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Managing with Agility

  • By Jason W. Purdy
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Does Agile pay off? Well, I would say so ... to the tune of $1 Billion for one particular case. When Nortel initially approached CoreTek for an acquisition, it was before CoreTek had any proof-of-concepts and before they faced trials at an upcoming industry trade show. Facing uncertainty, CoreTek took a leap of faith and adjusted their management style to Scrum, a variety of Agile management, telling their developers what they needed (in a prioritized fashion) and released them to do their work without interruption.

As usual, the developers came through with flying colors (pun intended - CoreTek tuned lasers according to their color). CoreTek impressed their audiences at the trade show and a bidding war ensued for the company. Nortel ended up spending $1.43 Billion to acquire a company it initially offered $300 Million.

Before we go too far, Agile is not for everyone. According to Ken Schwaber, one of the Agile Authors, Agile will not "stick" in a political or organizational/functional-focused environment. It works great in organizations that are results-oriented. Some other companies that have adopted Agile include Fidelity Investments and Federal Reserve Banks. Agile also works for and has been adopted by small companies, too.

So, What is Agile?, as my reader Dave asked me, and how does it affect me as a Project Manager? To answer the former question, let's back up to the early 1990's, when CMM (Capability Maturity Model) was coming to an end and a new process was needed to fuel the boom of the Internet growth. In 1995, Ken Schwaber presented a paper on Scrum at OOPSLA, based on his collaborative work with others in the field and some innovative ideas that came out of his collaborative work at DuPont. XP came out shortly thereafter with Kent Beck's work at DaimlerChrysler in 1996. Other project management and software development models also ensued (Pragmatic Programming, Adaptive Software Development, etc). In February 2001, the big-thinkers behind XP and Scrum (and other PM/SD models) came together and formulated Agile, a management and high-level perspective to bring it all together.

With Agile, a company is broken up into two major components: management (execs, project managers and the like) who decide what is needed from a business perspective and development (IT, developers, graphics, doc writers and the like) who decide which functionalities they can bite off in a "Sprint" and how they will go about doing it.

Management creates a prioritized list of functionalities (a Product Backlog) they need in their product. Development then meets with management, gets further understanding of the functionalities and a settlement is reached on how much functionality will be completed in the next Sprint. They then part ways, development left alone until the end of the Sprint (a Sprint being a focused effort in a defined amount of time [XP uses 2 weeks ... Scrum uses 30 days ... no more than 40 days] to expand their work internally (into a Sprint Backlog) and get the work done.

Should a new high-priority feature crop up or an existing functionality need change, they are added to the Product Backlog and re-prioritized, but development doesn't react to the Product Backlog until the end of their Sprint.

What goes on within the Sprint depends on which development process you use (XP, Scrum, etc), but you should find that the team becomes more collaborative and much more productive with an Agile management system.

Agile represents a fundamental "warp" in the traditional PMBOK process of getting a project done. As I've said earlier, it's not for everyone, but if it seems a fit for you, dig a little deeper - you'll find it a simple and powerful way to get your projects done on time and on budget.

Do you have any project management or high-level technology questions for me for my next column? Ask away! Thanks to Dave for the great question and Ken Schwaber for his time.


AgileAlliance: http://www.agilealliance.com/home

Agile Manifesto: http://agilemanifesto.org/

Agile Software Development with Scrum, by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle. [Barnes & Noble || Amazon]

Nortel/CoreTek PR: http://www.nortelnetworks.com/corporate/news/newsreleases/2000a/03_21_0000166_brut.html

Scrum: http://www.controlchaos.com/

XP: http://www.extremeprogramming.org/

About the Author

Jason Purdy is Chief Technologist for Journalistic, Inc, a publishing company in Durham, NC. Jason has worked in the field of Web development for over six years, catching the revolution on its inception and working for both big multi-national corporations such as IBM, Data General, and Trilogy, while also spending more than three years with two small start-ups, Stingray Software and AuctionRover.com. Jason earned a degree with majors in mathematical science and computer sciences, and a minor in chemistry, from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. While at UNC, Jason pioneered several concepts in the field of information dissemination and education over the Internet, such as producing the first online version of the UNC Daily Newspaper, creating the first version of online student elections, UNC Press's Web site, and co-founding a Java Special Interest Group.

This article was originally published on April 5, 2003

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