Nov 23

First off, his name is pronounced “Coh-burn” so let’s just get that out of the way now ;-) I finished Agile Software Development tonight and wanted to give a book report here while it’s still fresh to edify some of the points that resonated with me. This will probably be a lengthy post but it’s ripe with good concepts for anyone who manages a team of developers.

The term “AGILE” refers to a style of development that was coined by a committee of seventeen software architects in 2001 at a summit in which they drew up a document they named The Agile Manifesto. It proposed a value system that encouraged certain activities over others in the pursuit of creating flexible, well-constructed software. While Cockburn’s book is relevant to anyone involved in the software development process (engineer, QA person, manager), it probably makes more sense to be digested by a team lead and disseminated to the other developers. With so much reading to keep up with on various techniques, methodologies and languages, a programmer in a team would be better served by devoting her “extracurricular cycles” to material with more tangible, immediate rewards and receiving this type of abstract, work-style advice second-hand via a senior developer. If you’re a lone-wolf developer you may not find this book useful at all but if you deal with other developers in any capacity (internal or external to your organization), it contains some valuable lessons. In short, it gives a holistic, high-level overview of the qualities of methodologies and environments that are used by successful teams. And this is the strongest feature of the book: the fact it is entirely rooted in real experiences. It makes ample use of non-fiction anecdotes to make concepts more memorable and it draws heavily upon hundreds of interviews with real teams that deliver real software under real deadlines. The theories conveyed in technical books can sometimes be refined to the point of “PhD purity and correctness” yet be impractical in application. Cockburn instead offers “blunt, field-tested tools” that are actually getting things done everyday on the front lines of software development. Here are the main takeaways I extracted from this book:

  1. Agile Manifesto – as short and simple as this document is (read it – 15secs), it has a profound message- basically, when push comes to shove, delivering good software under deadline is the ultimate goal, good communication amongst a team trumps process and documentation every time, and the only thing consistent across all projects is change and therefore your development style had better be the flexible reed and not the brittle stick when it comes time to deal with change. This manifesto sets the tone for the entire book, the chapters are filled mostly concrete practices that support the Agile manifesto.

    My Takeaway My Takeaway – Prior to buying this book I had heard Alistair
    speak on . He struck me as being very practical-minded and not high & mighty on theory (which I liked). Having worked informally under both styles of development, I agree with the main values of Agile for being adaptive and goal-focused rather than process-oriented. Agile encompasses a bunch of formal styles like XP, SCRUM, DSDM and others – the tenets are very similar in all though. I especially related to a story about a team that was given strict requirements and micro-managed on the process and documentation required and they ended up ignoring orders and doing it the way they knew it needed to be done in order to get it delivered on time. As so often is the case for developers, you juggle what the client “tells you they want” vs. what you know they truly need and when pressed to favor one over the other, you have to diplomatically choose the latter and make it look like you choose the former.

