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Agile development: It isn't just for small projects

Most consider agile software development for small projects, but it is possible to use it for large-scale products. In fact, practitioners say agile scales better than traditional methodologies.

For organizations wondering if they can utilize the agile methodology for large-scale development products, IBM's Scott Ambler offers this thought: Bureaucracy and discipline are two different animals.

To manage large teams, Scott Ambler and Damon Poole agree the project needs to be broken down into smaller components and sub-teams.

Meaning, "A lot of traditional development is based on shaky theoretical foundations that don't reflect human behavior. It's not viable in many organizations," said Ambler, practice leader, agile development, with IBM Rational. "The agile community has a higher focus on quality and value; we're a little smarter about the way we work."

He added, "Many traditional organizations suffer from the misconception that bureaucracy equals discipline, but bureaucracy is bureaucracy and discipline is discipline."

In fact, asking if agile can scale is the wrong question, said Damon Poole, founder and CTO of AccuRev Inc. in Lexington, Mass.

"The question to ask is, 'How does software development scale in general?' Traditional development doesn't scale very well anyway; you hear all the time of large projects that were cancelled or delayed. Scaling is independent of methodology," he said.

Does Poole believe agile scales better than traditional methodology? "Absolutely." However, he added, "There's a question of proven scalability. There are fewer proof points of agile scalability; that's just the way it is because there are fewer large projects. But look at the algorithm of agile development. There's more in it that allows you to scale."

How to make agile software development work
You hear people talking about agile software development, but what does it really mean? This guide explains how to implement agile development, how agile differs from traditional development methods, and tools to help agile projects succeed.

Read the guide

In a SearchSoftwareQuality reader survey conducted earlier this year, more than half of the respondents (53.52%) cited agile team sizes of four to nine, while 22.54% cited agile teams smaller than three, and 19.72% of respondents cited agile teams of 10 to 20. Just 1.41% of respondents cited agile teams of 20 to 50, and 2.82% had teams over 50.

Perhaps reflecting the small amount of large-scale agile projects, just 16.9% of respondents cited scaling as a challenge to using agile, while more than half (52.11%) cited communication as a challenge, followed by documentation (47.89%) and resistance to change and tool integration (both at 23.94%).

Scaling agile using sub-teams
At IBM, Ambler said there are other agile projects on the order of 500 to 600 people. To manage large teams, both Ambler and Poole agree the project needs to be broken down into smaller components and sub-teams.

"There's no magic to this," Ambler said. "The architecture should be a system of subsystems."

He said the structure of the teams should be aligned with the architecture, and ideally the sub-team members should be co-located.

"The worst way to do this is to have the business analyst in Toronto, the test analyst in London, etc.," Ambler said. "You'd get a phenomenal amount of coordination required among these sites, across time and geographic boundaries, which increases cost and risk."

Poole is on the same page: "Making teams bigger is problematic; you don't want teams to get bigger than 10 or so people for any kind of development. Say you've got a product and you've got 250 people working on various aspects of it. You could say you have a team size of 250, or you've got 25 10-person teams and set it up so the teams are all working on something of appropriate size. To scale, you have to have a componentized software code base so people can work on different components and communicate API changes, and put team members in the same locations so you have good communication."

Story continues with "Suggestions for scaling agile".

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