Greeks vs Romans. Adaptive vs Plain-Driven development.

Came across this wonderful essay over at Hacknot today. The essay starts off by decrying this assertion made by Raghavendra Rao Loka, in February’s 2007 edition of IEEE Software:

“Writing and maintaining software are not engineering activities. So it’s not clear why we call software development software engineering.”

The author of the essay goes onto offer a brief rebuttal of this this based on some comments by Steve McConnell, and pointed out quite rightly in my opinion that:

Software development is slowly and surely moving its way out of the mire of superstition and belief into the realm of empiricism and reason. The transition closely parallels those already made in other disciplines, such as medicine’s evolution from witchcraft into medical science.

What I found really insightful though was how the author likened these two views ( Loka vs McConnell ) to another conflict:

These two represent the age-old conflict between the engineers and the artists, the sciences and the humanities. In the software development domain, some have previously characterized it as the battle between the Greeks and the Romans.

He then applies this same metaphor to the wider issue of adaptive vs the plain-driven approaches to software development and in doing so offers an interesting perspective on the two schools of thought:

By now you will probably have recognized the analogue between the cultural divide separating the Greeks and Romans and the methodological divide between adaptive and plan-driven approaches to software development.

We can think of the Greeks as representative of Agile Methods. The focus is upon loosely coordinated individuals whose talent and passion combine to produce great artefacts of creativity. Any organizational shortcomings the team might experience are overcome by the cleverness and skilful adaptivity of the contributors.

Alternatively, we can consider the Romans as representative of plan driven methods, in which the carefully engineered and executed efforts of competent and well educated practitioners combine to produce works of great size and complexity. The shortcomings of any of the individuals involved are overcome by the systematic methods and peer review structure within which they work.

It’s a wonderful analogy that I think illustrates some of the differences between the two approaches in a way that most practitioners would readily understand and perhaps even agree with. Which is the right approach? I guess it depends on you, your project but most importantly the kind of people you have in your team. I have certainly spent a considerable amount of time extolling what I believe are the virtues of the agile methodology on this blog.

I spent several years working in a very Roman-esque organisation and I’d probably argue that the competent and well educated practitioners in such organisations rarely fit either of those terms. Probably because the very nature of such systems require those working within that confine to accept a certain level of conformity. Consequently individual flair, creativity or even imagination are less important than the uniformity that such organisations require – a sort of fill-in-the-blanks approach to development where your responsible for only those small pieces assigned to you, and whether you necessarily know what the bigger picture is or even understand it isn’t important because some more senior in the team who assigns you your tasks does know. This often results in developers feeling disaffected or perhaps less likely to feel any sense of personal ownership or even responsibility, because they know they aren’t in a position to be responsible for anything.

I do find myself agreeing that part of what makes agile teams successful is this notion of heroics on the part of individuals. It does work well when you have talented individuals who can work together in a reasonably small scale. How well does that scales up? … I can’t personally answer that question?  I’ve read plenty of accounts and listened to the likes of Scott Ambler explain how agile can work on large scale projects. I must admit I’m not sure if I’m convinced of this. … but that’s only because of my earlier point that this decision needs, in part, to be based on the type of people you have your in team.

Our development group at Talis is quite small,at the moment no more than 20 people – and it’s not for a lack of trying, were constantly trying to recruit people but we look specifically for skilled developers who could fit into the culture that we have. Individuals who are self motivated, self learners who take a great deal of personal pride in what they do, take responsibility and also want to have a sense of ownership over what they are building. As a result we tend to be quite jealous of who we let into the team, but again that’s probably something that is unique to our little group and says more about us than the Agile process.

I do find myself partly agreeing with the conclusion the author of the essay makes:

I favour a development method that is predominantly Greek, with sufficient Roman thrown in to keep things under control and prevent needless wheel spinning. The Greeks are a great bunch of guys, but they tend to put too much emphasis on individual heroics, and pay too little attention to the needs of the maintenance programmers that will following in their path. The Romans are a little stuffy and formal, but they really know how to keep things under control and keep your project running smoothly and predictably

 I don’t agree that, in terms of software development,  the Roman approach was ever truly able to keep things under control or necessarily running smoothly even predictably. If it was we wouldn’t have so many examples of failed projects that went over budget, went over time and totally failed to deliver what the customer actually wanted.

I personally do prefer a predominantly Greek approach and I do see methodologies such as SCRUM imposing the right level of Roman-esque control and structure to keep the project moving along smoothly and predictably, with the added bonus that the customer actually gets what they want.

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