'Agile' is dead: When marketing takes your words

When words that developers use – clear, precise, technical and process terms – are appropriated by everyone else, it can lead to frustration, misunderstandings, and sometimes even a little comic relief.

What happens when marketing and sales get in on what developers do?

Working at technology companies can be exciting. The feeling of really changing something in the world is powerful. The tech industry relies on cross-pollination between technical and non-technical people. Ideas and best practices have been traded off between professions as long as there have been specialists collaborating to build things.

But when words that developers use – clear, precise, technical and process terms – are appropriated by everyone else, it can lead to frustration, misunderstandings, and sometimes even a little comic relief.

'We’re going Agile'

"Agile" has leaked out of dev teams (see below for more on the alleged death of Agile and what it is to dev teams). I believe there have been successful and productive applications of Agile methodologies to non-developer teams delivering things other than software, but it can be a stretch.

For example, I went to a lot of conferences about digital government in the last five years or so. Everybody from local councils to national governments either wanted to “go Agile” or reported that “we’re Agile now.”

My impression is that many of our digital agency friends and colleagues found the Agile trend in government a little frustrating. Putting work in a “backlog”–but with specific deliverables, priorities, and deadlines–doesn’t make a team “agile.” Putting work requests into an online form isn’t agile. Making me sign off on a novel-length requirements catalog for a fixed delivery deadline and budget is in no way agile, even if you want me to deliver it in “sprints”, you know?

But at least we’re agile now.

agile again

Language is contagious

Developer friends of mine have told me that once you hear Marketing using it, your word is dead. And between The Cardinal Marketing Sins of Clickbait and Buzzword Overuse, I feel the same sometimes. Non-technical people at software and technology companies (should!) interact with developers. And language is contagious.

Even when marketers do the right thing and collaborate with our technical colleagues to tell compelling, accurate stories about technology, well … after awhile, you start to hear odd things uttered by Sales folks and other non-techies. I cringed at some of these when I first heard them used out of context. I laughed at others.

  • “Can you ping me that file?” … NOOOOO! A ping is a query to another computer somewhere on a network to determine whether there is a connection to it. Use "ping" like a friendly "Hello! Are you there?" in chat. And if someone "pings" you, "pong" is a good answer :-)
  • “We’re having a Marketing Hackathon” … What are we hacking? Oh! You mean “Overtime week?”
  • “Fail fast, scale fast.” Hm. Maybe … In open source Drupal Land, we’ve tried to “fail fast and fail better,” but the high tech cult of failure-as-success has always struck me as odd.
  • “We need to go straight to Blockchain so we can become Uberized without having to become Uber.” ZOMG. I swear I really heard this at a conference with my own ears. The same keynote speaker also told us to “become comfortable with being out of your comfort zone,” so go figure, right?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

So when technical terms and techniques are adopted by others, is this bad? Is it infuriating misappropriation or healthy evolution? Language evolves, no matter what any given purist says or wants. Ideas evolve and humans are better and more efficient at a lot of things because we’ve shared those ideas, passing them back and forth over time (big shout out to Free and Open Source Software here!). Some examples:

  • Waterfall methodologies were inspired by physical-world models: “The waterfall development model originates in the manufacturing and construction industries: highly structured physical environments in which after-the-fact changes are prohibitively costly, if not impossible. Because it was created in a time when no formal software development methodologies existed, this hardware-oriented model was simply adapted for software development.” (- Wikipedia)
  • UX borrows its methodologies from science: Nathalie Nahai, “The Web Psychologist” is one of my favorite speakers and web-thinkers. She coined the term “Web Psychology” in 2011 and her work helps make better, more compelling user experiences by applying psychological principles to user interaction. Carola Lilienthal encourages and educated developers to applies medical/scientific understanding of human cognition to create Long-Lasting Software Architectures.
  • A lot of business strategy was taken from military strategy honed throughout history. Here’s a near-top-ranked search result from searching for “business strategy” online: Why Business Leaders Are Obsessed With Sun Tzu’s Ancient Military Guide, “The Art of War"
  • And Agile business processes were inspired by software development. If it's a good methodology (i.e. it produces good results) and they're describing their business processes in a way that gives a nod to the engineers and it's understood that it just means working in a method revolves around iterations, this means the devs are doing it right! Take it as a compliment!

So, is Agile actually dead?

We should clear that up. No, I don’t think so (even if “Agile is dead” seems to have driven a lot of blog traffic in 2016). Paraphrasing Wikipedia, Agile Software Development (aka “Agile”, term coined in 2001, methodologies stretching back a few decades) is a set of adaptive principles and practices that help teams plan and deliver value through software in a flexible manner and that allows for continuous improvement over time. Cool. People also maybe took things too far in the last decade, hyped (capital “A”) Agile as the be-all and end-all of all methodologies 4eva. So now maybe it’s not so cool to say “Agile” so much in software development, but newer trends like DevOps, Continuous Integration are all (small “a”) agile and serve the same goals. Here at Acquia, we’re firmly behind this kind of methodology, too, and offer a Continuous Delivery product called Acquia Cloud CD that we’re pretty excited about.

More on Agile: Agile software development lets you deliver value fast and repeatedly in small increments and adapt what you are delivering as a project grows and develops. Here’s a great article to learn a little more about Agile: The Agile Bicycle: A Better Analogy for Software Development.


Illustration of MVP product development by Henrik Kniberg

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