Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Agile Isn't New

I recently read C. A. R. Hoare's 1980 ACM Turing Award speech, “The Emperor's Old Clothes” (currently downloadable here). The theme of this speech is simplicity, in particular how lack of simplicity in a programming language makes it harder to write error free code — summarized as “so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies [versus] so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies” (emphasis as written). This, of course, resonates with my feelings about mental models.

About midway through the speech, Hoare describes a failed project: a new operating system that was to dramatically extend the capabilities of his company's former offering. It reads like a recap of The Mythical Man-Month, right down to the programmers' assumption that memory was infinite. But where Brooks turned to organizational strategies to dig his team out from failure, Hoare did something else:

First, we classified our […] customers into groups […] We assigned to each group of customers a small team of programmers and told the team leader to visit the customers to find out what they wanted […] In no case would we consider a request for a feature that would take more than three months to implement and deliver […] Above all, I did not allow anything to be done which I did not myself understand.

That quote could have come from a book on Extreme Programming. Short iterations, understandable stories, pulling the customer into the development process. It's all there.

Or, I should say, it was all there. In 1965. Presented to a group of practicing programmers in 1980. And then “rediscovered” by Beck, Jeffries, et al in the 1990s.

Why do we keep forgetting?

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