Monday, November 02, 2009

Extreme Programming is People

There has been an enormous about written in the blogosphere on ways to improve how we write software. Much of the virtual ink spilled on the Internet about Extreme Programming, or Agile, or SCRUM, gathers at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some focuses on how those practices make things better, usually in a overly enthusiastic way which invites the curt dismissal as nothing more than hype and hyperbole. Others constantly remind everyone that they've tried it and it didn't work which invites observations about anti-social programmers.

Both camps need to call a truce. They'll get much farther - and be happier - if they stop throwing grenades at each other and start talking to each other.

We can get both sides to agree that the previous ways of software development is problematic and certainly non-optimal, at least if the goal is to develop acceptable software in a reasonably quick, consistent, and effective manner.

Once we've agreed on common goals, we can discuss typical obstacles and plan ways to avoid or mitigate them. One of the biggest problems, and least discussed, is how people affect the processes in which they participate. There is a good article by Alistair Cockburn about this phenomenon. His paper is titled "Characterizing people as non-linear, first-order components in software development".

The Story of Joe and Al

So let's examine more of the laws and how they affect an effort to introduce Extreme Programming. People who use the 48 Laws as a handbook for how to live their lives are usually label as evil, justifiably so. I don't want this discussion to degenerate into name calling or dismissed because of guilt by association so let's create two personas as our antagonist and protagonist. We'll call the willing and manipulative one Joseph (think Stalin) and the unwitting and hapless one Al (think Flowers for Algernon).

Law #1 "Never Outshine The Master". Humans are sensitive about losing face in front of others. Joseph uses this to his advantage to keep from attracting the wrong kind of attention. Al is proud of his achievements and doesn't understand why others don't share in his celebration.

Law #2 "Never put too Much Trust in Friends, Learn how to use Enemies" - Joseph keeps reminding himself to watch out for number one. He doesn't want to put his fate into the hands of others which means fewer allies but also fewer fair-weather friends. Al, on the other hand, cannot comprehend the idea that people have hidden motives even while having repeated instances of being taken advantage of.

Law #3 "Conceal your Intentions" is "Do unto others before they have a chance to do it to you". Keep the knife hidden from your intended victim. Joseph believes that life is a zero-sum game. Since he values himself over all others, he won't lose any sleep taking what he wants so he'll have more. He's interested in power and control, if he takes it from you it means you'll be powerless to respond after his power grab is fate de'compli. Al doesn't have the mental capacity to think one thing while saying or acting another. George Orwell's "Doublespeak" would be a foreign concept.

Law #7 "Get others to do the Work for you, but Always Take the Credit". Some poor soul on StackOverflow called this a "Seagull Manager - a scavenger who takes all the credit for your hard earned work and hangs around you like a bad smell." This will be a common behavior for Joseph who lacks scruples and thinks those who let him get away with it deserve to have their credit stolen. Al believes what society preaches in public, the value of hard work, work hard and keep your nose clean and you'll get what's coming to you, etc. He has the pride of the workman where good work will be recognized and rewarded. Combine that with no ability to detect deceit in others and you end up with someone who becomes the pawn of others. Naively believing the promises of their antagonists.

You can't approach a social situation as if everyone has the same motivations. Workplaces have plenty of Josephs blending in waiting for any situation to turn to their own personal advantage, and Algernons trying in vain to be accepted. If we don't recognize that, we'll be like farmers watering their crops with beer, "It tastes good to me so it must also be good for growing corn."
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