Changes for the better

XP conference attendees in Auckland a fortnight ago heard from Kent Beck, the original inventor of extreme programming. Beck told his audience of software developers about "changes in the social contract" XP brings to an organisation.

XP conference attendees in Auckland a fortnight ago ('Tinpot dictator' helped father XP) heard from Kent Beck, the original inventor of extreme programming. Beck told his audience of software developers about “changes in the social contract” XP brings to an organisation.

A company is a society; it has rules, contracts, for the responsibilities and relationships of its people. XP is a big change for an organisation; you’re not just changing the way you choose to produce software, you also have to change your relationship with your customers and your decision making structures.

XP may even entail further, sweeping changes across your company, such as career advancement structures, performance reviews, payroll, hiring, meetings -- even office furniture doesn’t escape. Kent also talks about the alignment of responsibility and authority. This, he points out, is one of the most fundamental principles of good management; let the people with the information make the decisions. XP achieves this by focusing on the programmers, allowing them to decide how to implement each feature, to choose the most appropriate technology and to directly question the customer whenever they need to.

We heard the names of some big companies that are using XP. Steve Hayes, from Australia, told us that for the last few years he has been running an XP team at Goldman Sachs on Wall St. His New York team is very successful in a high pressure, financial environment, producing daily, defect-free releases of a risk assessment system that services thousands of people and is responsible for billions of dollars. Steve’s message was one of the most important of the conference. XP works, in real environments, and it rapidly produces high quality software that can be trusted.

Rick Mugridge from Auckland University told us how he is training the nation’s top software engineering students in XP techniques so that they enter the workforce with the ability to work in the most professional manner. These students won’t graduate for another two years, and already companies are approaching Rick asking for their details. One company, he says, has offered to hire all of them.

Auckland law firm Hesketh Henry is producing a standard contract that can be used for XP projects; this will soon be available on its website. Its representative discussed the change in perspective from one of supplying a commodity to supplying professional services. This is an important point: software systems can’t be thought of as a commodity because it’s impossible at the start of a project to correctly identify the features that the software should provide. Kent adds that software is the manifestation of the relationship between a customer and an XP team.

I spoke about the nature of New Zealand business, and the problems we face adopting XP here. The feedback I got from the delegates indicates that their main worry is about the technical side of XP. Apparently most people thought that they wouldn’t have too much trouble convincing their companies that this was right for them, because it was so obviously right.

One of representatives of the country’s leading consultancies said that he had arrived feeling skeptical about XP, but was surprised how much was just common sense and how professional it was. Generally the opinion of the consultancies I spoke to was that their customers would love it.

NZ Computer Society fellow Ian Mitchell talked about the future of XP in New Zealand. He has organised an XP association in Auckland that meets once a month. I’m organising a related society in Wellington; contact me if you’re interested.

Kent also warned that we will soon start hearing about monumental XP disasters. XP isn’t perfect; it doesn’t account for base stupidity. If your project, your staff or your social relationships are dysfunctional, then XP won’t help. There has already been one XP disaster reported, but apparently they weren’t doing XP; they only said that they were.

To the companies that chose not to attend I quote Ron Jeffries, author, international consultant and co-founder of XP: “There is speculation and experimentation, which do you think will lead to the correct conclusions?” XP has been shown to work exceptionally well in a variety of situations. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. You may have difficulty, even great difficulty, seeing how it can be applied to your company, but it can be applied, and it will improve things.

Dollery is a Wellington IT consultant. Send email to Bryan Dollery. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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