Kurt's Blog

April 9, 2011

Agile Lean Europe

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kurt Häusler @ 4:34 pm

I went to Düsseldorf on Thursday night for a discussion about this Agile Lean Europe idea of Jurgen Appelo. Now exactly what it is has not yet been determined. There will be some discussion about it at the XP 2011 conference in Madrid, where representatives from the various countries will get together and see what happens. I can hopefully be there, but it is not yet definite. Local groups are having their own discussions in preparation for this.

There is a list of eight questions that give a pretty strong hint about what Jurgen thinks the goals should be. Countries helping each other with agile and lean adoptions, and encouraging agile and lean people across Europe to collaborate and share knowledge and experience. Also more general things like "energizing and facilitating a diverse and dispersed network of thinkers to help improve the European software industry", and helping agile companies in Europe to have an international presence.

One of the things I am aware of as a foreigner in Germany is how cultural differences affect how software development is perceived and is carried out. I could write a whole blog post on it, but one example is how Germans, especially managers are very concrete thinkers, and just want to implement some prepackaged product, where someone else has already done the thinking. They are less interested in the theories behind the ideas behind the product. They are much more interested in practices than values or principles, they are much more comfortable dealing with the more visible, tangible aspects of software development, than the hidden but powerful things going on in any human system.

This is very relevant for agile which is primarily a set of values and principles and practices are secondary. Agile and lean approaches to software development tend to also be more like frameworks or change management systems than finished, static methodologies, they require people to be double loop thinkers and participate in organizational change, whereas in Germany there is a tendency to see things like Scrum and Kanban as planning and scheduling tools, and the organizational change aspects get easily overlooked.

Coaches and consultants reinforce this rather than challenge it, as they know fundamental organizational change at the cultural level is a harder sell than a trendy new drop-in replacement for the V-Model, and all you have to do is hang up a board and shift some cards around. This places a lot of responsibility on actual practitioners to guide, influence and lead true change from within, or all the fancy new tools are only going to be of limited benefit.

There are coaches in Germany that realize this, and have an approach influenced by ideas from say education or psychology, and would really like to address the real pain points affecting software development in Germany, but find it difficult to convince managers here, who have a very analytical (in the rightshifting sense), mechanical, Taylorist mindset, and would rather skip the "fluffy stuff" and just be told what silver bullet to use.

If only it were that easy! I am confident that this will change, as Germany realizes where its pain points lie, and leaders, practitioners and to a lesser extent external coaches, who incorporate ideas from areas like education, psychology, and systems thinking are going to be in demand. It will probably require a shift in the type of people who tend to be managers in the German software scene, who tend to come from the technical / engineering side, or start off as domain specialists, are joined by others who may have more diverse backgrounds. See I have already written half a blog post about it already!

So my hope for this ALE is we can discuss what our cultural strengths and weaknesses are, perhaps they are hard to notice until we compare ourselves with other countries, and we can then borrow ideas that are more common in other countries.

Once we move on beyond the questions related to agile and lean adoptions, we are asked how we can energize software development (Jurgen’s question mentions the software industry, but to me that is like being more concerned about saving the environmental industry than saving the actual environment. We need to improve software development in spite of the software industry more than we need to improve the software industry! The industry should come along for the ride, by all means, or it should serve to help improve the way software gets developed, but improving the industry should not be an end-goal.)

What concerns me about agile at the moment, and I don’t think this is a European problem, but I do think there might be European solutions to it, is that the more highly skilled and engaged the developer, the less interested they are in agile. Agile has done a lot for the IT departments, enterprise software development, and probably a good chunk of the modern web, and improved the way that the fairly average developers found in such environments do their jobs, but that is all low end stuff. The best developers are elsewhere, and either see agile as something not relevant to them, or some trendy new label on old ideas for consultants to sell to managers to help them control programmers.

The agile community also needs to get over itself and its attacks on academia and computer science in particular. Sure, computer science doesn’t churn out perfect little pre-trained programmers with experience working on a team, using mainstream tools, on large projects, they aren’t trade schools and neither should they be. And of course if all you do is convert specifications for enterprise software modules into Java code, or churning out little ruby on rails web apps, then you don’t need a computer science degree, but all those tools you use, operating systems, compilers, databases, that comes from computer science. Those libraries you plug together contain algorithms that come from computer science. If you need to distinguish yourself from your competitors by making software do something it has never done before, or if you want to solve hard problems and disrupt old industries, or help create new ones, you need computer science.

A huge part of the heritage and culture of software development came out of the computer science departments, and still does. Agilists have to reach out to these guys and keep learning. There are great people in many communities that share in some form the values and principles of many agilists, passionate and talented people in the hacker and maker communities, the open source communities, the startup communities, but for some reason "agile" is not meeting their needs. It has gone from being something exciting that the truly passionate did because it was the best way to do it, to a business tool, or a packaged product. A label that has become a synonym for good, something for coaches and consultants to package up and sell for money, rather than because they believe in it, do it for the pure joy of it, or because they have something exciting they wish to share.

