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Why big Agile Conferences don’t have anything New?

At the Agile 2009 conference, Martin Fowler, Ron Jeffries, Chet Hendrickson, Mary Poppendieck and I had a very interesting discussion about “why some of us felt that there was nothing new at the Agile 2009 conference”. (or even if there were interesting topics, the signal to noise ratio was too small to find it).

Martin’s hypothesis (paraphrased):

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, the core of the software development problem with regards to process was hashed out and most of the principles & techniques were flushed out via the Agile Manifesto and other techniques. (which of course was the easy bit). What is happening now is, most companies are trying to implement those ideas on their projects inside their organizations. Implementing those ideas is rather tricky and needs a lot of creative tweaking at project level. Its difficult to pull out any generic topics from these implementation and present it to a broad audience @ Agile 200x confs. Hence it feels like there is nothing new.

After which Martin asked Ron, if he has seen anything new on the mailing lists. Ron resonated with Martin. Everyone else seemed to agree.

Overall I’m convinced that this hypothesis makes sense. However I feel:

  • Even though implementing Agile techniques on projects needs lot of creative tweaking, we can still find patterns and meta-approaches to implementing/adopting agile. For Ex: Applying Theory of Constraints and Just-in-Time practices to coaching agile teams.
  • Personally I don’t find agile implementation @ large enterprises interesting. But I do see a lot of innovation happening in start-ups and small product companies. They are doing things which agilists might consider taboo. If we look at some of the Web 2.0 product companies, they are solving a lot of interesting problems like deploying to production multiple times a day, embracing fully distributed teams, etc.
  • Integrating UX and Operations team into the development team is still an open issue. Few companies have done some interesting work in this space.
  • And so on…

I feel majority of the Agile community has got into a “preaching mode” and very few people are actually building their own products (eating their own dog food.) This attitude attracts a certain kind of people to the conference and I’m quite skeptical to find innovative new ideas in this crowd. With so much noise its also very easy to miss some weak signals which have potential.

I do know a few people who are doing some really interesting stuff (they are turned off by the Agile brand and generally don’t hang around in these circles). Personally I want us, as a community, to be more inclusive of these people.

  • http://www.leadingagile.com/ Mike Cottmeyer

    I became disenchanted very quickly at Agile 2009. It seemed that most everything was pretty similar to the kids of stuff we’ve all seen over the past few years. My area of interest is adoption in the larger enterprise and the organizational problems these companies face… so I agreed with much of what you had to say here.

    We’ve got to figure out a way to focus on the emerging ideas and the creative applications of the old ones… especially at scale.

    Mike

  • http://www.leadingagile.com Mike Cottmeyer

    I became disenchanted very quickly at Agile 2009. It seemed that most everything was pretty similar to the kids of stuff we’ve all seen over the past few years. My area of interest is adoption in the larger enterprise and the organizational problems these companies face… so I agreed with much of what you had to say here.

    We’ve got to figure out a way to focus on the emerging ideas and the creative applications of the old ones… especially at scale.

    Mike

  • http://agilesoftwarequalities.blogspot.com/ Scott Duncan

    I tried one thing this year that I had not deliberately done in the past and that was to attend sessions by people I had never heard speak before, even if on a topic that wasn’t “new.” That turned out well for me as I heard new perspectives on some ideas and met new people. Is there a chance that people who’ve been around a while need to go out of their way to met/talk to people they don’t know. I can see how some new folks might feel “left out” of the “community” spirit. Smaller conferences make this easier because you are around most people present at one point or another over a few days.

    If there is a feeling the conference is rehashing issues, does a greater effort need to me made to ensure the process of accepting proposals gets new things into the program? One of the failings I see is that there has been a lot of reinventing of the wheel when it comes to talks about organizational change, cultural resistance, leadership, teamwork, etc. These are not topics unique to an Agile approach. What specific things does the Agile community have to contribute to these areas?

    Regarding large organizational adoption, I am interested in that as well (including with distributed teams). I’ve been doing this for the past couple of years specifically. I would certainly like to see more on this and be able to talk to others more about this.

    One idea that just came to mind in thinking about the Conference was the open consulting effort that existed. Perhaps many people missed that this existed? Maybe this should be an officially promoted event, i.e., sort of “Come to Agile 2009 and get some free consulting on your transition, adoption, technical issues”?

