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Seventeen White dudes

mark_nicol profile image Mark Nicol ・2 min read

This is quite a striking video. It's by a hero of mine Sarah Mei @sarahmei who writes all sorts of good stuff about agile and culture and software as well as other technical subjects.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YL-6RCTywbc

It is a keynote she did where among other things she raises the challenge that a lot of agile practices are at least unintentionally exclusive and that if we don't fix the problems we can see that becomes intentionally exclusive. She lays out some of the issues about motivation, access and power dynamics in the office.

I'd recommend watching the whole thing. However what I was pondering today was the key moment at about 18:16 when she puts up a slide of the signatories of the Agile Manifesto. It is literally seventeen white dudes, not that radically dissimilar looking in age or appearance.

Seventeen white guys in a grid

I have wondered though how might Agile be different if a different, perhaps more diverse group of people had come together initially?

I don't have any answers to this one yet. The team I'm on are a small group of quite different people from different cultures, split by geography and still figuring out how to do things. We are learning to be Agile together and there is probably lots we could do better.

What are other people's ideas of what a different more diverse agile might have looked like?

It doesn't have to be based on reality. Creativity is fun. But it would be cheery to hear some stories of where people are either getting it right or getting it very wrong.

Discussion (29)

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Fabian

I grant that the group was not diverse with regard to ethnicity, gender, age, nationality. But amongst the seventeen people, I do count quite a few schools of thought.

There are the eXtreme Programming people: Ron Jeffries, Kent Beck (also of TDD fame), Ward Cunningham (also inventor of the CRC cards and the wiki, and already a house hold name in the software pattern community). Also to be positioned in the XP camp at that point in time: Martin Fowler (best known at that time for popularizing Refactoring techniques) and James Grenning (who invented Planning Poker)

Then there are the Scrum people: Ken Schwaber, Jeff Sutherland, Mike Beedle

And half a dozen other methodologies (RAD, Dynamic systems development method, Crystal Clear, Adaptive Software Development, Feature-driven development, Object-Oriented Systems Analysis) are represented by Arie van Bennekum, Alistair Cockburn, Jim Highsmith, Jon Kern and Steve Mellor: who either developed the methods or at least published about them.

And although Brian Marick, Bob Martin, Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas didn't invent their own processes and methods, they all had published rather successful books about several aspects of software development.

I think with regard to ideas they had, they were quite a diverse group. I find it actually rather astonishing that they got a high-level consensus (the manifesto) as a result of their prolonged week-end.

But frankly, to me a much more interesting and pressing question than the diversity of this group, is, whether the manifesto for agile software development did actually constitue a good develoment or whether it might be considered a disservice in hindsight.

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jess unrein • Edited

Diversity of thought is a pretty pale substitute for actual diversity. As someone flippantly pointed out elsewhere in this thread, melanin is not midochlorians. BUT melanin is statistically correlated with lower median household income and accumulated wealth, with being incarcerated or having an incarcerated family member, with single parenthood, and with being misidentified by AI.

When I look at the above group I don't actually see that much diversity of thought. I see a group of people who are likely not primary caregivers for children or elderly parents. I see a group of people who is more likely to be promoted to management if they choose that career path. I see a group of people who were affluent enough to have access to personal computers and professional development related to personal computing in the 1990s, before this was super common. I can't list the CV of everyone on this list, but it seems to me that this group also skews toward consultancy shops as opposed to product shops. These things all inflect the base assumptions that are baked into the manifesto. The question of whether agile software development constitutes good development praxis is inseparable from the diversity of the philosophy's founding group.

For example, if you have a lot of spare time to devote to professional development outside of work hours, you might press for more (or all) of your hours at work to go to pair programming. Pair programming in itself isn't a bad thing, but if it's all you're doing, you might be eliminating time that someone would ordinarily spend studying design patterns, or experimenting with refactoring methods on their own to get practical experience. If you think that all of that sort of professional development should take place outside of work hours, you're implicitly stating something about the kind of person who ought to be able to work in software. This isn't just an arguably bad moral stance, it leads to worse software.

