Don’t hold the Agile ‘truths’ to be self-evident

Earlier this year I wrote an outspoken post following the online protests when the young author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was commissioned to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb into Dutch. Rather than pointing out their non-existing experience as a literary translator, the protest centered around their clear lack of epidermal pigmentation. The job should have been given to a person of color. Rijneveld returned the assignment with the usual undignified and probably disingenuous apologies for having wounded certain sensitivities. I side with Ricky Gervais on this one: just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right.

You may think this is the typical stance of a white Gen-X male, university educated and raised in an affluent, traditional rural Dutch milieu. And you would be spot on. My background colors everything I do and opine, including the previous paragraph, the next ones and everything I have written and will write on this blog. I could not be neutral if I wanted to.

12 Angry Men (1957). Times change, but at a glacial pace in Dutch development teams. Copyright United Artists

I want to talk about bias: the way in which your background unconsciously colors every thought and action. And I want to do it in the light of the young Agile 2 movement. This was initiated by software professionals who believe that after twenty years it is time for a thorough reevaluation of the Agile principles that have taken the IT world by storm. Agility should be interpreted in this context as greater flexibility and adaptability. We should listen to our clients more closely, involve them in the process, flatten the org-chart, shorten the lines of communication, and get rid of stifling piles of documentation and contracts. This was laid down some time ago during the digital Jurassic era (2001) in the Agile Manifesto, which sounds intentionally lofty and a little pompous. Everything had to be disruptive; it was the new millennium after all. The authors who produced this Manifesto over the course of a single weekend were not your typical hipster dudes with buns and tattoos. They were experienced and esteemed professionals. Although they supposedly argued fiercely on technical issues, in another sense the group was as homogenous as you can get: all male, predominantly American and entirely Western. It didn’t even occur to me how problematic that is, probably because in the Netherlands the proportion of women in IT is still embarrassingly low. All-male teams of developers have been the norm ever since I started out in 1999. This is frankly pathetic.

Indulge me to play devil’s advocate for a paragraph. We don’t really need more diversity to deliver quality products, do we know? We hardly have it in the construction industry. Our buildings aren’t any less safe or sturdy because they were almost exclusively put together by male hands. Our technical output is impersonal and non-judgmental. When I devise an algorithm, I do not flavor it with a cis-hetero, rural Dutch background. It’s correct, efficient, and elegant, or it isn’t. A female, Asian or trans perspective will not yield a different solution.

Dear advocate, you’re talking BS. You don’t live in a binary world. Whenever you interact with people you bring your whole cultural background into the equation. You’re not aware when and how strongly this bias manifests itself. That’s what you typically notice after the fact. “Damn, I never thought of that!” When you design a closet on a team where everybody is over six feet tall, you have a blind spot. When you design a subtle page design on a team of twentysomethings who don’t yet need reading glasses, you have a blind spot, pardon the pun. There are few situations that leave room for only a single optimal, non-controversial solution. Assuming that there is such an optimal solution is already presumptuous, so let’s be very careful.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident”. The wise men of the Manifesto don’t literally say it, but their words betray a similar intent. Yet the principles are not peer-reviewed scientific facts, let alone rules of nature. They are the preferences of a culturally highly homogenous group, and therefore by nature arbitrary. They felt themselves entitled to speak on behalf of an entire community, but no group has that right, regardless of their expertise and experience.

The Agile Manifesto is not a how-to guide for writing better code. It does not advise you on how to design, test, roll out and maintain software. It contains generic advice on how to cooperate better within software teams and between external stakeholders, in particular your clients. The hugely popular Scrum framework, which actually predates the Manifesto and has become a de-facto implementation of Agile, formalizes it in roles and procedures. But the Scrum guide does not get technical, because it purposely does not want to be just about software. The Manifesto deals with collaboration and communication, for which diversity matters a great deal. Yet the kind of diversity that was needed was entirely absent.

The Agile pioneers and the many signatories did not appreciably bother themselves with whether these principles could be considered contentious. It must have all sounded pretty self-evident. That’s the way it goes. A team of trouser-wearers will put a spectacular see-through glass staircase in the middle of your flagship store because no skirt-wearing members of the human species were there during the design to make them slap their foreheads and go “Hang on a minute!” Take this principle: The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. That’s what you think. When I’m deep into a technical issue I don’t like to be interrupted. Send me an email and I’ll answer when I have time. Before I give you my reply in person, I like to do some preparation. Unlike you, I do my thinking before I open my mouth.

Most writers of the Manifesto were not full time software developers, at least not anymore. They were predominantly leaders of companies, expensive consultants, and esteemed public speakers. They were visible and vocal (Martin Fowler calls himself a loud-mouthed pundit). Makes sense: they probably wouldn’t have got together if they weren’t, and we didn’t have social media back then. I think it is fair to assume that many of them were squarely in the extraverted personality spectrum. This happens to be atypical of the group that their well-intentioned advice is supposed to cater to. The average software developer is predominantly introverted. She usually has a different need for face-to-face communication and uninterrupted concentrated alone time.

The Agile 2 movement recognizes some of the serious drawbacks in the Agile thinking of the past two decades and has kicked off with a much more diverse thinktank of specialists, for starters. Especially the appreciation of deep, uninterrupted concentration instead of open plan office group work finally gets the attention it deserves. Do a duckduckgo search “why agile doesn’t work” and “I hate Scrum”. It shows that it’s high time for a balanced dissenting voice.