    On your last point, if they are turned off by Agile conferences what would possibly entice them to come to talk? What if they have to go through the normal acceptance process for speakers? Do you see that as a problem either from their perspective or from the perspective that their ideas would be rejected? If there are people doing things successfully that are not “canonical” Agile in nature, what do they call them? How would they describe them so an Agile Conference market might be interested in hearing about them?

    For some, the lean/kanban material is “new,” though it certainly isn’t original in the overall picture. Where there any things that you (or the folks you mentioned you talked to) saw that seemed of interest? It didn’t sound like it? Do we need a different kind of conference that goes out of its way to push these new things?

    I attended the Agile Roots conference in Salt Lake City in June. I enjoye it because it was small, but it probably didn’t have much that was specifically “new” in the sense you’re talking about above.

  • http://agilesoftwarequalities.blogspot.com/ Scott Duncan

    I tried one thing this year that I had not deliberately done in the past and that was to attend sessions by people I had never heard speak before, even if on a topic that wasn’t “new.” That turned out well for me as I heard new perspectives on some ideas and met new people. Is there a chance that people who’ve been around a while need to go out of their way to met/talk to people they don’t know. I can see how some new folks might feel “left out” of the “community” spirit. Smaller conferences make this easier because you are around most people present at one point or another over a few days.

    If there is a feeling the conference is rehashing issues, does a greater effort need to me made to ensure the process of accepting proposals gets new things into the program? One of the failings I see is that there has been a lot of reinventing of the wheel when it comes to talks about organizational change, cultural resistance, leadership, teamwork, etc. These are not topics unique to an Agile approach. What specific things does the Agile community have to contribute to these areas?

    Regarding large organizational adoption, I am interested in that as well (including with distributed teams). I’ve been doing this for the past couple of years specifically. I would certainly like to see more on this and be able to talk to others more about this.

    One idea that just came to mind in thinking about the Conference was the open consulting effort that existed. Perhaps many people missed that this existed? Maybe this should be an officially promoted event, i.e., sort of “Come to Agile 2009 and get some free consulting on your transition, adoption, technical issues”?

    On your last point, if they are turned off by Agile conferences what would possibly entice them to come to talk? What if they have to go through the normal acceptance process for speakers? Do you see that as a problem either from their perspective or from the perspective that their ideas would be rejected? If there are people doing things successfully that are not “canonical” Agile in nature, what do they call them? How would they describe them so an Agile Conference market might be interested in hearing about them?

    For some, the lean/kanban material is “new,” though it certainly isn’t original in the overall picture. Where there any things that you (or the folks you mentioned you talked to) saw that seemed of interest? It didn’t sound like it? Do we need a different kind of conference that goes out of its way to push these new things?

    I attended the Agile Roots conference in Salt Lake City in June. I enjoye it because it was small, but it probably didn’t have much that was specifically “new” in the sense you’re talking about above.

  • http://blog.gdinwiddie.com/ George Dinwiddie

    Hmmm… At a big conference like Agile 2009, I think you’ve got to choose the things that work for you.

    For me, I go to very few talks. Instead, I
    * try to meet a lot of people and understand the difficulties they’re facing
    * go to workshop-type sessions

    Next year, I think I want to attend more experience reports and hang out more in Open Jam for the informal discussions. There’s lots of “new” in all these places.

  • http://blog.gdinwiddie.com/ George Dinwiddie

    Hmmm… At a big conference like Agile 2009, I think you’ve got to choose the things that work for you.

    For me, I go to very few talks. Instead, I
    * try to meet a lot of people and understand the difficulties they’re facing
    * go to workshop-type sessions

    Next year, I think I want to attend more experience reports and hang out more in Open Jam for the informal discussions. There’s lots of “new” in all these places.

  • http://javadots.blogspot.com/2009/08/why-aircraft-carriers-are-not-agile.html Itay Maman

    I think the next leap will be be how to make it possible for a programmer to “drop by” a project he had never worked on before, implement a few stories and then move on. Most programmers still need a fair amount of contextual knowledge before they can write something.

    It is my believe that a culture where such “drop by” programming is possible, will promote productivity beyond its current state.

  • http://javadots.blogspot.com/2009/08/why-aircraft-carriers-are-not-agile.html Itay Maman

    I think the next leap will be be how to make it possible for a programmer to “drop by” a project he had never worked on before, implement a few stories and then move on. Most programmers still need a fair amount of contextual knowledge before they can write something.