  2. “Microtouch Intervention”: big results from small changes in each member – This is not rocket science but enacting a very small change in each person of a large team can yield massive results with very little effort. It’s the idea that if the project as a whole is like a giant boulder that each team member is trying to move in a certain direction (towards project completion), the vector of force for each person is always somewhat misaligned from the desired direction such that people end up inadvertently wasting some amount of energy pulling against each other. Any steps that can be taken to conserve this energy by: a) communicating the intended direction more clearly b) revealing to each participant their actual vector of pull or c) producing a more compelling reason for people to pull towards the goal, will ultimately yield major gains.
    My Takeaway My Takeaway – This positive effect of this concept is obviously amplified in larger teams. Conversely, the larger the team, the easier it is to dodge responsibility and the more inertia that a stationary group will have. I’m a big proponent of this idea of “paint the vision clearly and then get out of people’s way.” I’ve always thought that energy expended cultivating the enthusiasm and passion of a group is a good buy (ie. if you can get the “WHY” part firmly planted in people’s hearts and minds, the “WHO WHAT WHERE WHEN HOW” questions will find a way to answer themselves). Cockburn validates this notion with a wonderful story from Dee Hock of Visa (second section from the end) and how this type of laissez faire leadership and simple microtouch intervention established a virtuous circle amongst his team and enabled them to successfully deliver a complex system under an ambitious sixty-day deadline. Just read this sentence- “Leaders spontaneously emerged and reemerged, none in control, but all in order. Ingenuity exploded. Individuality and diversity flourished. People astonished themselves at what they could accomplish and were amazed at the suppressed talents that emerged in others.” That’s the flavor of a team operating at peak performance driven by intrinsic motivations from within and that’s what you want to engender.
  3. “Erg-seconds” – the energy/time required to transfer important info
    The idea of “erg-seconds” is an analogy Cockburn makes between the transmission of critical information in a project environment and fluid mechanics, or the dispersion of gasses and liquids in a container. In a workplace at any given time there are “convection currents” of info that are venting info like geysers amongst the team members. Anything you can do to narrow the distance this information must travel to reach the necessary recipients pays off exponentially in progress, morale, fewer errors, etc. Mole-meters/sec is the metric used in the realm of fluid mechanics, but that unit does not directly translate over since distance traveled is not the key factor whereas “time necessary to achieve clear communication” is. The optimal situation is to have the people that require the most back-and-forth communication sitting in the same room so they can tap each other for help and overhear and interject when they have valuable advice to contribute. Overkill of this setup creates what Cockburn calls “Drafty cubes” or too much interference with irrelevant info bombarding the programmer. Like anything it’s a balance that must be optimized. Moving further down the continuum of proximity, adding cubes, walls, floors, buildings or even separate geographical locations into the mix gradually introduces more and more friction that adds “erg-seconds” to each interaction in a project and (like we determined in #2) gets amplified in larger teams.
    My Takeaway My Takeaway – This is a very valuable way of thinking about the flow of info on a project. Being a solo consultant, I encounter situations where project delays get compounded by unnecessary “erg-seconds” on interactions not within my development team (of one), but when there are multiple entities involved as clients, and especially when there are tiered teams in each entity. I generally mitigate this problem by occasionally working onsite to reap the benefit of some of the “osmosis” and “convection currents” Cockburn mentions. There is admittedly no substitute for face-to-face interaction- body language, tone of voice, gestures, proximity cues and interjective feedback are lost or hindered when communication occurs via any other method. Neglecting the value of being there to absorb the situation from time to time is a mistake. I have explored the idea of off shoring discrete portions of my projects lately but this concept warns that this geographic dispersion of team members might magnify the “erg-seconds” effect on even simple tasks to the point where it defeats the utility of off shoring I will have to re-analyze the tradeoffs with an eye towards how this effect could be nullified.
  4. “Teeing up work” to the bottleneck player
    If we think of software development as an ongoing game of interactive cooperation and communication as Cockburn wishes, then the principle he espouses “#7 Efficiency is expendable in non bottleneck activities” should take care of itself. It’s the concept that if you have say five cooks and one delivery person in your pizza joint, the driver is the bottleneck and your cooks had better “tee up” those pizzas by double-checking that the orders are correct, printing and verifying the directions, perhaps calling when the directions are unclear and making sure the boxes are pristinely stacked in their warming sleeves on the counter for the driver when he/she shows up.
    My Takeaway My Takeaway – Again, I don’t encounter this problem as much since I am solo- every time as the sole developer, I’ll be the bottleneck. The idea that occurs to me though is that I need to utilize the workers in the client’s company better if they can be at my disposal. In even the “best-packaged” project there is probably some added level of prep-work and optimization that can be done to “tee up” the materials for execution. Decentralizing these efforts and pushing as much of this type of activity to the client’s side definitely bides me more time to allocate to activities for which I truly am the bottleneck, plus it has a by-product of #3 and getting some convection currents working to my advantage.
  5. The right amount of documentation: light but sufficient
