of one of the most complicated areas of the code base by 80% and trained the graduate on the team in Extreme Programming at the same time. The pair also wrapped the code base in automated tests as part of the process.

If you want to understand why that is so significant, consider the following two images. In which one is it easiest to spot the bug (Waldo)?

screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-17-16-57 screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-17-17-40

Some Agile Developers have a practice of creating a book of dead code. Code that has been deleted from legacy code bases that was unnecessary. A book of dead code is a good way of demonstrating to business investors how much unnecessary and wasteful code they have paid for because they hired inexperienced developers.

Inexperienced developers tend to generate bigger code bases as they “cut-and-paste” to solve problems. A lack of automated tests leads to risk aversion which means they avoid touching the original code and copy it instead, tweaking the new version and leaving the original untouched.

If you want to reduce your short and long term costs, invest in Agile developers who have extensive experience in Extreme Programming practices.

Value versus Cost

Unfortunately executives do not value experienced Agile developers. They prefer to hire cheap off shore developers who are often recent graduates in the belief that cheap is better than experience.

The reason for this is well known.

IT departments in traditional organisations have a pretty poor track record at delivering value. A few years ago I heard a quote from a CEO. It was something like “I love off-shoring. Now when a project fails, it does not cost as much“. This highlights the reality that business leaders do not trust their IT departments to deliver value, so they focus on reducing cost. Agile focuses on delivering value rather than reducing cost. Cost reduction occurs by only building features that customers value and avoiding the features that are not valued and therefore not used.

Good developers want to work with good developers

So now that we understand that hiring good developers is better than hiring cheap developers for reducing overall costs. How do we hire good developers?

Executives think that paying experienced developers is enough to motivate them. They think that coersion applied through the hierarchy and the appropriate (currently in vogue) reward and appraisal system is all that is needed to achieve the goals they set.

Good developers want to write good code. They look for environments where they are respected for their ability and managers and executives are constantly looking for ways to help the developers become more effective. Good developers want to work in an environment where they have the tools they need to perform. If they do not have those tools, they will move on.

Good Agile developers want to work with good agile developers. They want to develop their skills and they are not going to be able to do that working with a bunch of graduates.

The good news is if you create the conditions that allow developers to deliver, they will come to you. There are several companies in London with large clusters of Agile Developers. As soon as an Agile developer discovers a good place to work, they reach out to their friends to pull them in. That’s why companies like Springer, Sky, Net-A-Porter, BBC, that are known to be favorable environments for Agile developers. They do not need to advertise as developers make a bee line to them.

It takes time to establish a reputation as a “go to” agile organisation. For those organisations that want a kick start and for those executives who do not have access to the network of established agile practitioners, you might consider starting with established agile consultancies rather than those whose practice is based in waterfall. Consultancies like Equal Experts, BJSS, Zulkhe, Industrial Logic, Crisp and ThoughtWorks. The ideal is to hire the alumni of those consultancies.

Teams OVER Individuals

Executives who are experienced with agile appreciate the value of individuals and appreciate the value of gelled teams of experienced individuals even more. A few months ago Microsoft closed the London Office of Skype in a strategic reorganisation. Enlightened individuals at Amazon appreciated the opportunity this represented and at the end of the same day they were standing outside of the Skype office handing out Apple Macs to developers. They did not insisted on interviews but hired entire teams in one go.

Being ready to respond to an opportunity like that. That is true agile management.

Dragon Slayers and Farmers

In the next post I will discuss the divergent attitude towards Dragon Slayers and Farmers.

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About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

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