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What Matters Most in Agile By @Datical | @DevOpsSummit [#DevOps]

Distilling Down to Its Essence

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

- Albert Einstein

I ran across this quote a while back, and was awestruck at its profundity. I keep it on a list of quotes that I look to for inspiration. To think that the guy who invented the theory of relativity views the world in this way, trying to distill extremely complex ideas down to their simplest form, is a gentle reminder for the rest of us mere mortals that most things in life are not all that complicated. It is we who make things complex.

This morning I read a really thought-provoking article on DZone from Dele Sikuade on what he considers to be “the single most important thing in Agile” (see article here). Dele is following Einstein’s advice in trying to distill Agile down to the simplest principle that he argues we all need to try to understand – “you can only give people what they ask for, not what they want.”

"Get a group together, any group it really doesn’t matter, sit them down so that they face you, and get yourself a flipchart. Ask the group to list all of the features of a car that they think they would need. Write every feature down – steering wheel, seats, wheels, gears, etc. At the end, when there are no more requirements forthcoming, draw them a car with one of the actual features of a car missing – there will always be dozens! The last time I did this the team forgot that they might want their car to have doors (and brakes, and an aerial for the radio and…). You can play the ‘you forgot to tell me something that you only realized when I drew a car without it…’ game endlessly. In other words, until they see the car and discover what is missing they don't think to ask for it."

It's a provoking thought exercise, and illustrates Dele's point simply and beautifully.  What he is arguing is that all methodologies, best practices, and rules in Agile exist only to serve this one principle.  But if an Agile team doesn't intuitively understand this principle, they will never truly be practicing Agile.

The Agile Manifesto stresses getting working code out the door.  What this does is put the working code in front of the customer quickly, whether they be internal business customers who need it for productivity, or external customers who produce revenue for the company.  Agile assumes not to know what the customer wants before he or she sees it, and so fast iterations are employed, coupled with continuous feedback from the customer, in order to build the thing that is desired - together.

It seems very humble to me - an embodiment of service to others - to continually check with the customer, and in the broader perspective, the market, to ensure that what is being built is useful.  Agile doesn’t presume to know the answer ahead of time.  It doesn’t hold the product hostage for months or years, waiting for a hefty ransom from the customer, who during that time has no idea whether they will find the product useful or not. 

Instead, Agile begins from the point of trying to help the customer solve a problem.  The requirements process prioritizes the most critical functionality, getting a few features to the customer quickly in order to stab at the heart of the problem.  Like when Michelangelo sculpted David, Agile clears the biggest obstacles away first, in broad swaths, to outline the solution in its roughest form.  And then Agile continually goes back to the sculpture, shaping, refining, and polishing, until something beautiful emerges.  For the customer, this beauty is measured in terms of utility - the elegance and simplicity with which the product solves the problem. 

Software developers are the master craftsmen in this digital era, when business relies upon code more and more, through new technology trends like virtualization, software defined networks, infrastructure as code, and the burgeoning Internet of Things.  Through collaboration with the customer, Agile allows development teams to discover the solution, together, within the heart of the problem. 

In doing so, Agile development teams are akin to Michelangelo, who is credited with saying, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

More Stories By Rex Morrow

Rex is the Marketing Director at Datical, a venture-backed software company whose solution, Datical DB, manages and simplifies database schema change management in support of high velocity application releases. Prior to Datical, Rex co-founded Texas Venture Labs, a startup accelerator at the University of Texas, and received his MBA from the McCombs School of Business. Before graduate school, Rex served as a Captain in the U.S. Army, and was awarded two bronze stars during combat deployments in Iraq.

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