The rise and the fall of scrum

Part 2 Crossing the chasm

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Years of unsuccessful collaborations while working with traditional methodologies had created a rift between software engineers and business executives. Developers would blame ambiguous and interminable requirements, while the business claimed that engineers interpreted them incorrectly and built the wrong things, and too slowly at that. The “us vs them” division was real, with levels of resentment and mistrust running high on both sides.

Thus, when 17 software engineers gathered in 2001 to create the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, one of the goals was to heal the divide that had opened up and reconnect engineers with their customer. For that to happen, though, the software community as a whole — not just engineers — would have to take it to heart.

Even though the response from developers after the manifesto was published was enthusiastic, it wasn’t until Scrum gained traction outside the developer community that things really took off for Agile. But Scrum had been around since the mid-nineties with no remarkable impact. So what made it catch on?

The answer is simple: Certifications.

According to Robert C Martin, one of the authors of the manifesto, Scrum certifications “legitimized” Agile. It was only when management types learned they could get certified that Agile went mainstream.

Without that certified scrum master course, Agile would be nowhere today. It would still be this little thing off to the side that a few developers thought was cool. Instead, it crossed the chasm. It’s now the thing. Everybody's doing Scrum, everybody’s doing Agile… Of course, Agile may have taken off in other ways had Scrum certifications never been conceived but, at least according to Martin, this was the catalyst.

With middle-management buy-in — eager no doubt to put their certified status into practice — and developers happy to embrace any departure from process-heavy approaches, there was little standing in the way of change.

The scrum machine

Nowadays the Scrum following has enough critical mass for it to lead a life of its own. Certifications, subscriptions, courses, books, summits and conferences make up a multi-million dollar industry by themselves. The Scrum Alliance — one of three major Scrum certification providers (Scrum.org  and Project Management Institute  being the other two) — has some half a million certified practitioners alone.

A career built entirely on Scrum is possible. Scrum Master and Product Owner are official job titles at some companies. Those occupying the position get paid handsomely too, as highlighted in the Scrum.org Scrum Master Trends report: “In 2018, Glassdoor continues to include Scrum Master in their list of highest paying jobs — ranking at Number 20”. Not bad considering a certification is all but guaranteed after completing a two-day course that requires no prerequisites to enroll.

In the consultancy world, Scrum and Agile are big business. C-level executives, convinced they cannot afford to remain wedded to the traditional ways in the “digital age”, seek to make wholesale operational changes. This paves the way for consultants to embark on “Agile transformations” of the entire organization.

As for Scrum itself, its inherent ability to self-promote aids its own proliferation. In an office setting, daily huddles of people, whiteboards adorned with colorful sticky notes, posters displaying progress charts, and so on, could hardly go unnoticed. The “ceremonies” and visual apparatus give the impression that teams are organized, busy and generally well-managed. Scrum is nothing if not conspicuous.

Suffice to say, the Scrum ecosystem has no shortage of inhabitants keen on its preservation and expansion.

Of course, popularity draws scrutiny and there have been criticisms about some of the ways in which Scrum is practiced. Its commercialization in particular has been a cause for concern for some time, with some worried that selling Scrum and “Corporate Agile” have seen it depart from the principle values of Agile to which it claims to be so closely aligned.

Nevertheless, one thing is certain: Scrum has been a vehicle for change towards a more Agile way of working. Pragmatic proponents of Agile might say the end justifies the means.

Scrum by default

It would be unfair to imply that the only thing Scrum has going for it is its tendency to make management look good. Or that it’s only the product of some highly successful sales initiative masterminded by those with a financial interest in seeing it proliferate.

The fact remains that Scrum represents a tremendous departure from the traditional ways of developing software and towards the values of Agile. If the waterfall approach is your starting point, a glimpse of software after weeks instead of months or years would seem like a complete revelation.

It also must be said that part of Scrum’s appeal lies in the fact that barriers to entry are kept low in all regards. For example, Scrum concepts are intuitive and easy to understand. Training courses may have their benefits but aren’t necessary to get going. “Advanced” concepts can be discovered and adopted progressively as needed.

It’s possible to put the major components of Scrum in place quickly and with little expense. Elaborate software to aid the practice exists but, again, isn’t required and quite often does more to move participants away from the principle of “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” than anything else.

Scrum is also low-maintenance. Teams are self-organizing and the “sprint” cadence keeps things ticking over without the need for managerial intervention.

It may not sound like much, but perhaps it is these qualities above all else that make it the starting point for so many. Indeed, Scrum can and often does grow from the ground up within larger organizations, with teams taking the initiative to transition by themselves.

In short, Scrum provides a gentle ramp towards realizing a more agile way of working.

Times have changed

Whatever the reasons for Scrum’s popularity, Agile has it to thank for its status as a mainstream movement, both throughout the software industry and beyond. For a while, Scrum was Agile, and Agile was Scrum, and the two benefited mutually from being synonymous with one another.

But catalysts for change do not necessarily persist. We now live an Agile-aware world and no longer measure our frameworks and methodologies against those of the previous century. Once again, better ways of developing software are being uncovered, and Scrum — the champion of adaptability — is itself forced to adapt in order to stay relevant. The question is, can it do so without fading away to nothing?

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