[Driven] Ken Schwaber, Founding Father of Agile, on the Journey to Scrum & His Biggest Career Mistake banner image

[Driven] Ken Schwaber, Founding Father of Agile, on the Journey to Scrum & His Biggest Career Mistake

This post appears as part of our Driven profile series, spotlighting some of the hottest movers and shakers from all corners of the Boston tech and startup space.

Most of us in tech are familiar with the term “agile.” Whether used to describe a software development methodology or the style and structure of a startup, it’s associated with flexibility, responsiveness, collaboration, lean teams - the list goes on. Simply put, today the term “agile” goes hand-in-hand with modern technology.

But this wasn’t always the case.

The road to agile was a long one for Greater Boston-based Ken Schwaber, founder of Scrum.org and one of the founding fathers of the Agile Software Development Manifesto. In the 1990s, Schwaber bucked traditional approaches to software development, instead pioneering a more progressive approach that revolutionized the industry.

I recently had the chance to chat with Schwaber and learn about the struggles that lead him to Scrum. Read more in the interview below.


Kaite Rosa: Scrum recently had its 20th anniversary. What were some of the challenges you were up against before Scrum?

Ken Schwaber: I’ve been in software development since 1969. I love it. Where else can you get someone to pay you to solve problems and create new solutions? It was a tremendous profession and career.

But it eventually started going downhill. Businesses started equating software with building cars - and the two are not similar. That drove the industry into failure. Seventy percent of projects would end up overdue or over budget. That had a lot of us really, really upset. Yet that was the way we were told we should develop software.

Scrum and agile were our answers to that approach. In 1990, we started using Scrum to build the software products that our companies sold. From 1995 to 2001 we tested out and refined Scrum. In 2001, we created the Agile Software Development Manifesto.

Through 2006, we were seen as heathens, as people who were dumb as possibly could be, because we didn’t understand the right way to build software. It took 15 years of traveling around the world, giving talks and classes to change the tide. Now, if people don’t use a form of agile software development, they’re seen as wasting time and money.

I’d have people stand up in 1995 and say, “You know waterfall software development. We have huge industries and we know the way to do things. How dare you?” That mentality kept on until about 2005 to 2006, when success rates started going over to us. We’d say, “If you don’t like our approach, don’t use it.”

It was a fascinating time. I don’t know I’d want to go through it again, but it was visionary and missionary. My wife uses the words crazy, focused, stubborn. What we were doing was turning the software development approach on its ear. I think it was absolutely critical.

KR: Tell me about Scrum.org. How did it come to be?

KS: I started my own company, ADM, in 1985. By 1991, I had transitioned to an object oriented ALM company. Then Scrum and Scrum consulting. In 2001, a group of disgruntled methodologists, consultants, architects, and designers met in Utah. We developed and published the Agile Manifesto.

It formulated and expressed a new way of thinking about and designing software. Ward Cunningham and Jim Highsmith published it on a wiki. It was hugely popular, striking a very responsive nerve in the community.

Many people sent me emails saying, “I want to join!” but there wasn’t anything to join. So we started the Agile alliance so there was something they could join. The Agile Alliance took hold and started conducting workshops and conferences. I wanted something more specific to Scrum, so I started the Scrum Alliance in 2004, and then Scrum.org in 2009.

Software often makes our work more difficult and complicated than it need be. The design isn’t well thought through, and the corrupt underly code constrains improvements. Many, many initiatives that are dependent on software are vastly too costly, late, and poor quality … or they just fail.

I’m trying to do everything I can to improve our profession and the way we operate, before we have a failure that’s so tragic that the government starts regulating it. Regulation would basically ruin us. You won’t see things like Google and Facebook and Tesla if you get regulation.

KR: Do you think we’d see such rapid tech and software advances in the past two decades if Scrum didn’t exist? Can we attribute these advances to Scrum?

KS: I think it was an enabler. It enabled building software development tools, new platforms, and infrastructures. It enabled us to build embedded software and hardware working together.

Scrum and agile deliver increments of software functionality often. Feedback is frequent, enabling constrained experimentation and acceptable failures. Before, it would take 18 to 24 months to find out if there were problems. That was a huge risk and a huge problem.