If you don't have women on your team from the beginning, you're less likely to develop anti-harassment and safety tools. See also: Twitter. I bet someone with incarcerated family members would probably have something to say about the development of prison e-readers that are used to restrict access to books for incarcerated people. Likewise, they might have valuable insight into algorithms that predict recidivism rates that are based on biased and incomplete datasets that target residents of low income and black neighborhoods. Having trans people on your team is great for privacy and data collection standards, because they know to question the data collection fields that you might think are a no brainer, but are actually unnecessary for you to store!

I take your point that these seventeen men are not identical. But their collected viewpoints fall so radically short of representing and addressing the needs of a growing and shifting population. Software is made for people, by people. Right now, a lot of people's valuable insights are dismissed by virtue of being excluded from the room. These seventeen men might have come to a consensus over a long weekend. But they stopped there. They didn't solicit amendments or context reads from their diverse colleagues. In 2001, it was likely that they didn't have many diverse colleagues. That had important ripple effects that are still manifesting. This should be instructive for how we compose our teams and build our products.

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mark_nicol profile image
Mark Nicol Author

That's an awesome reply. Thanks for expressing all that so eloquently.

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Ash Trull

THANK YOU Jess. Yes. I really appreciate you lifting up specific ways lack of representation has led to extremely harmful products and practices.

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mark_nicol profile image
Mark Nicol Author

That's a great question and a lovely summary of all the original contributors to the original agile manifesto and principles. I'd be more than happy if people want to discuss that.

I'm enjoying rereading a lot of the writing about agile at the time and some of the more recent trains of thought and contributions. As part of a team coming fresh to working in an Agile/Scrum setting a lot of the ideas still seem helpful and useful. I've written here about the ones that have enthused me.

Disservice is a big word. I think the manifesto has directed thinking about what is good or bad and what is valued in a particular direction. On a personal level I was shocked at the point I realized how much it shaped (or fitted) my natural assumptions and values.

Every so often something stops me short and shows me there are alternative ways to see the world - sometimes through choice, sometimes through lack of choice.

These are smart guys who knew their jobs. A lot of their books were my mentors when I was first learning how to code in a work environment. What they said has value but it is not written in stone.

Everyone coming now has the chance to adopt, adapt and change that if they want to better fit their needs. I wrote the post because I wondered what that world might look like.

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Ben Halpern

Agile, like many other abstract ideas in software, can kind of be weaponized to win a debate. That’s kind of what it was made for.

I think agile may have been practiced differently had there been more diversity in the room, but in my opinion agile today has more to do with those who latched on to it and decided how it should be practiced than the manifesto itself.

If 17 people get together to write an an abstract document about how people should communicate and build software, there absolutely should be diversity of voices in the room. At this point it seems to me hard to really make clear maps back to the manifesto. (Though I didn’t watch the talk. I will when I find a moment)

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Mark Nicol Author

Thanks, Ben - you have a lovely way of summarising. The talk is worth watching.

I'm not trying to be down on anyone. It just struck me as interesting that I hadn't challenged my own thinking of these things as being basic truths agreed by a wide cross-section of the software world until that point in the video.

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Mihail Malo

Diversity of opinion doesn't require diversity of anything else.

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Eljay-Adobe

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development is not the end-all/be-all of software development.

There will always be the potential for another manifesto that lays out a new or refined set of values and principles, and become the framework for a new set of software development methodologies based upon that new manifesto.

Perhaps that new potential manifesto can have representatives from a more diverse base of people. Whoever those people will be, they will be self-nominated and have to be self-motivated to involve themselves in that process.

Perhaps such a manifesto has already been created, but just hasn't reached prominence yet.

The signatories of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development met in 2001 to discuss what they perceived as the problems in our industry, at that time. The manifesto was a product of their brainstorming to figure out what worked well from that which hindered software development.

Times have changed. Some of the problems which currently plague parts of our industry now can be traced back to the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, and in the way it has adopted... or maladapted.

