Monday, June 28, 2010

Agile: Specialist vs Generalist

In his recent blog post, Peter Scheyen began a multi-part response to this comment. The blog post contrasted developer specialization and developer generalization in an agile context. The comment suggested that "... Agile robs us of specialization", and Peter's response described how specialization operates within an Agile team. I think the comment and the response come from different perspectives - one where Agile is not suitable (comment) and one where Agile is suitable (response). So allow me to step a little bit.

I wish to recast "specialist vs. generalist" to "Cog-in-the-machine vs. Member-of-Startup". Many large organizations have a decidedly non-Agile project management approach, and for many it works well. I think that specialization in a non-Agile environment is a side-effect of longevity or survival. If I were hired to be part of a large development organization, I would start off as a faceless cog - something that is interchangeable with any of the other cogs. The longer I stay in the organization, the specialized I will become, whether by accident (I worked on system X since day 1!) or design (I became the go-to guy for System X). Cast in pure evolutionary terms, this is a survival tactic, so the mere fact that I am still there (with the corresponding higher costs and "slowness") is because of something that makes me stand out from the faceless cogs. Specialization becomes inevitable.

The other extreme occurs if I were to be hired to a startup. In a startup, I may have some special skills, but everyone must work to pick up any work that needs to be done. In the startup, there is a chronic lack of staffing because the organization is short on resources. If things get left behind, the whole organization fails, so a weak team member is harder to accommodate. Generalization becomes inevitable.

This brings me back to the post: the ideal Agile team described is closer to a startup than anything else. The ideal team works like a startup, identifying and filling any gaps, regardless of specialty, but still leverages the team members with the greatest knowledge in any area.

I wrote a comment to summarize the above and it got me thinking about Agile organizations and more traditional organizations. The Agile team described in Peter Scheyen's post is ideal - the team has no distinct leader, just a set of developers with various skills and specialties that are engaged as needed. This works fantastically well when the entire development organization is "small" and the developers buy into the model. In the more traditional environments, there were team leaders, managers (at several levels), directors, etcetera, that had two roles: assignment of tasks and responsibility for the project. This is a very top-down model - the "top" decides to do something and the requests filter down to the ultimate workers who make it happen. If something goes wrong, there is a chain of responsibility up to the top that can easily be identified. Contrast this with the Agile team described - it is bottom up, so the team as a whole is responsible for getting a request done, but it has always been a bit murky to me on how a large Agile organization with many teams assigns tasks.

I don't want to make this post too long, so I will save this for my next post(Agile: Organizational Balance): How does an organization find the balance between purely distributed (self-organizing Agile teams) and purely leadership (top-down, waterfall) of large projects?

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