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What is agile development?

Need a quicker way than waterfall to create software? Agile might be the answer


When it comes to software development, there are two dominate methods: the traditional waterfall approach, and agile development. The latter is often referred to as simply 'agile', and is largely favoured because it does exactly what its name suggests – it provides agility and a greater degree of flexibility for its users. 

It focuses on flexible, iterative development, incorporating ideas like collaboration and cross-functional timing, and continuous assessment of the product being created. It's often faster and more accurate than the traditional waterfall method as it enables problems to be fixed quickly during development.

Products created under an agile structure generally get to market quicker, as each element can be tested and built simultaneously. It is particularly popular with organisations that use multiple teams to create software.

What is agile development?

Man working on Kanban board to signify agile development

The concept of agile development is underlined by a set of principles set out in 2001's Agile Manifesto. Its ultimate goal is satisfying customers through continuous delivery, but the philosophy is about taking restrictions away for developers.

With a waterfall approach, errors often force teams to go back to the start of the process as each element has to be completed before moving on. This causes delays and can be extremely frustrating, particularly if the problem is deep into the build. But with agile, changes can be made at any time in the process and usually fixed before combining all the elements together. Another benefit is that it's also easier to add or remove elements if unforeseen issues or planning tweaks arise during the production.

Agile principles

The Agile Manifesto, set out in 2001, outlines the key principles underpinning the concept:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
  • That is, while there is value in the items on the right, agile values the items on the left more.

In short, agile favours speed of delivery, testing, and continuous feedback. Its central principles support this. They are:

  • Early delivery, creating shippable software in two-week 'sprints'
  • Responding to changing requirements
  • Measuring progress with working software as the metric
  • Collaboration between business people and developers through face-to-face conversations
  • Simplification - not making software overly complex
  • Small, self-organising teams that regularly reflect on best practices

Why is it important?

When it comes to projects, everyone has at least one nightmare story. This could be exceeding budgets, missing deadlines, or even disappointing your most loyal customers - the building of services and products can be a huge obstacle course. Being able to fix issues on the go or make a quick change can be a real life-saver, especially in the IT sector. And in some cases, a project-saver too.

A key component to agile development is customer involvement as it allows customers to get an insight into the building process by giving them the opportunity to provide real-time feedback. Agile methods evolve and adapt to suit, in contrast to linear operations, where a simple mistake can mean having to throw away all the work and start from scratch. If a customer makes a request for something to be done in a different way halfway through the process, for example, a team utilising an agile approach will be better equipped to deliver a solution to the request.

What types of agile methodologies exist?

Like many expressions from the tech world, ‘agile’ doesn’t fully define the approach. This is why organisations use a variety of terms to describe the development. ‘Scrum” is one of the most popular terminologies, a word which has expanded the idea beyond the IT sector and into management teams. A ‘ScrumMaster’ manages and leads the workload of a ‘Scrum’, but provides the team with a collective responsibility of delivering the end goal.

Extreme Programming (XP) is another model which is gaining popularity, which focuses on the project’s technical side, instead of the business objectives. In contrast to month-long Scrum sprints, XP sets two weeks as the maximum amount of time a project should take. However, when it comes to changing goals mid-sprint, even that deadline is more flexible.

Agile advocates who don't subscribe to Scrum or XP will tend to favour Lean Software Development, a methodology coined in 2003 and based on seven principles, which generally favour a back-to-basics approach that cuts out anything but the necessary features to deliver a product as quickly as possible while meeting customers needs and allowing the business-aligned developers to take charge, rather than managers.

Agile v DevOps

DevOps cycle

Alongside agile, DevOps is another IT methodology that has grown in popularity within the enterprise community. However, there remains some confusion about the relationship between the two, with some organisations treating them as separate disciplines and some arguing that they're basically the same.

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In reality, both camps are right; DevOps and agile share a lot of similarities, but they're also different in some key ways and are often suited to different tasks. Both methodologies focus on rapid iteration, regular user feedback and a high degree of flexibility, all in the service of delivering more functionality to end-users over a shorter period.

However, while agile can often focus predominantly on processes and workflows, DevOps generally puts more emphasis on tools and infrastructure. DevOps makes heavy use of continuous delivery, continuous integration and container tools, which allows for the quick revisions and small teams favoured by agile methodology.

In many ways, DevOps can be thought of as an extension of agile. Often, a company will employ agile practices in its software development, only to revert to non-agile methodologies as soon as the product is finished - DevOps simply extends the attitudes behind agile to cover the product's whole lifecycle.

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