My motivation for this article isn’t to slam or denigrate any of the scaling frameworks (and those that continue to emerge). Full disclosure, I’m a SAFE SPC and I find significant value in leveraging “some” framework for agile at scale.

That being said, I have a great concern that I want to share. I think we’re losing some of the original thinking and approaches from early instances of agile. The methods grew out of small teams doing big things.

But as we’ve gone forward and introduced agility into larger instances (enterprises, large-scale companies, distributed projects, etc.), I’m afraid that we’re losing the very essence of agility that made it attractive in the first place. Things like:

  • Small teams
  • Simple, focused solutions
  • Just enough
  • Face-to-face collaboration
  • Working code
  • High value delivery

Seem to have lost their attractiveness. I want to share a series of stories that I think (hope) might shine a light on returning to our agile roots. Or at the very least, might get you to rethink some things.

First Story – Remember Wordstar?

I doubt whether many of the readers will recognize this program. But at one point, pre-Microsoft Word in the early to mid 1980’s, Wordstar was the premier word processor on the planet. It was supported on something called CP/M and later on DOS.

What was amazing about Wordstar, at least to me, was that it fit into 64k of RAM. In fact, it fit into less than that because it had to share that space with the operating system. Imagine that, a simple, but full function word processer fitting into less than 64k of RAM. Clearly the designers had to make incredibly tough choices as to what features were absolutely critical to the program. In today’s terminology, we call it an MMP or Minimal Marketable Product.

Did folks complain about missing features and capabilities? You bet! But that didn’t stop a whole generation of programmers from being able to use Wordstar to get the jobs done.

I reminisce about Wordstar and similar programs because I think today we’ve gotten a bit lazy. Since we have hardware resources to spare, we design bloated products just to sort of prove that we can design a 100 complex ways to do inherently simple things. It’s easier than thinking about simple designs and simple solutions to complex problems. When agile came around, it placed a renewed focus on design simplicity, heck simplicity everywhere. Getting to the essence of a problem and solving…just it.

I think we could relearn something important by revisiting those software design goals from so long ago…

The Lesson: Wordstar had hardware limitations that forced the developers to minimize the product to a MMP feature set. Today we would do well to “imagine” that we had a small hardware footprint to encourage us to be creative, innovative, and frugal in our applications.

Second Story – Unix

The beginning of Unix is another one of those “minimalist” stories. It was developed by a handful of developers in the early 1970’s at AT&T Bell Labs. While some of the early Unix contributors were considered “super programmers”, nonetheless it’s another case where a small group did big things.

As Unix’s popularity grew, of course the software got bigger. However, I still remember the “erector set” nature of basic Unix commands and how you could “pipe them together” to do more complex tasks. The architecture itself was simple, yet elegant and it remained that way as it historically expanded.

In the early 1990’s, Linus Torvalds famously released an Open Source version of Unix called Linux. At the beginning, it too was incredibly small. He initially worked on it himself and then with a small group of dedicated maintainers.  Again, Linux has grown well beyond its original size constraints. But both systems are clear examples of elegantly designed small systems that had a huge impact on our technology.

The Lesson: Again simplicity, but not only that, the beginning of the realization that a small group of programmers could deliver big, useful things. That it didn’t take a team the size of Montana to deliver meaningful products or applications.

Third Story – Bloatware & Pareto

I’ve been using a quote for quite a long time in my classes. I can’t remember where I’ve seen it before, but it goes like this:

Less than 20% of the features of Microsoft Word are actually used by human beings on the planet earth. So how did the other 80% of features get in there if they have no (lean) value?

  • Competitive pressures
  • Marketing checklists
  • Flat out guesses
  • Gold Plating
  • Feature creep
  • Youthful enthusiasm

All probably contributed. But at the end of the day, the only determinant to value should be REAL customer usage. Now if only Microsoft would agree to “trim” Word down to size.

Here’s a supporting quote by Kelly Waters from a 2007 blog post:

Anyway, back to my point about the 80/20 rule, Microsoft’s own research found that the average user of Word uses only *8%* of the functionality. That’s 8%! And I wouldn’t mind betting at least 80% of us use the same 8% too! [assertion]. If Microsoft had developed only the important 8% of Word, maybe they could still have captured the same market share? Maybe, maybe not; sadly we will never know.

And the article also alludes to leveraging the Pareto Principle when it comes to mining for customer features that truly make a difference. Otherwise known as the 80/20 Rule, here’s an article I shared about Pareto in another context.

The Lesson: Pareto is alive and well and applicable in everything we do in software. We need to continue to look for the 20% of features that deliver 80% or more of the value to our clients. Then deliver those FIRST before we worry about the edge cases.

Fourth Story – Chrysler C3

The original Chrysler C3 Extreme Programming project was the inspiration behind the Extreme Programming agile approach. I wasn’t part of the project, but my understanding is that it was a typical, large-scale, Waterfall project that failed. There were perhaps 50+ folks who were working on the effort for over a year.

When the project was initially cancelled, it had been a dismal failure. The story goes that Kent Beck made a case for a much smaller team to use a different approach to try and “recover” the project. The team was about 20% of the original team size.

