Conservation and history

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The lack of interest, the disdain for history is what makes computing not-quite-a-field.

— Alan Kay, inventor of Smalltalk, in a recent interview

One of my motivations for starting work on the Guide to Agile Practices was that I kept hearing conflicting versions of how this or that Agile practice came about, or how old or recent it was.

I grew worried, too, that specific topics like Scrum were taught without reference to their history. My best example: I kept hearing introductions to Scrum that implied retrospectives had always been part of the Scrum framework and were its built-in way to “inspect and adapt”.

Having been part of the Agile community for over ten years now, I knew this was historically inaccurate; though perhaps a convenient pedagogical myth.

Retrospectives were incorporated into Agile practice starting around 2002-2003, shortly after Norm Kerth’s book came out. The idea of a project debrief was not new, but the approach to group facilitation Norm described was anything but mainstream, and it was this particular flavor that proved so popular among the then-pioneering Agile folks.

I was a witness to this process of incorporation. It happened literally before my eyes – in 2003 I received my first invitation to facilitate a retrospective; I had never heard of them before. Then I started seeing discussions of them at conferences and on mailing lists. By 2006 they had become part of “mainstream” Agile (and mutated into “heartbeat” retrospectives, but that’s another story).

So I knew that giving the impression that retrospectives had “always been around” was misleading, and I knew that there was a record of that somewhere. But what we didn’t have was any sort of “official” historical account of that process.

Worse, what records we did have were in danger of disappearing. For instance, many practices started becoming widespread after being presented at one conference or another. But some of the Web sites for older XP or Agile conferences had all but disappeared: try looking for the Agile 2005 Web site, for instance. Similarly many practices became popular through discussions over mailing lists; mailing lists can also be shut down and vanish without a trace.

If we (by “we” I mean the Agile community, in the broadest and loosest sense) lost these records, we would gradually become unable to reconstruct our own “history of ideas”. And this connection to our intellectual history is something I believe is key to establishing that Agile is more than a mere passing fad.

This explains some aspects of the Guide: its concern with the origin and authorship of ideas related to Agile practices, for instance. You can see the overall result woven together in the Guide’s timeline.

This explains the entire Conference Archive. The main idea is conservation (in the sense defined here as “measures and actions aimed at safeguarding tangible cultural heritage while ensuring its accessibility to present and future generations”).

These records of past conferences are certainly not complete; in many cases we only have the session title and description, sometimes a PDF or PPT document in addition. The main thing of value, what actually happened at the conference, was not recorded. (In recent years the Agile conference has started recording videos of some sessions, which is great.)

That doesn’t really matter though; what does is the intention to preserve whatever can be preserved, on the principle that it can be helpful in later understanding why we came to form the ideas that we did. That’s one of the objectives of the Archivist role.


About the Author

After a first career as a software developer (20 years of coding experience) and a few years as an independent consultant, Laurent Bossavit now heads Institut Agile, whose aims include helping Agile software development become better established as a research topic and as a discipline, and helping grow a healthier market for clients and suppliers leveraging these practices.

Passionate about helping people in various Agile communities network and support each other, Laurent is a former member of the board of the Agile Alliance, a recipient of the 2006 Gordon Pask award for contributions to Agile practice and co-founder of the Coding Dojos.

This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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