The people in our industry that have had great success with the Manifesto for Agile Software Development will be proponents of it. (And I'm speaking of developers, not of purveyors of certificates and coaches.) Those who have been underwhelmed by agile-based methodologies will be where the Next Big Thing comes from.

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kaelscion

Agile, Scrum, Waterfall, and any other methodologies you can think of are like anything else abstract that seems to work: people get so caught up in either adhering to, or rubbing other's faces in, the wording ideas rather than the point and principles behind those ideas. If you take a look at any text that is meant to outline guidelines for something, be it financial guides, software development manifestos, or religious texts, they all follow the same pattern: a few folks take a look at them and go "Hey, this is best. Let's do this." Those few see positive results and a bunch of other people jump on the bandwagon. Human nature gives us an initial reaction to want to better ourselves with the same techniques that others have used to better themselves. Unfortunately, our secondary reaction is either to profit from it, or shove it down other people's throats.

I think any development methodology had good intentions at the start. With Agile, diversity would have helped, but I think considering the main idea behind Agile rather than what the written documentation on it says would help more. Written documents are extremely susceptible to being spun differently depending on who is reading them, or how out of context particular principles are taken when explained to others. But the idea itself of "Release. Get feedback. Improve. Repeat." Is not something that is inherently biased toward 17 white dudes. Anybody can understand that concept. Where we get into trouble, and where diversity comes into play, is when we take the written guidelines of how to accomplish that goal, which were written by white males who couldn't possibly have any first hand experience being anything other than white males and try to apply them as a "one size fits all" solution. Is it the fault of those white guys that others are getting so caught up in the wording that they miss the point? Is it their fault that they couldn't have any personal experience of what it takes for a black man, Muslim woman, or a gay woman of Hispanic descent to succeed in that kind of environment? I can't really say. But to me, it seems like the idea is good. The thought process behind that development method is also good. But implementing it based on what these guys say rather than the team you work with is fundamentally flawed and, dare I say it, a really lazy and stupid way of forcing your team to conform to rules rather than allowing that ideology to guide your team they way they personally need to be guided by it.

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Mark Nicol Author

Yep you are so right. I think your point about guidelines feels spot on. It is keeping in mind that that is what they are.

On a personal level I hope the team I'm in are never put in that position. I think it helps that there is a mix in the organisation of people who have worked like that for a lot of their careers and people coming to it fresh from different backgrounds.

Im speaking as someone quite early on that journey so dont have strong views on right or wrong just a feeling it works better as a conversation.

The team I'm in have so far had the freedom to learn and adapt how we do things to fit what we need. Both our scrum master and product owner are great at setting the tone of "this is where we need to get to in terms of what the other teams want or need in the way of common process - how do we do that in a way that works for us?"

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Mark Nicol Author

I agree with you on a lot of this. Framed in these terms it is about sample sets. The narrower your sample the more likely you are to see a correlation where there isn't one, or where the evidence is weak or where it reflects an underlying feature of your group.

My original thought, lost somewhere in all this was about opening it up and making fresh models or hypothesis and being cautious about treating things as facts just because they feel right given a particular background or experience.

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Brad Appleton (he/him)

Ummm - it was not 17 white guys! Mike Beedle was Latino (specifically Mexican-American). He originally went by "Miguel" prior to 2000, and was sometimes overly conscientious of that, and his obvious accent (as English was not his first language).

Pretty sure he wasnt the only latinx in the bunch too. So No - it was not "17 white guys" (15, at best).

Ive seen several other articles complain that it was "all white guys" that created the manifesto. This was never the case. (also, the invite list for the gathering was more than 17, and did have at least one woman). Not to mention the fact that several of the attendees were speaking on behalf of not juts themselves, but several others they collaborated with (not all of whom where all white, nor all male).

Was it still mostly white guys - yes. But too many articles suggest is was ONLY white guys (all 17 of them) - that is just plain wrong.

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Frank Carr

When I was a kid, there was this guy who said something about not judging people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

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Mark Nicol Author

That's very true.

