The Agile Architect

How I Won the Battle but Lost the War: An Agile Saga (Part 1)

There is a common expression that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Our Agile Architect shares such a tale.

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You are standing in a TV studio. The lights are blazing down on you. Nervous and slightly moist from perspiration, you look around and see your fellow game show contestants. They don't look too different from you. You know you can win this...

And then the announcer appears and starts saying those familiar words that open every show: "Welcome ladies and gentleman and children of all ages to the new game show that's sweeping the nation. In our first season we've already given away more than $20 million in prizes. That's right, folks! It's time for Sculpt This! The game where our contestants turn lifeless clay into living sculptures. Our dead celebrity subject for tonight is Jimmy Durante. Contestants will have six hours to create a lifelike full-size statue of our subject. Our judges are standing by, ready to declare a winner!"

Before you realize it, they've rolled out an 8-foot-tall block of clay. Sculpting tools appear by your side as if from nowhere. And the clock starts ticking.

As an agile software developer, you know to start work on the part of the statue that provides the most value. And this is Jimmy Durante. Of course, you have to start with the nose! So you grab a big hunk of clay, put it on the table in front of you and make your first cut. The clay slides away like butter. With the superior tools you've been given, you've got plenty of time before the deadline.

Soon the nose is starting to take form. It's large and bulbous, just like you remember from those old movies your parents used to show you. Especially, "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." That scene with Jimmy is great where his car goes over the cliff and he just goes flying right out there. It's almost as funny as the scene where...

No, wait. Stay focused. You've got a deadline and a nose to finish. You look at your work and realize that the nostrils aren't quite right. You didn't hollow them out enough. looks like he has to blow his nose! You start correcting this right away. The nose has to be perfect. It's what everyone is going to look at. It's what's going to win this thing.

An hour goes by and the nose is perfect. It looks just like Jimmy's nose. So you ask yourself what the next most important thing is. Why, his ears of course. So you start on the ears. Two beautiful ears that look like an elephant's. You grab some hunks of clay and you start molding the folds of his left ear. The earlobe is droopy and soggy, like a glob of Jell-O dripping down. You realize what a coup it will be to actually display the hair growing out of his ear canals, each strand carefully crafted and placed to show an old man's body in decline. The second ear is harder. It has to match the size, shape and texture of the first. You decide to flop the top of the second ear over just a little for a flare of personality.

Another hour has gone by. You marvel at your three creations, thinking about how to peace them together and suddenly realize that the nose is too small for the ears.

So it's back to working the nose. Adding clay, expanding its breadth and depth. The nostrils, of course, have to be made larger and the bulbous end more bulbous. It's intense labor to make this perfect again, recreating the contours, the textures and adding that not-so-subtle Durante flare. It took you an hour to get the perfect nose the first time. This time, it takes even longer. You try to save what you can from your original work, but it's just too small. None of it works at the larger size. So you have to recreate perfection again. Ah, only you could have such magnificent success twice in one day. It's only cost you another hour.

And it's time to start on the next piece. The hands. Jimmy's wonderful hands. So expressive. You grab some chunks of clay and start molding two hands. Eight fingers, two thumbs. Each with a well-manicured fingernail and, of course, fingerprints on each to add that extra touch of realism. You add the wrinkles to the palms, trace out a long lifeline and add a little dark color stain to his right index finger, the one he would use to dampen down the tobacco in his pipe. It's meticulous work but you want to get it right. Before you know it, two hours have slipped by. Two wonderful hours, so enjoyable and rewarding.

You've been so in the zone sculpting the hands that the nose pales in comparison. It needs more realism. You dig into your memory, conjuring Jimmy, and realize that his nose was slightly crooked and more than a little craggy. So you start adding more detail. Tilt the nose a little over and readjust the nostrils. Re-inflate the bulbous end that you just slightly crushed as you worked with the clay. Now start in on the crags. Subtle and slight. You don't want it to look like the clay is cracking.

And then you look up at the clock and realize that you've only got 15 minutes left. You've got no head, no body, no arms or legs. All you have is a nose, two ears and two hands. Sure they're perfect but you can never finish the statue in the time you have left!

You get desperate. You came to win this game and take home the prize money, not to sculpt a nose. You grab a hunk of clay and start shaping it into some semblance of a head. You stick the nose on. One nostril collapses. You manage to re-inflate it but at the cost of smudging out some of the crags. Next come the ears. You realize they aren't quite the same size as the hastily-made head. But there's no time to make corrections.

And then you reach for the hands. Your perfect hands. Ready to be placed on arms, reaching out to the audience, just begging for them to laugh. Only, you don't have any arms. What the hell are you going to do with hands when there are no arms! And you realize there's only one solution. You've got to cradle the head in the hands. But the hands weren't meant to hold the head. So you squish them against it, the clay fingers bending awkwardly at the pressure. Only a few minutes left now. It doesn't matter that the fingerprints you so carefully carved are now pressed against the head, invisible and irrelevant. The ears don't look quite right anymore, either.  In attaching the hands, you tilted the head to the side. Now Jimmy's massive earlobes defy gravity as they hang sideways.

You look at the monstrosity you've created and, as the ending buzzer goes off, you realize that you've failed. You've utterly failed.

Final Thoughts...
What does this little tale have to do with Agile or even software development? Why, everything! We'll talk about that next time.