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Celestial navigation, driving by GPS and agile development

Going agile makes sense. Navigating with traditional methodologies doesn’t make sense. I don’t know about you, but nothing sucks the life out of a software development project faster having to fully flesh out all the requirements before starting to build the solution.

Perhaps it’s a failure of imagination. Perhaps it’s incomplete vision. But as both a business owner and as an IT professional, it’s rare that a successfully completed application-development project comes even close to matching our original ideas.

Forget about cosmetic issues like the user interface, or unforeseen technical hurtles that must be overcome. No, I’m talking about the reality that my business – and yours, perhaps – moves fast and changes fast. We perceive the needs for new applications or for feature changes long before we understand all the details, dependencies and ramifications.

But we know enough to get started on our journey. We know enough to see whether our first steps are in the first direction. We know enough to steer us back onto the correct heading when we wander off course. Perhaps agile is the modern equivalent of celestial navigation, where we keep tacking closer and closer to our destination. In the words of John Masefield, “Give me a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”

Contrast that to the classic method of determining a complete set of requirements up front. That’s when teams create project plans that are followed meticulously until someone stands up and says, “Hey, the requirements changed!” At that point, you stop, revise the requirements, update the project plan and redo work that must be redone.

Of course, if the cost of creating and revising the requirements and project plan are low, sure, go for it. My automobile GPS does exactly that. If I tell it that I want to drive from San Francisco to New York City (my requirements), it will compute the entire 2,907-mile journey (my project plan) with incredible accuracy, from highway to byway, from interchange to intersection. Of course, every time the GPS detects that I missed an exit or pulled off the highway to get fuel, the device calculates the entire journey again. But that’s okay, as the cost of having the device recreate the project plan when it detects a requirements change is trivial.

In the world of software development, the costs of determining, documenting and getting approvals for a project’s requirements and project plans are extremely expensive, both in terms of time and money. Worse, there are no automated ways of knowing when business needs have changed, and therefore the project plan must change also. Thus, we can spend a lot of time sailing in the wrong direction. That’s where agile makes a difference – be design, it can detect when something going wrong faster than classic methodologies.

In a perfect world, if it were easy to create requirements and project plans, there would be no substantive difference between agile and classic methodologies. But in the messy, every-changing real world of software development that I live in, though, agile is the navigation methodology for me.

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