As an aside, I went to the XP Meetup in Bonn the other week, and was very pleasantly surprised. Everyone there was a true practitioner, all developers I think. This made a refreshing change from the conferences and workshops I have been to in the past, that seem dominated by coaches and consultants. The discussion just seemed more relevant somehow. Less navel gazing, and more experience sharing.

So to answer these broader questions, I insist this ALE be something that:

  • Inspires great, passionate, coders to be involved in. (Which means we have to look at what the best coders are doing, where they are, and why agile is currently not meeting their needs)
  • Looks beyond the quick bucks to be found in boring old enterprise IT. (If they cared they would either be agile already, or left for more exciting challenges)
  • Gets back to its "extreme" roots, favoring radical disruption to old harmful cultures, rather than pandering to old harmful cultures to make a sale.
  • Consists fundamentally of coal-face practitioners. Coaches and consultants, you have your international networks, conferences, speaking engagements and exclusive workshops already, you already dominate the scene, so how about leaving ALE to us?
  • Helps inspire people to get involved for the love of it, and the love of sharing it, rather than having to do it as a business necessity.
  • Is more focused on software development rather than the software industry.
  • Is more focused on the doers, rather than the talkers, or those who make a living telling others how to do it.

Anyway, other blog posts about the talk we had in Düsseldorf have been written by Olaf Lewitz and Maurice le Rutte.

You know, I just looked at the "Big List of Communicators", linked to from the Agile Lean Europe site, and I am concerned that the direction it is going in differs strongly from what I had hoped. I already see what looks like a ranking, with "real communicators" at the top, such as conference organizers, speakers, and magazine editors, with "agile/lean coaches and consultants" in second place. No mention of practitioners. I fear ALE is already looking like something not relevant for us practitioners. The problem with focusing on such "communicators" is that the wrong people listen to these communicators. Their audience is mostly their customers, who don’t care enough themselves so they need a consultant, or other communicators.

The people we need to be driving this thing are the people that care, the people who do this stuff day to day, who would never consider needing a consultant, and who probably would be consultants if they weren’t so passionate about doing things rather than speaking about them.

Oh well, hopefully it still ends up being something useful for coaches and consultants, that maybe we, or at least the type of companies that rely on consultants, can indirectly benefit from, or perhaps I will make it to XP 2011, and can prevent a travesty from occurring 🙂



  1. “I fear ALE is already looking like something not relevant for us practitioners.”

    ALE will be what the network itself wants it to be. And the network will decide in Madrid.

    The BigList was very useful to kickstart interest. Nothing more. It is not practical (for me) to maintain a list of thousands of practitioners. Unless you are volunteering to do that? 🙂

    Thanks for your valuable input!
    Hope you’ll join us in Madrid.


    Comment by Jurgen Appelo — April 9, 2011 @ 11:28 pm

  2. Hi Kurt, was good to see you at the Düsseldorf meeting, and thanks for the kind words about the Bonn XP-meetup in there!

    It’s a bit of a paradox to keep the coaches and consultants out of leading the ALE network for two reasons, as I see it:

    1) The passionate practitioners among us you talk about – they eventually get discovered and get dragged into being coaches and consultants.

    2) Said group are also some of the most mobile/nomadic in the SW workforce. Very few do so much travelling around as they do, and have the opportunity to do any real networking across borders.

    So, even though I would hate for the ALE network to become another “Job board” for consultants, I believe the people on that big list are among the ones with the capability to act as liaisons in such a network: They travel a lot, and they like to socialize/network.

    I really like the essence in your post about learning about our own culture from other countries. We know the importance of getting feedback in the process of adapting for the better, and when it comes to culture, feedback is really valuable when it comes from other countries.

    Comment by tfnico — April 9, 2011 @ 11:59 pm

  3. great post!
    I do agree that we should focus on what really happens in real projeects, but coding (and testing!) is only part of the picture.
    I agree that ALE must be useful for practitioners, and coders are a key group, but so are testers and managers.
    I for example hope.that ALE helps us also influence the project management community. The software industry is heavily influenced.by what project managers believe in or are aware.of. Helping us project managers/leaders to understand Agile principles, values and practices can have a tremendous positive impact in how SW is developed in our projects.

    Comment by Vasco Duarte — April 10, 2011 @ 6:39 am

  4. A lot depends on what we call communicators.
    On top of what you write, for me that would include(as it says on the document) community builders. Some of the best community builders in Belgium are not marketing themselves as speakers.

    Comment by YvesHanoulle — April 10, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

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