What is agile? Agile is one of the big buzzwords of the IT development industry. But exactly what is agile development?
Put simply, agile development is a different way of managing IT development teams and projects.
The use of the word agile in this context derives from the agile manifesto. A small group of people got together in 2001 to discuss their feelings that the traditional approach to managing software development projects was failing far too often, and there had to be a better way. They came up with the agile manifesto, which describes 4 important values that are as relevant today as they were then. It says, “we 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
That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.”
Ever since then, the use of methods that support these values has become increasingly popular.
From my use of various agile methods, I have written about 10 key principles of agile. These are characteristics that are common to all agile methods, and the things that I think make agile fundamentally different to a more traditional waterfall approach to software development. They are:
1. Active user involvement is imperative
2. The team must be empowered to make decisions
3. Requirements evolve but the timescale is fixed
4. Capture requirements at a high level; lightweight & visual
5. Develop small, incremental releases and iterate
6. Focus on frequent delivery of products
7. Complete each feature before moving on to the next
8. Apply the 80/20 rule
9. Testing is integrated throughout the project lifecycle – test early and often
10. A collaborative & cooperative approach between all stakeholders is essential
There are various methodologies that are collectively known as agile, as they promote the values of the agile manifesto and they are consistent with the above principles. The most popular ones are:
DSDM is probably the original agile development method. DSDM was around before the term ‘agile’ was even invented, but is absolutely based on all the principles we’ve come to know as agile. DSDM seems to be much less well-known outside of the UK.
Scrum is also an agile development method, which concentrates particularly on how to manage tasks within a team-based development environment. Scrum is the most popular and widely adopted agile method – I think because it is relatively simple to implement and addresses many of the management issues that have plagued IT development teams for decades.
XP (Extreme Programming) is a more radical agile methodology, focusing more on the software engineering process and addressing the analysis, development and test phases with novel approaches that make a substantial difference to the quality of the end product.
DSDM is probably the most complete agile methodology, whereas Scrum and XP are easier to implement and complementary because they tackle different aspects of software development projects and are both founded on very similar concepts.
Over the last 10 years, there is an ever-increasing volume of success stories, where companies have dramatically improved the success and performance of their IT development teams and projects. This has caused agile to be widely adopted across a variety of industries, including media and technology, large corporates, and even government.
In reality, though, agile is not a magic bullet for all software development issues. The real trick is to know lots of techniques from various waterfall and agile development methods, and to select a mixture of the best approaches that are most appropriate for any given situation. To do this reliably with any degree of success really requires a lot of experience and skill.
In agile software projects, project management takes a slightly different form, relying far more on the project manager’s skills in communication, facilitation, coordination, and emphasising far less on planning and control.
Agile development can be a very exciting and invigorating approach, although some projects suit agile more than others. The collaboration and visibility can provide a much richer and more rewarding experience for teams to develop great software products. Agile development can be a lot more enjoyable than the waterfall approach, which requires lots more documentation and is less flexible by its nature. And when people enjoy their work, it’s amazing what they can achieve!