    So there are two goals in this ongoing game of invention and communication- 1) execute well on the current iteration 2) set yourself up for success on the next “game.” If you’re like most developers, documentation is always an afterthought and it’s something you only do when it’s mandated by a manager. Documentation (in the world of Agile) takes on a completely different meaning – there is no strict format for what constitutes appropriate documentation. It’s simply “whatever is necessary to communicate the essence of the theory or project to those that follow.” That may sound too foofy to some but it’s important because (consistent w/ the Manifesto) it’s not constraining implementation to a particular convention or process but rather focusing on the goal of communicating the important aspects. Cockburn talks about methods like “progress radiators” and videotaped whiteboard sessions as simpler ways of preserving and conveying this understanding. The traditional view of documentation is one of a detailed functional spec that precedes the project and captures every requirement and then some system for documenting the code afterwards to again capture every detail of execution so that it can be understood by programmer’s that follow. According to Cockburn’s advice, a picture is a thousand words and a video is worth a kajillion.
    My Takeaway My Takeaway – I found this to be extremely insightful and especially relevant to what I’m proposing to do with Grid7. Too often developers receive a mandate from management to perform documentation in some nit-picky format that distracts them from valuable time they could spend just making things better. A simple picture of a whiteboard to accompany a paragraph of instructions can go miles towards bridging the knowledge gap and that’s exactly what we used to do at a place I worked called Interactive Sites. I’m all about the idea of videotaped whiteboard sessions though and I have already made it a habit of using my iPod along with my Griffin iTalk to audiotape meetings so that I can refer back to them and bring someone new up to speed by giving them an MP3 of a previous conversation rather than regurgitating it. I plan to hold monthly status meetings via Skype on the Grid7 stuff and you bet we will be videotaping them and archiving them for future developers that enter the project.
  6. A “Shared Metaphor” as a common anchor point for developers
    The idea is that when working with complex systems and many developers, if you can develop a “shared metaphor” or a more tangible scenario that parallels the problem domain, people will be able to draw upon these parallels to make decisions and therefore remain more cohesive in their approach than if they lacked the shared metaphor. This contribution was from Kent Beck, one of the originators of the Extreme Programming methodology. I cannot comment on the efficacy of this tactic amongst a dev team having never used it myself, but it certainly sounds like it has merit. I think anything you can do to align the vision of team members to some landmark will have value, especially when the project involves highly abstract concepts.
    My Takeaway My Takeaway – “Having everyone on the same page” is important and there is absolutely value to using metaphors to assist in scenarios when the concepts are abstract. In fact, just last week in my meeting with Value Options and Arizona Behavioral Health regarding the construction of the extranet they will use to collaborate on housing homeless folks, I was able to frame the abstract idea of our anonymous wait list in terms of the red ticket dispenser you see at the post office that dispenses numbered tickets anonymously. We were able to collectively work from that image much easier than talking in abstractions and it helped not only in communicating but we were actually able to discover additional ways of simplifying how the wait list works by drawing on parallels of how the ticket dispenser functions.
  7. Tradition vs. Transcendence as the foundation of good design
    In other words, “how much do you balance making the interface for your word processing program look like a typewriter in order to make sense for old school folks vs. making it the cleanest-possible, sensible interface for getting the job done at the risk of alienating people who are less savvy?” This is the age-old question of design (and not just in computer apps). There is some optimal balance that exists in a newly-designed apparatus that meshes tradition with transcending innovation to push the state of the art forward and test the boundaries of what’s possible today.
    My Takeaway My Takeaway -With graphical interfaces especially I know big companies like Microsoft spend millions of dollars in research to find that balance. We had Russ Ruggia, a Developer Evangelist for MS come and talk to our CFUG awhile back and he mentioned that MS had spent something like $7bn in psychology research in developing the forthcoming interface for Windows Longhorn/Vista).
  8. Criticality and Team size determine methodology weight
    Any project can be evaluated on a 2D graph that shows team size on the X-axis and system criticality on the Y-axis (system criticality refers to the severity of loss in the event of a bug, lowest being an inconvenience and highest being loss of life). Cockburn breaks down the graph into quadrants and explains why projects that stray further from the origin of this graph require heavier methodologies. Even small projects at NASA demand a heavier-weight methodology than the typical web 2.0 app due to criticality. Likewise, even a large non-critical project with many team members like say, the latest Ubuntu Linux distribution, requires a heaver methodology due to the organization required to manage that many team members.
    My Takeaway My Takeaway – Again, the right tools for the right time. It’s not enough to pick one methodology and stick with it in all situations. The skilled developer will recognize that each tool and methodology has validity in different circumstances and will understand the factors at work and when it makes sense to choose one over the other. I’ve never worked on any of the “L stage” critical projects like medical devices where lives are at stake. I have worked on “Discretionary Monies” and “Essential Monies” projects however while running integration with some of the major credit card processors at Apriva. I can certainly testify to the fact that credit card companies have strict methodologies in place for how things happen, to the point where it can become crushingly burdensome on development. Given the position on the criticality axis of Cockburn’s suggested chart, this decision makes sense however.

