Best Intentions

It was 1989. I was fresh out of University and had just started my first job as a computer programmer at DataComp. Richard, the head of whole company called a meeting for the software development team. "We are not happy with the number of bugs in the software. If this keeps up, we will fire all the programmers, and the managers will do all the programming." The new programmers (me included) sat in terror, and the more experienced ones rolled their eyes. Richard nagged about software quality every few months. He thought that the best way to improve quality was to shout, each time with a threat that if quality didn't improve, severe punishments would follow. The punishments never followed, and quality never improved much either.

It is 2008, and many companies later, I am now a director of product development for a large, well known, and highly profitable website that we will call WebNet. Dave, the senior executive began: "Too many projects miss their deadlines. From now on, when you hear a deadline you will now subtract two weeks from it in your head. This way, all projects will be early!". Again, all the experienced staff rolled their eyes and muttered under their breath. Dave couldn't work out why deadlines kept being missed. He had been grasping at deadlines for as long as anybody remembered, and despite his continual shifting of tactics, they always escaped his grip.

Just about every organisation I have encountered has similar stories. To all the people in the meetings, these managers seemed to be hindering projects, not helping them. They were acting like the Pointy-Haired Boss from Dilbert.

Is the world really full of Pointy-Haired Bosses? Clearly, some bosses really are fools. Likewise, some project team members are truly incompetent. This book can't help either of them.

Richard and Dave weren't fools. They were smart guys, who had a string of successes behind them. Above all, they had good intentions. At DataComp, Richard was worried about achieving software quality. At WebNet, Dave was worried about meeting deadlines. The problem wasn't with their intentions, it was with the ways they hoped to achieve them; they simply didn't work.

Like Dave and Richard, the majority of bosses are doing their best to run their projects well. Likewise, the vast majority of the people on the ground in project teams are dedicated to making those projects succeed. This book describes an approach to software development aimed at those people: well-intentioned folks who, despite their best efforts, often find that projects go astray.

Competitive Edge

"Work Smarter, Not Harder!" We have all heard that one a hundred times. We have heard it so often we are sick to the stomach of it. It sounds great, of course, but what on earth does it mean? Is it just an empty phrase that sells more "motivational" posters, or is there really some substance to it?

For a long time, I used to think there was nothing to it. Over the past eight years, I have come to change my mind. It is now abundantly clear that some organizations really are working smarter than others.

Quite simply, they are outsmarting their competitors with the way they develop IT and use it to deliver unheard of levels of business value. They have taken what used to be a business liability, and turned it into a business asset.

Their secret sauce is called Agile software development. Maybe you have heard about it. There is certainly plenty of buzz about it.

Agile isn’t some academic theory. It comes from lessons learned in the real world. Agile distills the field-proven techniques the highly success projects are using to react to a rapidly changing business environment, and to adapt business processes and IT together, to capture market share and dominate industries. . These are the principles and practices that your most successful competitors are using to stay ahead of the game.

This book lays out those proven principles and practices, so you can see what Agile is all about, and decide if Agile is right for you. And if you do decide Agile is right for you, this book will tell you, in plain language, how to go about doing it so that you too get the results that others are getting. So you can catch up with the most effective companies out there, and maybe even overtake them.

Why Write This Book?

There are already plenty of books about Agile. So, why write another one?

I wrote this book because people asked me too. Many of my colleagues, clients, and friends had heard the Agile buzz, and even read some of the books, and yet they told me they still didn’t get what Agile really was all about.

Customers had been asking me “Why should I care about this stuff?” Colleagues told me “Does Agile just mean giving up on management?” Friends asked “Is this stuff just for geeks?”

The real turning point came in March 2008. I received a phone call from a senior executive at a well-known billion-dollar company. Let’s call him Peter.

Peter was flying into town, and wanted to take me to dinner. Over Mexican steak and red wine, Peter told me he was nervous. “Anthony, our biggest competitor has been taking all our business for the past two year. They have us playing ‘catch up’ rather than leading the pack. The more we try, the further ahead they seem to get. What do you think they are doing that we are not?”

I knew the competitor well. I had spent time looking at how they worked, so I could tell him straight away. “They are doing something called Lean Software Development” I began, then went on to explain it in detail. Peter stopped me: “We can’t do that,” he explained, “We don’t want chaos in our company. Sure, we want to go faster than them, but we want to keep good project management principles.”

A few days later, Peter put me in touch with Dave, a colleague of his. We are going Agile!” Dave exclaimed. “Great, but what do you mean by that?” I asked cautiously. “Well, we don’t mean ‘official’ Agile” Dave revealed, “We’ve got to be practical. We can’t afford to drop the discipline we already have. We are going to start the testing phase earlier, so that projects can go faster.”

Two things struck me:

  1. The first was that Peter and his colleagues were scared of going Agile. I was more scared that they were not going Agile. After all, the competition was doing, and was beating the hell out of them in the marketplace.
  2. The second thing that struck me was that they were completely wrong about what Agile was. Somehow, they believed Agile meant a form of “Wild West” software development, where all safeguards went out of the window. The reality is that Agile, when done properly, is the exact opposite of untamed chaos. Real Agile is about extraordinary discipline bringing extraordinary results.

I vowed then and there to write this book.

How is this book different?

This book explains Agile differently. Most of the books on Agile explain it using technical buzzwords. It’s hard to see it anything other than the fad of the moment. Others are written in such flowery terms, that it sounds more like philosophy than practical business advice. There was a gap in the market.

What was missing was a book written in plain-words. A book that digs deeps into what Agile is really about. That takes away the mumbo-jumbo and gets down to the practical nitty-gritty of how Agile works, and the value it brings to you. This is that book. This is Agile for the Real World.

Who should read this book?

This book is aimed at senior executives, project managers, and team leaders who aren’t interested in technical mumbo jumbo, but want to know if there is any substance to all the Agile buzz, or if it is just a passing fad. They want to know how their competition is getting ahead, and what is in it for them.

The book will also be helpful to software developers and other technical folks who may have read some of the current Agile books, and may even have worked on several Agile projects. Even for experienced people like these, Agile can be confusing.

There are many different approaches to Agile, from Extreme Programming, to Scrum, to DSDM, to Lean, to Crystal, and more. Each takes a different slant on things. Each has its own set of buzzwords, and its own focus. It is hard to see how they all relate to one another, and whether or not they are saying the same things or each is saying something different. For people who want to pull all these pieces together, see the big picture of what Agile is really about, how it can benefit you, and how you can go Agile in the real world, this book is for you.


This is part of a book I am writing. More will be unfolding here and on my blog. Ongoing feedback would be much appreciated.