I think the point in the video that I've probably not expressed well is that if you get a bunch of people together who see the world from a similar place then it is going to end up missing out on other perspectives and viewpoints from people facing different challenges. It is only about colour in that white dudes get an easier ride in our current society than women, people of colour etc.

I think regardless of character it is too easy to see a personal baseline as the norm especially when surrounded by other people coming from a similar place. I'm not accusing anyone of anything I know I've not been guilty of in the past and despite best intentions will probably be guilty of in the future.

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Frank Carr

My point is that an idea should be analyzed on its merits, not on the ethnicity or gender of the person(s) who came up with the idea. Even worse is making that aspect the centerpiece of criticism.

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gratefulcheddar profile image
Tim Thomas

If you’re referring to Dr. King, I don’t think he said that.

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Frank Carr

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." - MLK March on Washington Speech, August 28, 1963

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gratefulcheddar profile image
Tim Thomas • Edited

Yes, I see a difference between what he said and what you claim he said.

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Frank Carr

You are pretty dense. He was speaking of his dream for all Americans, not just his children. But, you go ahead on judging people by their skin color. I've seen and lived in first hand the kind of world that creates and it isn't pretty.

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gratefulcheddar profile image
Tim Thomas • Edited

We're going to resort to name calling and strawman fallacies? Why call me dense? Where did I judge anyone?

He was speaking of his dream of Black Americans not being judged for being Black.

I also believe the judgement being passed in the original post is on the group composition, not any individual, and the effect that has had on people who can't squeeze themselves into the Agile framework. Curious, did you watch the talk?

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Moyzes Braz

Melanin is not midichlorians.

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Vincent Dedo

It is literally seventeen white dudes, not that radically dissimilar looking in age or appearance.

I see people with long hair, short hair, and some are bald. Some have glasses and some don't. Clean shaven, beards and goatees. Light hair and dark hair. Some are slim and others are overweight. I don't see any gingers, that's pretty much it.

I have wondered though how might Agile be different if a different, perhaps more diverse group of people had come together initially?

Perhaps there would be a difference if there were some women or other ethnicities as well, but given that they've all got decades of experience in agile and I think that counts for more than anything else. What have they missed in the agile manifesto?

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Mark Nicol Author

You're right perhaps I'm too harsh in saying they are not radically dissimilar - but to me, they did look strikingly similar compared to the picture shown a few minutes earlier in the video of a development team.

Have they missed anything? - I don't know. This is still something I'm trying to learn and understand. I'm certainly not judging them and I could have made that clearer.

What the video did was make me question my own assumptions. I'd considered the manifesto and principles as fairly universal. It made me consider that my acceptance could be as much down to who I was and where I was looking at the world from.

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Vincent Dedo

I haven't watched the video, but if it's something that makes you question your assumptions then it's probably worth me trying it. How are the points of the manifesto not universal?

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Mark Nicol Author

This is going to be a wordy answer - I'm still working some of this out for myself. I put the original post up because it had challenged me and I didn't have the answers.

The points of the manifesto itself express a set of preferences. The video opened me to the idea that these might not be the same 4 key preferences that a different group would have seen as important. If anything I'd like to see a slightly kinder interpretation of favoring Individuals and Interactions.

The challenges raised in the video relate mostly to what has been built on top of some of the phrases in the principles rather than the wording of the manifesto itself.

The ones I can resonate most with are:

"Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project." doesn't mean the same things to everyone and it's a real pressure on people who work part-time or have carer responsibilities for example. Geographically disparate teams and time-zones are hard. Even with modern tools.

"Build projects around motivated individuals." raises questions about what counts as motivation is different for different people. That can all too easily turn into a stick for beating people up with.

"The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation." That has lead to a bunch of practices from stand-ups to pair programming that are easier for people that are physically located near each other and are at a similar level of a power dynamic.

The video talks a bit about power dynamics. It reinforces something that I have to keep reminding myself - that it is far too easy for me to dismiss or minimize the impact of ones that don't apply to me.

I'd like to see more of "Give them the environment and support they need" which is in there but doesn't always seem to get the same emphasis as other bits.