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Ten Years of Agile: An Interview with Ward Cunningham

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InformIT interviews Ward Cunningham, one of the original Agile Manifesto signatories, on the ten-year anniversary of its creation.
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Ward Cunningham is probably best known for inventing the wiki, defined by the OED as "a website or database developed collaboratively by a community of users, allowing any user to add and edit content."

Beyond the wiki, Ward was involved in the early patterns movement, helped define Extreme Programming, and created FIT, the Framework for Integrated Tests.

He also managed to accomplish all this while programming for a living, including roles as the Chief Technical Officer for AboutUs; and later and currently as CTO of CitizenGlobal and Nike open innovation fellow.

On this tenth anniversary of the Agile Manifesto, we offer this interview with Ward.


InformIT: You were a co-author of the Agile Manifesto in 2001. What drew you to the gathering?

Ward: I knew the people. I knew the venue. I could tell it would be interesting. I wasn't actually invited. I stumbled across their planning wiki. Called up the organizers. Was told that it was for methodology founders, but that they would "grandfather" me in. I'd done my methodology (Episodes) so I thought I belonged. But I was ok just being a grandfather for the moment.

InformIT: Ten years ago, what were your predictions and expectations for the Agile movement?

Ward: I was hopeful. I'd been consulting long enough to have seen tremendous waste in the software industry. I knew this came from friction in information flow. I also knew that there had been dramatic improvements in computer technology that was not yet bearing on the problem. This power would be applied indirectly: by shortening cycle time I could bring people closer together. There they could then use their own marvelous human communication abilities to imagine together as I knew they had been struggling to imagine alone.

InformIT: Since the manifesto was signed in 2001, we've seen the agile movement spawn a dozen conferences, several associations, hundreds of books, and even new movements like Software Craft. How does this differ from your wishes and predictions from ten years ago? In hindsight, do you see any downside to the direction Agile has taken, or do you see more possible benefit had it taken a different direction?

Ward: I had seen my ideas diluted as they diffused through the industry before. I understood this as a natural consequence of replication. I'd much rather move on to the next idea than struggle to keep my last idea pure. Be sure: the transition from the management threatening name "Extreme Programming" to the management friendly name "Agile Software Development" was a conscious decision.

InformIT: What do you find to be new and exciting in the world of agile software? Where do you predict the world of software development is heading next?

Ward: We're entering a period of unprecedented mobility of information. This is fueled by a de facto standard representation uniformly embraced by all important programming languages. It's not the CONS cell of Lisp, or the Struct of C, or the Record of SQL. It is the mashup of hash tables and flexible arrays at the center of Perl, Python, PHP, Ruby and JavaScript. It is {} and []. Learn these characters. Put them to work.

InformIT: If you could go back and give advice to yourself ten years ago, knowing what you know now, what would it be?

Ward: I've been slow to fully appreciate the creative power and the ultimate fragility of the open source movement. Agile and Open share many of the same values but have chosen sometimes dramatically different paths to achieving those values. My advice to my prior self: pay more attention to how successful open projects work. Open communities have mined Agile for ideas better than Agile communities mining Open. But for corporations, agility is an easier sell than openness. The inevitable logic of the latter is still hard to comprehend.

InformIT: What are you working on now?

Ward: I'd like to reinvent data. The spreadsheet offered the last significant advance in data by creating a personal modeling environment where profound decisions are routinely made. Civilization's decision making needs now exceed that easily captured in spreadsheets or any other popular representation, number, letter, voice or image.

InformIT: Where can we go to learn more about those projects?

Ward: Of course my schemes for reinventing data are as hard to describe as any other challenging subject we'd ever hope to communicate. The best way to learn about them is to sit next to me and help me do the reinvention. With support from my current employer, Citizen Global, I've accepted a one-year fellowship with Nike's corporate responsibility people that will make our working together possible.

InformIT: Thank you for your time, Ward.

Ward: Thank you. And thanks also to all the people in every community I've touched for taking my ideas seriously and adding yours to them to make them great.

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