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Battling The Confirmation Bias

January 21, 2015 6 comments

On my first pass through Bertrand Meyer’s “Agile!” book, I interpreted its contents as a well-reasoned diatribe against agilism (yes, “agile” has become so big that it warrants being called an “ism” now). Because I was eager to do so, I ignored virtually all the positive points Mr. Meyer made and fully embraced his negative points. My initial reading was a classic case of the “confirmation bias“; where one absorbs all the evidence aligning with one’s existing beliefs and jettisons any evidence to the contrary. I knew that the confirmation bias would kick in before I started reading the book – and I looked forward to scratching that ego-inflating itch.

On my second pass through the book, I purposely skimmed over the negatives and concentrated on the positives. Here is Mr. Meyer’s list of positive ideas and practices that “agile” has either contributed to, or (mostly) re-prioritized for, the software development industry:

  • The central role of production code over all else
  • Tests and regression test suites as first class citizens
  • Short, time-boxed iterations
  • Daily standup meetings
  • The importance of accommodating change
  • Continuous integration
  • Velocity tracking & task boards

I should probably end this post here and thank the agile movement for refocusing the software development industry on what’s really important… but I won’t 🙂

The best and edgiest writing in the book, which crisply separates it from its toned down (but still very good) peer, Boehm and Turner’s “Balancing Agility And Discipline“, is the way Mr. Meyer gives the agilencia a dose of its own medicine. Much like some of the brightest agile luminaries (e.g. Sutherland, Cohn, Beck, Jeffries, Larman, Cockburn, Poppendieck, Derby, Denning (sic)) relish villainizing any and all traditional technical and management practices in use before the rise of agilism, Mr. Meyer convincingly points out the considerable downsides of some of agile’s most cherished ideas:

  • User stories as the sole means of capturing requirements (too fine grained; miss the forest for the trees)
  • Pair programming and open offices (ignores individual preferences, needs, personalities)
  • Rejection of all upfront requirements and design activities (for complex systems, can lead to brittle, inextensible, dead-end products)
  • Feature-based development and ignorance of (inter-feature) dependencies (see previous bullet)
  • Test Driven Development (myopic, sequential test-by-test focus can lead to painting oneself into a corner).
  • Coach as a separate role (A ploy to accommodate the burgeoning agile consulting industry. Need more doer roles, not talkers.)
  • Embedded customer (There is no one, single, customer voice on non-trivial projects. It’s impractical and naive to think there is one.)
  • Deprecation of documents (no structured repository of shared understanding to go to seek clarification on system level requirements/architecture/design issues; high maintenance costs for long-lived systems; costly on-boarding of new developers)

I’ve always maintained that there is much to like about the various agile approaches, but the way the agile big-wigs have been morphing the movement into a binary “do-this/don’t-do-that” religious dogma, and trashing anything not considered “agile“, is a huge turnoff to me. How about you?

Obscured By Hype

Who Can I Talk To And Where Can I Go?

March 29, 2014 4 comments

When I discovered and learned it, I automatically subscribed to the simple but profound principle of POSIWID: the “Purpose Of a System Is What It Does” (not what its stewards say it does). Because of this belief in POSIWID, I’ve always been highly skeptical of supreme experts and people in positions of anointed authority. Almost without fail, and sometimes unconsciously, many of these elites have internally motivated, self-serving agendas while externally offering up their vaunted expertise to “help” you and me. According to POSIWID, their purpose is to serve themselves first, while projecting the appearance of serving others first.

As Daniel Kahneman and other behavioral economics practitioners have discovered, people have an innate tendency to fall prey to the “confirmation bias“. The confirmation bias is where you and I take to heart any and all evidence that we’re “right” on a strongly held belief while ignoring any and all evidence to the contrary. Thus, in order to reinforce my deeply held disdain for supreme experts/authorities, I’ve read all of Nassim Taleb’s books along with these two:

wrong book covers

All of the aforementioned books are jam packed full of examples in many domains (medical, financial, political, business, academia) where experts and authorities royally fucked up and negatively impacted the physical and material lives of thousands or millions of people. It wouldn’t be so bad if the perpetrators suffered mightily along with their victims as a result of their own expert bullshit, but it’s galling when they escape unscathed. It’s particularly outrageous when incompetent gurus gain while their constituents lose big.

The most recent egregious example of elites winning big at the expense of the multitude is when Wall St. bankers kept getting bonuses (in order to, uh, retain “talent“) while common people were going bankrupt as a result of their “expert” actions during the 2008 crisis. Even today, six years later, not a single financial big wig was stripped of his/her wealth and/or tossed in jail as a result of his dumbass, irresponsible decisions. Another good example is when an “expert” CEO gets tossed a big golden parachute after being booted out of the company he/she crippled. Applying POSIWID to these types of systems results in:

The purpose of a profit seeking institution is to enrich its elites without regard to the impact of its behavior on the well being of any of its other internal and external stakeholders.

I’d love to explore the flip side of this particular belief, which is the “Purpose Of A System Is What It Says It Does“, but who can I talk to and where can I go to read about it?

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