    It is my believe that a culture where such “drop by” programming is possible, will promote productivity beyond its current state.

  • http://www.gssolutionsgroup.com/blog/ Greg Smith

    Good points by all.
    I think Martin’s point is correct. People have learned agile and now they are busy trying to apply it. I don’t think that is a bad thing.
    As demonstrated by some of Scott Ambler’s statistics at the conference, agile is crossing over into mainstream. I believe he said something like 70% of respondents to his recent survey are using agile at some level.
    I understand the value of innovation, and I realize we eventually die if we do not grow, but I am not so sure innovation is critical right now. There are so many good things already out there that people still have not tried. Maybe we should be more focused in that area. Getting people to use acceptance TDD, value mapping, or even continuous integration.
    I think innovation is more critical for the gurus of agile, who are trying to get ahead of the curve and have new ideas ready for businesses once they have learned and applied the fundamentals.
    Naresh, people like you, Martin, Mary, and others are the experts/gurus. I think it is important for you guys to always be pursuing innovation, but not necessarily so for the average agile conference attendee. Perhaps there is a need for a conference for the experts, where you can focus solely on innovation and taking agile to a higher level?

  • http://www.gssolutionsgroup.com/blog/ Greg Smith

    Good points by all.
    I think Martin’s point is correct. People have learned agile and now they are busy trying to apply it. I don’t think that is a bad thing.
    As demonstrated by some of Scott Ambler’s statistics at the conference, agile is crossing over into mainstream. I believe he said something like 70% of respondents to his recent survey are using agile at some level.
    I understand the value of innovation, and I realize we eventually die if we do not grow, but I am not so sure innovation is critical right now. There are so many good things already out there that people still have not tried. Maybe we should be more focused in that area. Getting people to use acceptance TDD, value mapping, or even continuous integration.
    I think innovation is more critical for the gurus of agile, who are trying to get ahead of the curve and have new ideas ready for businesses once they have learned and applied the fundamentals.
    Naresh, people like you, Martin, Mary, and others are the experts/gurus. I think it is important for you guys to always be pursuing innovation, but not necessarily so for the average agile conference attendee. Perhaps there is a need for a conference for the experts, where you can focus solely on innovation and taking agile to a higher level?

  • http://handly.blogspot.com/ Handly Cameron

    Martin Fowler said, “Implementing those ideas is rather tricky and needs a lot of creative tweeting at project level.” ?

    So Twitter is the solution for Agile now? :-)

    • http://agilefaqs.com/nareshjain.html Naresh Jain

      Fixed the typo. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • http://handly.blogspot.com Handly Cameron

    Martin Fowler said, “Implementing those ideas is rather tricky and needs a lot of creative tweeting at project level.” ?

    So Twitter is the solution for Agile now? :-)

    • http://agilefaqs.com/nareshjain.html Naresh Jain

      Fixed the typo. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Kalpesh

    I don’t want to be rude here.

    But the “agile” crowd reminds me of brahmins in older times learning sanskrit & having an attitude of “holier than thou” and not helping the lowly (like me, most s/w developers) attain the enlightenment :)

    And then came Buddha & Mahavir, who preached the message in the local language (pali & prakrit).

    I think it is same kind of a situation here.

  • Kalpesh

    I don’t want to be rude here.

    But the “agile” crowd reminds me of brahmins in older times learning sanskrit & having an attitude of “holier than thou” and not helping the lowly (like me, most s/w developers) attain the enlightenment :)

    And then came Buddha & Mahavir, who preached the message in the local language (pali & prakrit).

    I think it is same kind of a situation here.

  • http://www.mayford.ca/ Dave Rooney

    Hmmm… I would think that the “tweaks” of which Martin and Ron speak would be of interest. Even if said tweaks can’t be applied generically, the learning they represent may trigger ideas in others that does have a generic application.

  • http://www.mayford.ca Dave Rooney

    Hmmm… I would think that the “tweaks” of which Martin and Ron speak would be of interest. Even if said tweaks can’t be applied generically, the learning they represent may trigger ideas in others that does have a generic application.

  • http://twitter.com/mdubakov Michael Dubakov

    I have similar feelings after agile conf. UX integration is the most interesting thing to me now and I am exploring it further in our company.

  • http://www.targetprocess.com/blog Michael Dubakov

    I have similar feelings after agile conf. UX integration is the most interesting thing to me now and I am exploring it further in our company.


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