Agile Development Spawns a Lexicon

A software development methodology has created more than just code

3 min read
opening illustration for technically speaking
Illustration: Dan Page
Through this work we have come to value: individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; responding to change over following a plan.

In his 1957 bookParkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Administration, the naval historian and author C. Northcote Parkinson writes of a fictional committee meeting during which, after a two-and-a-half-minute nondiscussion on whether to build a nuclear reactor worth US $10 million, the members spend 45 minutes discussing the power plant’s bike shed, worth $2,350. From this he coined Parkinson’s Law of Triviality: “Time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.”

Using Parkinson’s example, the programmer Poul-Henning Kamp popularized the term bikeshedding: frequent, detailed discussions on a minor issue conducted while major issues are being ignored or postponed. The functional opposite of bikeshedding is trystorming, which refers to rapidly and repeatedly prototyping or implementing new products and processes. In a bikeshedding culture, ideas get only a short discussion before being put off “for further study.” In a trystorming culture, that same idea would be immediately prototyped, modeled, simulated, mocked up, or implemented, and examined to see what works and what doesn’t. The trystorming motto is “Fail early, fail fast, fail often.”

That fail-fast mantra also describes the process of Agile software development, a set of principles for making software that emphasizes an iterative, collaborative, and adaptive approach. In one Agile framework called Scrum, programmers are assigned timeboxes—also known as iterationsorsprints—which are set time periods in which they focus on completing a predefined goal, which then becomes a WIP: a work in progress. One of the key elements of Agile is that these goals are almost always usable features of the final product (a process called continuous integration). Programmers work in Scrum teams under the supervision of a Scrum master, who runs daily standups, short meetings to review progress in which people physically stand rather than sit.

Another Agile framework is Kanban, where remaining tasks are visualized for all to see (kanban is Japanese for “billboard”), and coders “pull” tasks from this list rather than having tasks “pushed” to them. What if Kanban teams want to use some aspects of the Scrum methodology, such as standups? Then call this hybrid approach Scrumban.

Kanban (and indeed all Agile methodologies) are very visual, with team leaders providing lots of big, visible charts depicting project metrics such as the backlog (showing the features remaining in the project) and either the burndown (the rate at which the backlog is being cleared) or the burnup (the rate at which project tasks are being completed). Some teams even use a niko-niko calendar (nikoniko is Japanese for “smile”), where at the end of each day team members display a visual indication of their mood (hence the alternative name mood board). All such charts and boards are often called information radiators.

Agile teams are big into pair programming, where two programmers sit at the same workstation, with one operating the keyboard and mouse and the other providing general direction and on-the-fly code reviews. These are known as the driver and the navigator, respectively, and they typically swap roles frequently. Both programmers are expected to provide running commentary throughout the process, which is known as programming out loud. A variation on that theme is mob programming, where the role of the navigator is assumed by the entire software team. A similar idea is swarming, where multiple team members jump into an in-progress task to help complete the work.

The main aim of Agile is to create happy customers by building great products. But look closer and you see a humane streak running through all of Agile. Teams seek a sustainable pace, meaning a work rate—sometimes called a velocity—that can be kept up indefinitely.

This article appears in the June 2017 print issue as “Agile Words.”

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