By Chris Oldwood

Overload, 26(145):16, June 2018

The curse of Agile. Chris Oldwood outlines how it affects his day at work.

The Buggles once informed us that video killed the radio star. Maybe that was true back in the late 1970s but today it’s ‘Agile’ that’s killing her instead. Time was when you could nestle into your office chair, slip on a monster pair of noise-cancelling headphones (the ones that made you look like a Cyberman) and then really get deeply embroiled in a spot of coding whilst being surrounded by your favourite tunes! There was no chance of any interruptions either as long as you didn’t open your email client.

Not anymore, not now that we’re all Agile. Such anti-social behaviour is considered verboten in this new world of total collaboration and ‘value driven development’. There is no room for music and isolation in a team which thrives on pairs or mobs of developers huddling around a single machine all focused on the singular problem of highest worth. Deodorant is an absolute essential throughout the day and any thoughts of eating garlic for lunch will be met with an afternoon of faux hand-wafting gestures and nose pegs.

If you’re partial to a nice large lunch and the occasional cheeky pint or two in the hopes that the afternoon can largely drift past as you drag out the low hanging fruit which you saved for such a special occasion, think again. The afternoon continues on from where the morning left off, albeit in a different huddle of people embracing the change in dynamic that keeps the energy flowing all throughout the day until knocking off time. If 5pm comes and you’ve not already left – exhausted from hours of collaborative designing, coding and testing – then your ‘value generation’ meter can’t be full.

Energised work is the name of the game. It’s not just lunchtime drinking that you’ll knock on the head but a solid evening out drinking in the pub seems great at the time but the following morning when you’ve got a stinking hangover and you’re looking to just muddle through the day you can forget it. The rest of your team will have had their full quota of 8 hours sleep and be buzzing, ready to push another handful of user stories through the pipeline and out to your loyal band of customers. Time waits for no man, and neither does the release train either.

Good old fashioned tasks used to take weeks or months, not days or even just a few hours! If you had to estimate, you had so much leeway you could easily factor in some extra hours over-and-above any genuine contingency to include personal administration time as well. We may have a day job but we also need car and home insurance, there are holidays to book, and who risks appearing absent by going out to an actual physical supermarket when you can shop online and appear to be working at the same time? If you only ever learned one keyboard shortcut I can almost guarantee it was Alt+Tab – the ‘boss’ key-combo.

While it’s no longer possible to pad out the estimate for your latest feature to include time sorting out this summer’s touring holiday around Europe, you’d still hope to squeeze in the odd household chore here and there. But no, it’s not just you giving estimates these days; the whole team gets to add their tuppence worth in a planning poker session. Assuming you can even engineer being the (only) one to implement any particular feature, any attempt to game the system by giving an overly pessimistic estimate will be met with a public inquiry from your teammates to understand why your opinion sits out on the periphery of the Normal curve. Sprint planning is a well-intentioned exercise but it makes holiday planning an absolute nightmare.

Everything has to be transparent nowadays; the stakeholders get to see where their money is being spent and they’re also allowed to decide on a daily basis whether it’s still going in the direction they want it to. The morning stand-up is just another example of the do-gooders getting to put their oar in and disrupt the traditional art of procrastination. If you failed at the planning session to broaden the timescales enough then don’t expect to simply eat into any contingency during implementation without anyone noticing. You can almost guarantee some busybody will spot at the stand-up that you’re ‘stuck’ and will then play the ‘swarming’ card by sacrificing their own opportunity to arrange an appointment with the dentist by getting your ‘more valuable’ work back on track instead.

We now live in a world of software development that refuses to tolerate any waste; our entire process is predicated on trimming the fat to keep the team lean and nimble. Your pairing or mobbing buddies won’t even let you put a single keystroke out of place without calling it out, let along managing to slip your own pet feature in under the radar. Instead of a metaphorical Jiminy Cricket [ Wikipedia ] keeping you on the straight and narrow you’ve now got real ones. The codebase is a meritocracy and every single line has to earn its keep.

None of this should be a surprise, though. Back in the early 70s, long before The Buggles even existed, Gerry Weinberg published his seminal book about the psychology of computer programming [ Weinberg71 ] in which he identified the social nature of programming and how teams need to have collaboration as a cornerstone of their behaviour.

Yes, I’m sad that my fancy headphones mostly lay dormant in my bag along with a stack of CDs from Christmas and birthdays that I’ve still yet to find time to listen to. My desk is largely empty and chair configuration is far from optimal but I spend so much time at the whiteboard and at other people’s desks that it hardly seems to matter. Yes, I could shave valuable time off my morning routine by short-circuiting my personal hygiene if I didn’t have to share office space with my colleagues.

So would I want to go back to the way things were? No way! Maybe I’m just a Millennial who was born a decade too early but I’m relishing this ever decreasing feedback loop and I’m sure that as a result my programming output will only get better.


[Weinberg71] Gerry Weinberg (1971) The Psychology of Computer Programming, Dorset House Publishing Co Inc.,U.S.; Silver anniversary edition (29 April 1998) ISBN 978-0932633422

[Wikipedia] ‘Jiminy Cricket’,

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