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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Agile in the Communications of the ACM

I got my October 2006 issue of the Communications of the ACM in the post today. The featured topic of this issue is "Flexible and Distributed software processes", and a lot of articles feature agile software development, especially in the context of distributed software development. If you have ACM digital library access, you can read the articles online at the above link.

The leading article, Flexible and Distributed Software Processes: Old Petunias in New Bowls?" (ACM Digital Library membership required) has some interesting commentaries by well known experts. Although about global software development and distributed teams, much of it is also applicable to co-located teams. Here are some snippets

David Parnas: I have been hearing the term "software crisis" for more than 40 years. Clearly, it is not a crisis; it is a chronic problem. Each time someone uses the term "crisis," it is a preface to the announcement of a new miracle cure for the problem. Examinations of the cure usually reveal new words for ideas the have been tried before without much effect. This decade's crisis is global software development (GSD); this decade's miracle cure (for all the ills of the industry) seems to be a collection of methods known as "agile."

It is fashionable to speak of "grand challenges." The real grand challenge is not to find ways to to avoid producing documentation, but to find ways to produce useful documents—documents that take time but save more time. We will find that real agility comes from good design that is well documented in precise, lean documentation.

Barry Boehm: There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. The best way I have been able to find is to use risk as a way to determine where to go agile and where to go document-driven. Thus, for example, if you are developing a graphic user interface (GUI) for an unprecedented decision support system and want to document its requirements, the most frequent answer you will get from users is, "I can't tell you in advance, but I'll know it when I see it (IKIWISI)."

In such a case, it is a high risk to try to document the GUI in advance, and with a GUI builder tool, it is a low risk not to document it.

On the other hand, when you are outsourcing a relatively stable piece of business logic to a contractor 10 time zones away, it is a high risk not to invest in a significant amount of thorough documentation of the interfaces and protocols connecting the outsourced sofware to the rest of your software.

Giancarlo Succi: No one thinks that analysis and design are useless. But consider a system to dispatch tracing messages and other information to a group of trucks. This domain is likely to be alien to most software developers. In such a case, would it be better to first spend a lot of time doing the upfront design, and eventually writing the code, or to work incrementally, involving the end customer, interleaving some analysis, design, and even coding, so that the developers grow their knowledge of the system domain?

Matthew Simons: While the idea of story cards appeals to those with no desire for reading or writing technical documentation, the reality of the situation is that such scanty artifacts are rarely sufficient for development of anything beyond simple systems for highly accessible individuals or small groups of users. This scenario rarely applies to GSD. As the picture becomes more complex, we have found the story card-only approach quickly becomes inadequate.

While writing effective documentation is a good place to start, we have found it takes a lot more than that to deliver complex systems with distributed teams. Without the discipline that comes from the remaining agile practices (such as Test-Driven Development, Continuous Integration, Pair Programming, among others) good documents are nothing more than a step on the long and perilous path toward successful delivery.

Like I said, the quotes above are only snippets. The actual commentaries include a lot more context and information than I have provided here. Read the whole article if you can, it is well worth it.

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