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Software developer and industry consultant Ken Schwaber is one of the creators of Scrum software development techniques, and a widely recognized leader in agile development practices, the increasingly popular approach that makes it possible for teams to be more flexible and responsive to the changing needs of a project.

Scrum co-creator Ken Schwaber

Schwaber is delivering the keynote address at the ALM Forum in Seattle in early April, talking about the “State of Agile” and new efforts to quantify the effectiveness of these software development techniques. GeekWire is a media partner of the ALM Forum, and we were able to connect with Schwaber via Skype last week, in advance of his ALM talk.

Continue reading for edited excerpts from our conversation.

What’s your elevator pitch for Scrum and agile software development techniques?

I help people build software in 30 days or less. Tell us the most important stuff you have, and we’ll give you as much of that as we can at the end of 30 days.

When you were initially coming up with these concepts, did you ever envision that the methods would become as pervasive as they have?

Hadn’t the vaguest. Jeff (Sutherland) and I did this to save our companies. We were both on pretty shaky object technology, and we were both building products where there were a huge number of changes that were needed, and so we needed a way where we could rapidly put out increments of the products, and respond to shifting priorities, and shaky technology. So we came up with it for our own survival, and then we experimented with it in a number of companies that we were in. I would have never guessed. But I view Waterfall as the worst thing that ever happened to our profession, ever. So I’m delighted that it happened.

Why was Waterfall the worst thing that ever happened to the profession?

It sets everyone up for failure. It starts with the expectation that you can take complex technology, people, and all sorts of different attitudes and skills and all that, and changing requirements and desires, and you can predict exactly what they’ll be a far point in advance, and you put someone in charge of it that tries to maintain and stick to that plan. And yet the wisest thing to do is to change and take advantage of things that you find as you move forward. Waterfall says, don’t. It just puts common sense in conflict with authority. Which is not a good thing.

Are Agile and Scrum techniques equally applicable to other areas of business, and life?

David Starr runs his family using daily Scrums and weekly planning meetings (PDF). A sales operation is run by Scrum. They lay out the yearly goal, and then every month they lay out what they’re going to try to do, they look and see what they were able to accomplish, they adjust the business accordingly, then they move forward. The only thing that wasn’t done with an emperical, iterative or incremental approach was software! Which is the most complex of them all. It’s so weird.

What’s the biggest mistake that a company makes, or a software development team makes, in trying to implement these principles?

We’re trained in our organizations to believe that there’s someone in charge, who has people working for him, and he can tell people to do things and it will happen. They say, “We’re going to go with Scrum, and you have a year, and I expect this, and I expect that.” They think that people’s creativity can be mandated. So the hardest thing is to get the manager to see that his or her job is to see, what is the best the team can do, and help them do it, rather than get them to do what the manager thinks they should do. Anyone who’s been a parent knows exactly this problem with their kids.

Microsoft’s Developer Division moved into an open and flexible workspace to embrace these techniques, and as I was walking around their building I noticed a lot of headphones and earbuds. How do you balance the need to collaborate with the need to concentrate?

People think opening up space and letting the noise vibrate is collaboration. No, it’s letting noise vibrate. Having people so you can see them, and go over and start writing on a board, or you can get the people you need right there, that is collaboration. There’s often a mistake that this ominous noise is collaboration. Visual cues and access are the keys.

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