Well that was a lot of rambling but I hope this condensed version of Agile Software Development is useful. It was a decent read and not as dense as it may sound. I recommend checking out Cockburn’s talk on at the link above if you have interest in this stuff. It’s definitely given me some ideas for how to approach things in the forthcoming developer co-op.


© 2005 Lights Out Production – All Rights Reserved Worldwide
© 2005 Lights Out Production – All Rights Reserved Worldwide

12 Responses to “Book review: Agile Software Development by Alistair Cockburn”

  1. […] Private offices for programmers – This really boggles me. There’s five of us that all work in one big room at JumpBox. We all don our headphones at varying times when we’re heads-down focused on something but we’ve seen a massive benefit in communication that comes from overhearing a chance conversation occurring between other people in the room. The idea of isolating programmers in separate rooms with closed doors flies in the face of Allistair Cockburn’s findings around effective software development with the main success determinant being the minimization of “erg seconds” spent on transmitting information amongst team members. I could not imagine if we were all isolated from one another throughout the day. If that type of development is truly effective, then why do they even have office space at Fog Creek in the first place? […]

  2. andrew cooke says:

    hi – liked your review (it was on reddit). i also wrote a review of this book recently. it’s interesting to compare the two – while we don’t disagree, we do focus on very different things (which is good, i think). not sure if embedded html works here so it’s the “website” link (the url is

    cheers, andrew

  3. Hi This is MAG Studios i found your post on “Agile Software Development by Alistair Cockburn” is very useful thanks to share with us.

  4. […] problem solving. One such concept is an idea put forth in Alistair Cockburn’s book Agile Software Development regarding the cumulative effect of aligning many small force vectors precisely in one direction. […]

  5. […] Cockburn in his book Agile Development espouses the notion of the “erg second” which is an abstract measure of the energy […]

  6. Selina says:

    Brilliant review on "Agile Software Development by Alistair Cockburn"!!! Just a quick note to tell you that it's really important for now-a-days. Please updating information always and Thanks!

  7. API Jet says:

    The method is about creating a part of the system , refining it to pass all the test cases , adding another component of the system and refining it again , these gets repeated until the system is finished.

  8. Richard Mike says:


  9. HDFC ERGO says:

    Such a nice way to present thoughts.Thanks for sharing this interesting article.

  10. […] software tem até umas ideias meio louca (mas legais) sobre produtividade conectando o conceito de erg-second (em […]

  11. […] software tem até umas ideias meio louca (mas legais) sobre produtividade conectando o conceito de erg-second (em […]

  12. […] software tem até umas ideias meio louca (mas legais) sobre produtividade conectando o conceito de erg-second (em […]

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