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Agile Software Development in the Large: Questions for Jutta Eckstein

InformIT interviews Jutta Eckstein, author of Agile Software Development in the Large: Diving Into the Deep, about the challenges large teams face with regard to agile processes and the most exciting developments in agile.
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InformIT: How did you become interested in agile software development?

Jutta Eckstein: Agile software development has been influenced by Lean yet has its roots in Smalltalk (the programming language) and in Patterns. For example, both Extreme Programming and Scrum have first been published as pattern languages. I have been actively involved in both topics and with both communities. Therefore, it was a natural encounter, because agile software development (in 1995-1996 it was called lightweight methods) was discussed in both of these communities.

InformIT: What is the most challenging aspect of coaching companies and teams to use agile processes?

Jutta: The most challenging aspect is actually a typical coaching challenge: To accept that it is the client who knows the solution and not the coach. Thus, as the coach it is not me offering solutions, but helping the client to find his or her own answers.

InformIT: What particular challenges do large teams face with regard to agile processes? (This is one of your areas of expertise, which you cover in your book Agile Software Development in the Large: Diving Into the Deep.)

Jutta: One of the big challenges is to ensure that everyone sees the big picture while working on his or her (sub-)team’s details. Concentrating on your own stories only will most likely result in an incoherent system which is not respecting conceptual integrity. This requires taking responsibility also for cross-team concerns. Another big risk in large projects is coming up with (too) many rules without trusting that people can act self-responsibly; in other words, not focusing on trusted relationships.

InformIT: Are there particular practices or processes that are needed in a very large development project (several hundred developers) that may not be as important in small teams?

Jutta: A lot of the practices refer just to scaling the principles and well known practices. For example, it is not enough to run regular retrospectives in each of the subteams but have project-wide retrospectives from time to time as well, so the subteams can learn from each other.

InformIT: You have also written about agile software development with distributed teams. This is a growing issue as more and more software teams find themselves in different locations, which may include additional challenges of different languages and time zones. What is the most important thing distributed agile teams can do to improve their outcomes?

Jutta: It is hard to say what the most important  thing is, because there are three things that go together: mutual respect, trusted relationships, and open communication. Especially the first one is often ignored--for example by paying attention differently to people and teams residing at the headquarters compared to the ones residing at a different location. Mutual respect implies being sensitive to language (e.g., if people talk about a nightly build – whose night are they referring to?), being sensitive to balancing the travel burden by meeting at differing locations, or being sensitive to time zones.

InformIT: What is the biggest misconception about moving to agile software development?

Jutta: The biggest misconception is to believe that agile software development will only affect software development or the IT department. In fact if taken seriously, it will affect the whole organization – no matter how large it might be.

InformIT: What new developments in agile development excite you the most?

Jutta: The greater awareness of cultural change at the organization level, which includes looking for answers for managing the project portfolio, or learning from other fields like learning organizations or beyond budgeting.

InformIT: How and why did you get involved with the Pedagogical Patterns Project?  Tell us a little about the project and its goals.

Jutta: In my “former life” I received a Bachelors degree in education, thus I was a teacher. After finishing my degree as an engineer, I still was interested in teaching and thus in pedagogy as well. Therefore, I was really lucky when I discovered the pedagogical patterns project – the work that we have done there should  really be of interest for everyone, because teaching and learning are happening at the workplace every single day.

InformIT: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in your career?

Jutta: In my early career as an engineer my boss and I visited a client in Eastern Europe. After the formal introduction the client said to my boss “Oh, I thought you would bring a technician along.”

InformIT: Who or what has inspired you to get where you are today?

Jutta: This is actually the decision of becoming independent. At first I thought I would be working in a self-employed way just for a limited amount of time, but now it has been fifteen years and I discover almost every day how much I value this independence.

InformIT: What kind of advice do you have for those who are following in your footsteps?

Jutta: Do what you love and if you don’t love what you do – change it. There are always possibilities, e.g., there is always stuff to learn, areas to engage, communities to be involved with. Life offers just so many possibilities, don’t waste it with stuff you dislike.

InformIT: Where is the best place you’ve scuba dived?

Jutta: I just love the Red Sea. The contrast is so striking: on land there is the desert and under water it is unbelievably colorful.

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