How Agile Development Can Lead to Better Results and Technology-Business Alignment

Studies show agile development works, and yet few companies follow its principles. Read this article to learn how your organization can manage the agile way.

By Thomas Wailgum
Mon, May 21, 2007

CIO — Farm Credit Services of America doesn’t sound like an organization that courts controversy. The cooperative association makes loans to more than 66,000 Midwest farmers and cattle ranchers so that they can buy cows and pigs and tractors and backhoes. Its main reason for existence—providing $11 billion of operating capital and real estate financing to those who feed America—is as homey as the images of corn fields, gently rolling green pastures and rugged, resolute farmers that adorn its marketing materials.

It’s also based in Omaha, Neb., known more for steaks than as an avant-garde laboratory for one of IT’s most hotly debated development methodologies: agile programming.

But agile is exactly what Farm Credit Services has embraced, whole hog.

 
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The Agile Advantage
Agile programming means different things to different people, but at the core of all agile development methodologies are these principles: Business stakeholders are colocated with small, autonomous development teams; the teams rely less on up-front requirements and documentation than on face-to-face conversations; those conversations provide a continuous dialogue for software design, testing and refocusing. The constant refocusing, its advocates say, leads to more timely and useful business tools. (For a tutorial on agile programming, see “ABC: An Introduction to Agile Programming”.)

Agile’s ascendancy is in direct response to IT’s dolorous history of software project failure, cost overruns and the concomitant business dissatisfaction with traditional IT design and development—the waterfall methodology—in which development slowly cascades through a series of steps including requirements analysis, design, implementation, testing, integration and maintenance. But for a variety of reasons, not everyone has warmed to agile. In fact, just 17 percent of North American and European enterprises use agile development processes, according to Forrester Research’s “Enterprise Agile Adoption in 2006” survey.

Farm Credit Services welcomed agile programming because the waterfall method had been failing the organization, as it has many others. “We got requirements and would build [the applications], and nobody was happy at the end,” says Farm Credit Services CIO Dave Martin. One particular project, which was a migration from a mainframe-based customer application-processing system to a Web-based version called PinPoint, involved more than 200 pages of requirements and, by the end of 2004, had taken nearly three years to complete. In the interim, the requirements and business needs had changed, and most of the members of the original business team were gone. The resulting bug-filled system was shelved not long after its shaky debut.

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