When I started programming, there were some key figures identified as the experts. They wrote the books that laid out how my code should look, how I should behave, and what the purpose of a software developer was. And there’s a new guard, also steeped in that mythos, publishing their hot takes and simple books.
I looked to my peers and seniors for guidance, and they looked to the agile manifesto, the gang of four and others. Those who packaged up existing ideas and best practices, set against a growing trend of Taylorism, and wrapped themselves in a punk ethos fighting the power, wielding keyboards like axes.
And there was value in what they were selling, small pieces that fed my hunger for “something better”.
But for all the bravado, the facade of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen they presented, deep down they were the establishment, tweaking the system slightly for their own benefit, re-engaging the bro culture of the “frontier spirit” of the early internet. Rules and processes are dictated by “the man” to restrict our freedom to innovate, and to work in the best way.
Companies formed and rose on the counter-culture ethic, buoyed by the vacuum left as union power fell, blinding us all that tech was the new utopia, and it brought a meritocracy that would bring equality.
And the gods saw agile, and it was good.
We moved fast and broke stuff, re-wrote the rules. The industry didn’t take time to consider why those rules existed, just that they were roadblocks.
So when women and people of colour, and anyone else who wasn’t a bro, stepped into the arena, they were vulnerable. Because there were still rules, just no process. And the rules aren’t made for them. And the gatekeepers, clear in their self-image that they weren’t racist, or sexist, and only discriminated on merit, could not comprehend that processes and written rules exist to limit privilege, because equality means nothing without equity.
They asked all of us, the squirrels, the rhinos, the fish, and the peacocks, to climb trees and collect nuts to demonstrate our worthiness to join their club, without regard for our skills or our backgrounds. They bully, they fight, they protect their own, because rules weigh us down, man.
- People over process, so long as the people are the right people.
- Working software, so long as it works for me. Anything else is externalities and not my problem.
- Collaboration over contracts, we’re all on the same team, so forgive me as I forgive you.
- Respond to change over following a plan, but is there a vision that informs what changes are acceptable?
Agile still has its place, but what would it look like if the manifesto and the guiding principles had been laid out by a more representative group? The antecedents, stretching right back through NASA, Bletchly Park and The Difference Engine, remain the same, and the key lessons are independent of those teachers, but what did we miss by not having others at the table?
- What does process that protects people look like? Process that keeps people safe and secure to deliver the best solution?
- What does software that works for everyone look like? Beyond documentation on accessibility and anti-discrimination.
- What does proper, honest, compassionate collaboration look like? Within teams, between teams and across disciplines?
- What does meaningful, people-centered change look like?
Software is too important to be left to the swamp that is this libertarian mess. The current ways are driving great developers out of tech, and users are not fairly represented. Some of the old guard recognise this, but many don’t, and they have plenty of followers who still believe the meritocracy myth.
There is no level playing field in tech.
Not everyone has spare time for technical exams outside work hours. Not everyone is comfortable pair programming. Not everyone can follow a spoken stand-up. Not everyone feels safe to bring their full self to work. Everyone is not treated the same. Not everyone can have alcohol and pizza. Not everyone has the experience of standing up to authority figures. Not everyone can be themselves without being judged or mocked by the cis straight white male gatekeepers, and their supporters.
There’s precious few unions and the biggest tech companies are all struggling with human rights, fair employment and treating their users fairly. And it’s not just them.
Unlike the 20th century, it’s not a battle between management and worker. Agile has cast management and worker in the same side, but some workers are far more equal than others.
People are not supported by the process. Software doesn’t work for everyone. Collaboration is limited because contracts don’t protect and promote safety. The plan for meritocracy to end discrimination isn’t working. How are you going to change it?