Scaling Agile Is Life’s Work For Digital Influencer Scott Ambler

Followers of my Digital Influencer series for Forbes might have noticed that many of the thought leaders I interview come from the software development world.

That’s no coincidence. After all, today’s digital enterprises are becoming software-driven organizations. Getting the software part right is absolutely critical.

But digital influencers like today’s subject, Scott Ambler, never consider software to be a separate world from the business. They all realize that software drives business success – not as a distinct effort, but as an integral part of what it means to successfully run a modern, digital enterprise.

Building Good Software: It’s all about Process

Scott Ambler is perhaps best known as one of the progenitors of Disciplined Agile, a leading framework for scaling Agile within large organizations, along with Mark Lines. Or perhaps you know him from one of the many, diverse book titles he’s penned or co-penned over the years, including Agile Modeling, Refactoring Databases, The Elements of UML 2.0 Style, or Mastering Enterprise JavaBeans, to name a few.

His coding career dates back to high school work in Fortran on a PDP-11, but working at the Royal Bank of Canada “woke me up to process stuff,” according to Ambler. What fascinated him: asking basic questions about what worked and what didn’t, especially in large, complex organizations.

His early career exposed him to modeling with UML, the Unified Modeling Language, as well as the Rational Unified Process (RUP), a software methodology from development tools vendor Rational Software before

acquired it in 2003.

In the late 1990s, however, everything changed. “I went to a talk by Kent Beck in 1998 or 1999,” Ambler recalls. “The Extreme Programming stuff spoke to me.”

With Extreme Programming (XP), Beck radically rethought how best to write software, and XP became one of the most popular Agile approaches by the time Beck joined 16 other software development thought leaders in 2001 to hammer out the details of the Agile Manifesto.

For Ambler, early insights into Agile approaches combined with his experience with RUP, leading him to join IBM as Chief Methodologist in 2006.

Even though IBM had acquired Rational only three years prior, RUP was already on its way out. “IBM didn’t realize that the core value of Rational was the process, with the tools behind it,” Ambler explains. “I worked with the RUP team to begin with, but by that time it was pretty much all over for RUP.”

Even though RUP was iterative (as all Agile approaches are), it was too heavyweight and inflexible as compared to Agile. “We tried to ‘Agilize’ the Unified Process, but there was such inertia,” Ambler recalls. “IBM had underinvested in RUP for several years, and the market had moved on.”

Scaling Agile

In its early days, Agile focused primarily on small-scale software development efforts. By the late 2000s, however, large organizations had joined the game. “Organizations were spending a lot of time and money trying to figure this Agile stuff out,” Ambler says. “People were applying Agile at scale – which was more complicated than simply having larger teams.”

In fact, large organizations were trying to apply Agile in numerous ways, across geographically distributed teams and complex problem domains that leveraged complex technology, even in regulated environments.

Looking at how large organizations were attempting Agile sent up a big red flag for Ambler. “My modus operandi is to try to keep my eyes open about what working and what’s not working so well, and ask why?” he says. “Software development is complex. You really need to know what you’re doing.”

The problem was that everybody was doing Agile differently. “You can’t buy Agile processes. You need to take a tailored approach,” Ambler says. “Simplistic approaches were falling apart.”

To address such issues, Ambler, Lines, and his team at IBM hammered out a new Agile framework that now goes by the name Disciplined Agile. Disciplined Agile combines elements of RUP with mainstream Agile thinking (from Scrum, XP, Agile Modeling, Kanban, and others) to give large enterprises the structure they require to scale Agile within their development organizations.

Now, as an independent consultant with his own team of experts, Ambler travels the world, leveraging Disciplined Agile to help companies scale Agile in their organizations.

Agile Beyond Software

One of Disciplined Agile’s core tenets is that it is learning-oriented, which for Ambler means it continues to evolve. “We apply the Disciplined Agile framework,” he says. “As we see things we evolve the framework.”

In particular, Disciplined Agile is evolving into more of a process improvement methodology that extends beyond the software organization to the rest of IT and the business as a whole. “You can’t focus on software development without involvement with the business,” Amber explains. “It’s like pulling a thread in a sweater. The organizational culture and process begins to unravel.”

In fact, software development is closely intertwined with many other areas of IT, including governance, funding, enterprise architecture, project management, and operations, or what Ambler calls “the whole kit and caboodle.”

Governance in particular is one of the roadblocks that trips up many organizations as they attempt to scale Agile. “‘Governance’ is a swear word for many Agilists, which is an issue,” Ambler points out. “You’re going to be governed. If Agilists don’t step up and define a governance process, the bureaucrats will certainly do so.”

Another metaphor Ambler likes to use is a racecar, where the engine represents software development teams. “Agilists are good at building racecar engines, but companies haven’t tweaked the rest of the IT department,” Ambler explains. “If some group – data management, for example – is still building tractor wheels, you’ll have a problem.”

If software is the engine and the rest of the car is the IT department, then the business at large is also critical to success. “To win the race, you need the driver and the crew, the entire organization,” Ambler continues. “But you need the racecar too.”

If it sounds like Ambler is talking about DevOps, you’re on the right track. “DevOps and Agile have backed into process improvement,” he explains. “Now we’re talking about BizDevOps and BizSecDevOps” – connecting the business (‘Biz’) as well as security (‘Sec’) to the DevOps story.  “We’ve built comprehensive DevOps strategies right into the Disciplined Agile framework, showing how they fit into your overall IT processes.”

Once again, we’ve arrived at the core of digital transformation: end-to-end, customer focused, technology-enabled business change. “It’s clear we need to focus on the business,” Ambler concludes. “You needed to look at the big picture, or you’ll get in trouble.”

Scott Ambler will provide more details about scaling Agile in his session Disciplined Agile Business Agility – One Size Does Not Fit All at the Business Agility Conference in New York City on February 23 – 24, 2017.

Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Scott Ambler.

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