Scaling Agile Is Life’s Work For Digital Influencer Scott Ambler – Forbes
Followers of my Digital Influencer series for Forbes might have noticed that many of the thought leaders I interview come from the software development world.
Thatâs no coincidence. After all, todayâs digital enterprises are becoming software-driven organizations. Getting the software part right is absolutely critical.
But digital influencers like todayâs subject, Scott Ambler, never consider software to be a separate world from the business. They all realize that software drives business success â not as a distinct effort, but as an integral part of what it means to successfully run a modern, digital enterprise.
Building Good Software: Itâs all about Process
Scott Ambler is perhaps best known as one of the progenitors of Disciplined Agile, a leading framework for scaling Agile within large organizations, along with Mark Lines. Or perhaps you know him from one of the many, diverse book titles heâs penned or co-penned over the years, including Agile Modeling, Refactoring Databases, The Elements of UML 2.0 Style, or Mastering Enterprise JavaBeans, to name a few.
His coding career dates back to high school work in Fortran on a PDP-11, but working at the Royal Bank of Canada âwoke me up to process stuff,â according to Ambler. What fascinated him: asking basic questions about what worked and what didnât, especially in large, complex organizations.
His early career exposed him to modeling with UML, the Unified Modeling Language, as well as the Rational Unified Process (RUP), a software methodology from development tools vendor Rational Software before acquired it in 2003.
In the late 1990s, however, everything changed. âI went to a talk by Kent Beck in 1998 or 1999,â Ambler recalls. âThe Extreme Programming stuff spoke to me.â
With Extreme Programming (XP), Beck radically rethought how best to write software, and XP became one of the most popular Agile approaches by the time Beck joined 16 other software development thought leaders in 2001 to hammer out the details of the Agile Manifesto.
For Ambler, early insights into Agile approaches combined with his experience with RUP, leading him to join IBM as Chief Methodologist in 2006.
Even though IBM had acquired Rational only three years prior, RUP was already on its way out. âIBM didnât realize that the core value of Rational was the process, with the tools behind it,â Ambler explains. âI worked with the RUP team to begin with, but by that time it was pretty much all over for RUP.â
Even though RUP was iterative (as all Agile approaches are), it was too heavyweight and inflexible as compared to Agile. âWe tried to âAgilizeâ the Unified Process, but there was such inertia,â Ambler recalls. âIBM had underinvested in RUP for several years, and the market had moved on.â
In its early days, Agile focused primarily on small-scale software development efforts. By the late 2000s, however, large organizations had joined the game. âOrganizations were spending a lot of time and money trying to figure this Agile stuff out,â Ambler says. âPeople were applying Agile at scale â which was more complicated than simply having larger teams.â
In fact, large organizations were trying to apply Agile in numerous ways, across geographically distributed teams and complex problem domains that leveraged complex technology, even in regulated environments.
Looking at how large organizations were attempting Agile sent up a big red flag for Ambler. âMy modus operandi is to try to keep my eyes open about what working and whatâs not working so well, and ask why?â he says. âSoftware development is complex. You really need to know what youâre doing.â
The problem was that everybody was doing Agile differently. âYou canât buy Agile processes. You need to take a tailored approach,â Ambler says. âSimplistic approaches were falling apart.â
To address such issues, Ambler, Lines, and his team at IBM hammered out a new Agile framework that now goes by the name Disciplined Agile. Disciplined Agile combines elements of RUP with mainstream Agile thinking (from Scrum, XP, Agile Modeling, Kanban, and others) to give large enterprises the structure they require to scale Agile within their development organizations.
Now, as an independent consultant with his own team of experts, Ambler travels the world, leveraging Disciplined Agile to help companies scale Agile in their organizations.
Agile Beyond Software
One of Disciplined Agileâs core tenets is that it is learning-oriented, which for Ambler means it continues to evolve. âWe apply the Disciplined Agile framework,â he says. âAs we see things we evolve the framework.â
In particular, Disciplined Agile is evolving into more of a process improvement methodology that extends beyond the software organization to the rest of IT and the business as a whole. âYou canât focus on software development without involvement with the business,â Amber explains. âItâs like pulling a thread in a sweater. The organizational culture and process begins to unravel.â
In fact, software development is closely intertwined with many other areas of IT, including governance, funding, enterprise architecture, project management, and operations, or what Ambler calls âthe whole kit and caboodle.â
Governance in particular is one of the roadblocks that trips up many organizations as they attempt to scale Agile. ââGovernanceâ is a swear word for many Agilists, which is an issue,â Ambler points out. âYouâre going to be governed. If Agilists donât step up and define a governance process, the bureaucrats will certainly do so.â
Another metaphor Ambler likes to use is a racecar, where the engine represents software development teams. âAgilists are good at building racecar engines, but companies havenât tweaked the rest of the IT department,â Ambler explains. âIf some group â data management, for example â is still building tractor wheels, youâll have a problem.â
If software is the engine and the rest of the car is the IT department, then the business at large is also critical to success. âTo win the race, you need the driver and the crew, the entire organization,â Ambler continues. âBut you need the racecar too.â
If it sounds like Ambler is talking about DevOps, youâre on the right track. âDevOps and Agile have backed into process improvement,â he explains. âNow weâre talking about BizDevOps and BizSecDevOpsâ â connecting the business (âBizâ) as well as security (âSecâ) to the DevOps story. âWeâve built comprehensive DevOps strategies right into the Disciplined Agile framework, showing how they fit into your overall IT processes.â
Once again, weâve arrived at the core of digital transformation: end-to-end, customer focused, technology-enabled business change. âItâs clear we need to focus on the business,â Ambler concludes. âYou needed to look at the big picture, or youâll get in trouble.â
Scott Ambler will provide more details about scaling Agile in his session Disciplined Agile Business Agility – One Size Does Not Fit All at the Business Agility Conference in New York City on February 23 â 24, 2017.
Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Scott Ambler.