In February 2001, 17 big thinkers in the world of software development came together at Snowbird ski resort in Utah to discuss common ground and best practices. They emerged with The Agile Manifesto.

Ten years later, a mini-reunion of sorts is taking place on the same dates in the same place, with a discussion about problems that have been solved, those that are solvable, and those that can never be solved, according to Alistair Cockburn, one of the original manifesto signatories. (While not all the signatories can travel to Utah for this reunion, most all of them have committed to a get-together at the Agile Conference, to be held in August in Salt Lake City.)

Cockburn noted that when the 17 met at Snowbird 10 years ago, it was not about solving problems. It was more an exercise in codifying practices that they already had been using for about a decade. “We were all doing this stuff in the ‘90s,” he said. “I was hired by IBM to work on methodologies, and was debriefing people to find out what they were doing.”

Cockburn pointed out that Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland already had written a paper on Scrum in 1992, and that Kent Beck and Ward Cunningham were already driving forces behind Extreme Programming. “We all independently were finding out the same things,” he said.

Sutherland, who started laying out the Scrum process in 1993, thought the meeting would be significant because of the people that were there. “People had realized ‘waterfall’ [development] had been a huge failure, and that [Rational Unified Process] had become heavyweight with its roles, responsibilities and artifacts. It was becoming another waterfall thing. We wanted to see what we could do to change the direction,” he said.

Interestingly, he said, “We didn’t agree on hardly anything.”

Cockburn credited Bob Martin with questioning “if something deeper was going on here. He wanted to write a manifesto. For us, it was a wrap-up of the previous decade.”

Sutherland recalled that it was Martin Fowler who went to a whiteboard there and said, “’Let’s see if we can find some things to agree on.’ An hour later, we had the manifesto.”

Cockburn added that “we knew when we wrote the manifesto that it works. It was all road-tested before we got there.” But he acknowledged that the extent and speed with which it caught on was surprising.

“The manifesto was written in February, and already there were panels that summer” at conferences discussing the new agile philosophy, he said. “We didn’t speculate it’d get to the level that it’s at now.”

Sutherland agreed that the uptake of agile “was a surprise to everyone. There was a huge feeling that things weren’t working right, but we thought we were the only people who felt that way. We found out that a whole lot of people felt the same way.”

When asked if he would change anything about the manifesto with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight, Cockburn said, “The one thing we get flak for is that we didn’t have user-experience people in the room. We were programmer-centric. People like Larry Constantine, who spend time on the customer side of the street, said we didn’t talk about value to the customer.”

Now, value-driven delivery is becoming an area of importance to development teams. It’s not enough to write a program that works; if the effort brings little or no value to the organization, it’s not worth the time and expense to get it done, according to a paper on the subject written by Chris Matts of ThoughtWorks and British consultant Andy Pols.

Past flaws and future fixes
Sutherland mentioned that the manifesto talks of “individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” but does not address the teamwork of individuals. “Maybe something reflective of the teamwork” involved in software development could have been addressed, he said, while noting that Beck’s extreme programming calls for development in pairs.

The manifesto also never took hold with user interface designers, Cockburn said, because of their master designer concept. “He goes off for a month and comes back with the one single design that everyone needs to implement. There’s a cultural clash” with agile concepts, he said, that might never be overcome.

Finally, Cockburn admitted there still is “way too much zealotry in the space. Some people go off to a Scrum training session and aren’t looking at real value, but come back shouting slogans. That’s part of human nature.”

He plans to set aside time at the February reunion to discuss problems such as those with project managers, line managers and consultants who are being invited to Snowbird as well.

“What are the solved problems? We know how to do software design, for instance. What is unsolvable? Changing human nature. Then there are those problems that can be solved that are worth going after.”

Sutherland said he’s planning to attend because he is curious “to see what’s going to happen.”

Whether or not they emerge with some new doctrine, Cockburn does expect one thing out of the resort in Utah: “It will be a good party.”