Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Taming the Wild West: the Differences between Agile and Cowboy Coding

One of the strongest arguments for Agile is that it’s not Waterfall. However, not everything that isn't Waterfall is Agile, a fact that’s not always understood. This misunderstanding hurts the Agile brand when people familiar with only Waterfall begin associating all other methodologies, including a lack thereof, as Agile. I want to be very clear about this: Agile is not Cowboy Coding, and Cowboy Coding is not unique to Agile teams. It is important both to understand how Agile and Cowboy Coding are different and what Cowboy Coding looks like so that you can identify it on your teams (yes, even Waterfall teams).

The Loner

One of the easiest signs of a Cowboy Coder is that he’s a loner. He may be working under the name of Agile, but there are no Agile methodologies or frameworks I’m aware of that support such behavior. In fact, the backing principles of the Agile Manifesto state, “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project”; “Build projects around motivated individuals”; “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation”; “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”; and “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” The manifesto, its principles, and all Agile methodologies and frameworks I know of are very human-centered with an emphasis on collaboration.

If you have a loner on your team that insists on working in a silo, there’s a possibility that you have a cowboy in your midst. Try to rein them in using mandatory meeting/ceremonies that promote meaningful conversations and practices like Pair Programming. If they absolutely refuse then you will likely end up spending considerable time managing the work around them – holding ad hoc conversations, formal code reviews, knowledge transfer workshops, etc. – with diminishing returns.

Straight to Production

Working directly with Production code or with a source code repository that isn't versioned is a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong, I love Continuous Delivery and working off the trunk, but a software development team must be very mature and disciplined to make this work. They use feature toggles and branching by abstraction to protect code that isn’t ready for Production. They build test suites around the code so that each commit is verified against regression. They do their due diligence to make sure that a change isn't going to blow up if it’s pushed to Production. Cowboys, simply put, don’t.

If you find yourself consistently in a situation where the same person or people are making changes directly to Production without due diligence then you might just be working with Cowboys. Have them read up on DevOps and Continuous Delivery so they can learn the right way to get changes to Production quickly. Emergency situations that require quick, non-vetted changes to Production should be avoided at all costs.

Wastes of Time


The Cowboy will often refer to Testing and Documentation as a waste of time. They may even commit the cardinal sin of Agile, reciting the Manifesto blasphemously: “‘Working software is the primary measure of progress’; anything else is just a waste of time!” To those people, I would ask them to define “working”. Does it pass the Acceptance Criteria associated to the work (or did you even bother to ensure you had Acceptance Criteria)? Can anybody actually use it, or is it too buggy or complex? Is anyone other than yourself aware of the assumptions made around input, output, workflow, etc.?

Without proper testing and documentation, you can’t prove your software works nor can anybody understand how it works. With that being said, if your tests and documentation don’t contribute to the value and usability of the software then they are, in fact, a waste of time. Focus your testing efforts on tests that actually stand a chance of failing and finding vulnerabilities. Don’t spin your wheels creating “write-only” documentation. This is the approach that Agile espouses; anyone who says tests and documentation are altogether useless is operating with a Cowboy mindset, not an Agile one.

“Emergent Architecture”

One of the backing principles to the Agile Manifesto states “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”. There are those who believe this means “just make it up as you go.” That’s not entirely accurate. There still needs to be intelligent design, and that design needs to make the software as easy to comprehend and maintain as possible. As another principle clarifies, “Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.” This means having a thorough understanding of the latest design patterns and practices. It means taking the time to refactor working code into something better. It means taking a little bit of time up-front to design what you think will work and adjusting as you go.

Agile developers do not shoot from the hip. They take pride in their applications; they have a sense of ownership. They will throw research spikes, read books, build proofs-of-concept, attend conferences – do what it takes to build the right thing in the right way. You’ll spot a Cowboy by their purposeful lack of direction, sticking code wherever they please with the sole purpose of “getting something to work” so they can move on to the next thing. If they do it in the name of “emergent architecture” then call shenanigans. That’s not architecture, it’s just reckless.

Somewhere to Hang their Hat

The good news is that cowboys can be tamed if they can come to appreciate the practices, tools, and frameworks that Agile provides. Cowboys won’t jump on the bandwagon just for the heck of it. There will always be some that refuse to be tamed, but many will see the benefits and forsake their wandering ways once you give them a safe place to hang their hat.

One of the great things about reformed Cowboys is they are used to developing quickly and cross-functionally. If you arm them with XP practices, Agile tools, a Kaizen mindset, and continued training and development, they can become model developers that contribute quality software time after time.

Just don’t make the mistake of trying to get them to do something for which there is no tangible benefit. They don’t take too kindly to that.
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