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Agile development workshop: Lessons learned

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Reg Reader Workshop Reader research conducted via the Reg Technology Panel over the last few years has consistently indicated the importance of application development to organisations large and small. Contrary to some of the things we hear, the need for software design, build and maintenance capability has not been killed by packaged applications, and certainly not by some of the latest ideas such as software as a service (SaaS) and cloud computing.

But it is true to say that things have been evolving steadily within the application development domain itself. The proliferation of scripting languages, rapid development frameworks, collaborative open source projects etc, coupled with the emergence of the ‘perpetual beta’ concept we have seen become commonplace in the online service provider world, has shaken everything up and directly challenged some of the traditional ways of doing things.

Against this background, it was interesting to get feedback from Reg readers in the latest workshop on some of the fundamental practicalities of managing software development in various different scenarios. Having worked through the insights coming out of your comments and poll responses, there are three main messages that come across strongly:

Lesson 1: Effective management is key to everything

While discussions of how to enable effective software development can quickly turn to tools and techniques (more of that below), it is very telling that two of the top three ranked criteria identified by Reg readers for creating the perfect development environment were management-related. Of the 670 readers participating in our poll, over 80 per cent gave “Respect, realistic expectations and understanding from management” and “Strong leadership of dept/team” an importance rating of 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. This was regardless of whether respondents were developers, team leaders or managers, or whether they worked in larger or smaller development shops. Over 60 per cent went on to highlight “Protection of developers from external pressures” as a key requirement of those managing the development function.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but when such requirements figure twice as prominently “Top of the table remuneration”, you can almost feel the pain of developers’ lives, and productivity, being negatively affected by management issues. We can infer from this that one of the key imperatives for optimising the development process is a two-way objective dialogue between the development organisation and business sponsors or stakeholders, in which priorities, constraints, dependencies and expectations are properly discussed and managed. Unfortunately, the danger is that you end up with a vicious circle in which development teams are asked to deliver against unrealistic objectives, have their objections overruled, and subsequently fail, which means next time around, they have more of a credibility problem than ever, so find it even more difficult to stand their ground.

The key to breaking such spirals is education, relationship management and, where necessary, effective internal negotiation. A trick that seems to work for some is putting relationship managers in place as go-betweens or facilitators. These are not necessarily your best developers, or even your most senior managers, but the silver tongued animals that are comfortable building a rapport with users and sponsors, and not afraid to stand their ground under pressure when laying out options. In any event, strong leadership and air cover is going to important for things to work well.

Lesson 2: A balance must be struck between structure and ‘creativity’

Turning to the internal workings of the development function, some interesting insights were prompted by a discussion about whether today’s programmers are more creative than their counterparts of 20 years ago (see here). The message came through loud and clear that while modern tools and environments allow developers to work up creative front ends rapidly and flexibly, the need for sound analysis and design has not gone away.

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