30 Years of Scrum

There is some controversy as to when Scrum was invented, but many attribute it to Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in 1986. While still new and cutting edge to many companies this 30 year old process has it’s fair share of both proponents and opponents. Seeing as how I started programming at about this time under the watchful gaze of my stepfather I’m going to take a look back over my own career and speak to how my perception of scrum has matured as I went from solo-developer to working in teams and more recently to leading teams myself.

As a solo developer your process is your own. Your organization and motivation (or lack thereof) is what makes or breaks your work. It’s easy to develop a lot of bad habits, and these can be hard to break when joining your first team. There’s also great pride to be found in building things yourself from scratch, but this itself can be a pathology leading to a defensive “I am my code” kind of perspective. In the late 90s and early 2000s I had never heard of Agile, Scrum or Kanban. I managed to get by with piles of haphazard notes covered in scribbles usually jumping from one half-baked idea to the next with no regard for the big mess I was creating. I still managed to make things, but I hate to think of how much of my early career was spent rewriting the same thing over and over from scratch because I had coded myself into a corner yet again.

I had my first experience working on a real team fresh out of university at Atalasoft. When I first joined each developer was a silo, rarely interacting with the others. Surprisingly, this largely worked as thankfully the company was founded on experienced people and had zero turnaround. It also helped that they had proper infrastructure: source control with continuous integration and bug tracking with FogBugz. But the company was growing, and starting to hire junior people out of the local University (such as myself), it was quickly becoming obvious that something needed to change.

My first real assignment after coming on and getting oriented was attack the huge backlog of bugs in our tracking system. These bugs spanned every silo across the company and were in at least four different languages. At first it was difficult working with people who were not used to having outsiders poking around in their code. There was defensiveness and sometimes even anger. It didn’t help that I was pretty arrogant, thinking I was hot stuff with my almost perfect CompSci GPA. Nothing brings humility like working in a large legacy codebase however.

I came to appreciate when people had written tests, even if the coverage was poor, they were like signposts on the road. The worst code to work in was always the untested but I was able to move forward with a copy of Michael Feathers’ Working Effectively With Legacy Code largely guiding my sometimes painfully slow progress.

As a side note, we at one point attempted TDD but it slowed development to a crawl and had only a small impact on bugs per line of code after a release cycle. The much more effective approach we landed on later was to have a sprint where we tested each other’s code. This became a kind of contest to see who could break each other’s stuff in the most horrible way and testing became great fun. I would look forward to this sprint more than any other.

About a year after I joined the decision to adopt Scrum and Agile was made and many (probably most) people were unhappy about the change. At the time I was particularly unhappy about the 9am daily meetings (which I was almost always late for). I think this decision was largely a response to the difficulties we were having with the productivity of newer hires. The silo model was breaking down as junior programmers were being brought on.

At first we struggled with all of the planning and meetings, but after a month or so we were back at our former level of productivity, and within six things were much improved. Junior devs were being given appropriately sized pieces of work. There were multiple people successfully working on the same bits of the code base. There was still some resistance, and there was a lot of pain around letting go of code ownership, but it was largely working.

Under this system I was able to grow as a developer in great strides. They tested me with larger and larger pieces of problems at a time and within two years of joining Atalasoft I was designing whole new products. This was only possible because we had a system in place where it was obvious if I was stuck, and a system in place to help me decompose problems if I needed it. By the time I left Atalasoft I was running the Scrum meetings myself.

Today I don’t use Scrum in running my research department. We are a small collection of experts working largely (but not entirely) in silos on research problems. Scrum would be too much structure for what we’re trying to accomplish. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to reach for Scrum again if I were building a team to make products or if I had a large proportion of junior developers. I know of no faster way to grow a junior hire into a full-fledged software developer.

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