And as you can guess, the team recovered the project and delivered a workable HR system. But the project never met the overall goals and was ultimately cancelled again in 2000.

This was the project where Kent, Ron Jeffries, and several other famous agilists earned their chops. It also inspired XP as a popular methodology and initiated the movement, as it exists today.

The majority of software projects today make use of XP practices even if they’re not “agile”.  Those early XP “experiments” in things like pair-programming, refactoring, and continuous integration have proven to be incredibly sound ways to iteratively build software.

The lesson: a small group of focused technical folks can do big things IF they apply the principles and practices of the agile manifesto. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Fifth Story – iContact vs. MailChimp

I worked at iContact from 2009 – 2012. iContact provided a SaaS email marketing application that competed primarily with Constant Contact and MailChimp. At the time we mostly focused on MailChimp because of their phenomenal customer growth.

Beyond their being a direct competitor, we were both agile shops. And I was at the time and still am enamored with the nimbleness of MailChimp.

In 2012 iContact had nearly 400 employees. Around the same time, MailChimp was reported to have approximately 80 employees. So they were 20% of our size.  I just did a LinkedIn search for MailChimp and it showed 106 employees. So they are still relatively small and nimble.

What’s my point?

Well, to put it bluntly MailChimp cleaned our clock! They kicked our butt when it came to head-to-head comparative measures of our SMB email marketing applications. They were quicker to deliver features. They were quicker to change and pivot directions. They were more creative, bringing out a freemium offering that drove tremendous growth A strategy that we tried to copy and failed.

I’m currently a MailChimp customer and I’m amazed how insightful they are into the needs of their customers and how frequently they bring out new and, more importantly, useful features. 

If you extrapolate from the numbers, we had about 100 people in technology. Mailchimp would have had 20-30 of the same folks developing, deploying and supporting their products.

I was at the time and still am envious of them. They were truly agile in spirit and action. They had an incredibly small team that built and evolved a robust email platform that simply rocked in its market space.

The Lesson: We all seem to have a tendency to bring more people to bear on problems, under the impression that we’ll achieve our goals faster. However, that often doesn’t happen. Instead focusing a small, agile team on thoughtful, high-impact client goals seems to be a winning strategy.

BTW: there are numerous other companies that are quite small, but that do incredible things. One historical example is 37 Signals the makers of Basecamp. Another is Menlo Innovations who focuses on application development.

Final Story – ChannelAdvisor

Here is one final story just to finish whetting your appetite around my article themes.

This comes from my own personal experience. During 2007 – 2009 I worked as an agile coach and leader at a company called ChannelAdvisor here in Raleigh, North Carolina. As with iContact, ChannelAdvisor was an agile shop (Scrum) and they built a SaaS application suite for eCommerce customers.

We had a large Scrum team that was focused on developing web search application extensions for our platform. The company was growing and we were of the habit to grow our Scrum teams rather large before we would split them into two smaller teams. Our search team was approximately 12 in size.

A business priority change happened that caused us to split the search team in two – essentially making two Scrum teams of six members each. One continued to develop the search application and the other was redirected to another component area.

What’s interesting about the story is that the search teams’ velocity didn’t change after we split them. They were averaging 25 points per sprint before the split and 24 points per sprint after the split.

I know what you’re thinking…that’s impossible. Well, no, this really happened. So what was going on here?

Simply put, the smaller team was more efficient in delivering software. There were fewer communications channels, less hand-offs, more collaboration, and a better focus on their goals. To the point that they were

The Lesson: Try to solve your problems with as small a team as possible. Let them form and mature and achieve a steady velocity. Then “feed them” a prioritized backlog. You may just be surprised at how much they can get done IF you get out of their way.

Wrapping Up

I think that all of the scaling hoopla is just that. I don’t believe we have a distributed team problem or a scaling problem in today’s small or large-scale agile contexts. And huge applications don’t need to be built by 10-50 Scrum teams.

We have an un-scaling problem.  We have a boiling the ocean problem. We have a trying to throw too many people at it problem. We have a love of size and scope problem.

We’re looking at problems and creating the most complex solutions we can come up with. We are enamored with:

  • Distributed teams and / or large groups of teams
  • Way too complex architectures and designs
  • Solving problems with project management thinking
  • Management” solving problems with “old thinking”
  • Building bloated software with features nobody uses
  • Not truly understanding our clients
  • Allowing business-facing folks to “ask for everything”
  • Scattershot vision hoping that we eventually hit the target

I can’t tell you how often I hear someone explain why his or her systems are complex. They reference the complexity as a badge of honor and a must have.

I would argue that there is no need for 100’s of developers to build systems. Small teams can do great things. That is if we allow them to do it.

That was the essence of agility in the beginning and it still is. I hope this article has inspired you to reduce your teams, break up your products, and take a new look at how you build your software and what you build.

Remember – a handful of agile teams can do great things. And a handful of product visionaries can guide them towards just enough, lean, and wonderful software.

Stay agile my friends,


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