KR: More companies are taking the principles of Scrum and agile approaches and applying them beyond tech. How do you think these principles translate to across business? Do you see any potential pitfalls that companies taking a company-wide agile approach should look out for?

KS: Every organization has a monthly rhythm when they pull the books together. They compare those monthly results to the annual plan and make adjustments. Until Scrum, only software didn’t have these type of regular controls.That’s well known to businesses everywhere -  it’s just rarely applied elsewhere beyond the financial books.

You’re not allowed to fudge the books at the end of the month. And yet most organizations sustain politics through opaque practices and hierarchies - and that kills transparency.

There are five values of Scrum: commitment, courage, focus, openness, respect for others. One key value is courage. Courage, because if you have bad news or news you know the person you’re going to talk to doesn’t want to hear, it takes a huge amount of courage to say it. We’re taught to shade what we have to say so that the person who hears it finds it acceptable. The Scrum values are also my personal values. They’re a pain, because it’s easier to be lazy.

Every person has their own reason for doing things. Best way to get them to do something differently is not to tell them that they’re wrong.

KR: What do you enjoy most about what you do? What do you dread?

KS: I enjoy working with people to solve problems, like when we combine requirements, technology, and designs to create useful software products. Software development is unique because all of the intermediate artifacts and the end product are invisible. You can’t see software, so working with people on software is fascinating. It’s taking really ill-formed ideas and getting them to become something useful.

I have troubles with people who are frozen, who care so little for the problems that they face that they do nothing. I remember consulting with several large cell phone hardware and operating system companies. They all knew what their problems were, but they were unable to organize themselves to address them in a meaningful way. Think of Motorola, Nokia, and Blackberry. Lost opportunities and social displacement. If you know what they [the problems] are, solve them yourself.

The belief that someone else can solve your problems drives me crazy.

KR: What's one of your greatest career mistakes? How did you navigate it?

KS: My absolute greatest career mistake was turning the Scrum Alliance into a non profit organization. Everyone said, “You’ve gotta do this.” I didn’t know what a non profit was, so I did. Basically, it means you have limited ability to change the organization in the ways you want. I started trying to change it so it would be more effective, and it was so expensive to the members that they fired me. That was definitely a bad one.

So, I started my own company and chose how to live my life.

KR: Tell me about yourself. What life experiences helped shape who you are today?

KS: There were two things that happened in my childhood that helped formed who I am.

I have always been a long distance runner. Not like how it is today, with everyone running marathons. When I was growing up, “long distance” was about five miles. I did cross country, where I learned discipline, and focus, and pushing myself.

I grew up in a town that was an epicenter of Southern Baptist fundamentalism. And then my parents had their own religious backgrounds and beliefs. Living among people who were living their lives and believing things that I found strange gave me a view of how to work with people with various styles of thinking.

KR: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

KS: What gets me out of bed in the morning is seeing how my family is doing. I have two grandchildren under the age of two. I have been enjoying being a grandfather. Seeing your lineage grow is an incredible experience.

I’m still obsessed with software development and continue to make contributions. But I’ve brought in some professional managers to run Scrum.org and create its future.

KR: It’s Saturday afternoon and you’ve already gotten your work, errands, and any obligations done and out of the way. Where can I find you?

KS: You’d find me hiking. My wife and I hike the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I have learned to enjoy and appreciate that. You’ll find me up there before all my chores are done.

If you can go to work and do something fulfilling, that helps people and your profession, that really is your heart song. I try to bring that to software development - the ability to feel fulfilled and like you’re contributing valuable things. If you ask people if they’re fulfilled, you don’t get a positive response very often, and that’s too bad. This is your only life.

You see a lot of organizations today having open space and collaborative teams. But what they miss is that’s just potential enablers along the way to people really doing fulfilling work. The younger generation, people around 25 to 35 years old, has seem to caught this idea.

Having a real big challenge, seeing my profession turn into something I didn’t like, being able to start it on the road to recovery - that has been an extraordinarily fascinating journey. I feel that, of what I could accomplish, I have only accomplished 10 percent - and that’s phenomenal. Look around for problems in the world. There are things for people to engage in, and care about, and put their hearts into. They’re all around us. You hear of people who have dropped or burned out, and that’s just a shame.

Kaite Rosa is Director of Content & Marketing at VentureFizz. Follow her on Twitter: @KaiteRosa