Interview with Jerry Weinberg

Last year, I interviewed Jerry Weinberg on Agile Software Development for the magazine that we produce at it-agile, the agile review. Since I translated it to German for the print edition, I thought why not publish the English original here as well. Enjoy.

Jerry, you have been around in software development for roughly the past 60 years. That’s a long time, and you certainly have seen one or another trend passing by in all these years. Recently you reflected on your personal impressions on Agile in a book that you called Agile Impressions. What are your thoughts about the recent up-rising of so called Agile methodologies?

My gut reaction is “ Another software development fad.” Then, after about ten seconds, my brain gets in gear, and I think, “Well, these periodic fads seem to be the way we advance the practice of software development, so let’s see what Agile has to offer.” Then I study the contents of the Agile approach and realize that most of it is good stuff I’ve been preaching about for those 60 years. I should pitch in an help spread the word.

As I observe teams that call themselves “Agile,” I see the same problems that other fads have experienced: people miss the point that Agile is a system. They adopt the practices selectively, omitting the ones that aren’t obvious to them. For instance, the team has a bit of trouble keeping in contact with their customer surrogate, so they slip back to the practice of guessing what the customers want. Or, they “save time” by not reviewing all parts of the product they’re building. Little by little, they slip into what they probably call “Agile-like” or “modified-Agile.” Then they report that “Agile doesn’t make all that much difference.”

I remember an interview that you gave to Michael Bolton a while ago where you stated that you learned from Bernie Dimsdale how John von Neumann programmed. The description appeared to me to be pretty close towards what we now call test-driven development (TDD). In fact, Kent Beck always claimed that he simply re-discovered TDD. That made me wonder, what happened in our industry between 1960s and the 2000s that made us forget the ways of smart people. As a contemporary witness of these days, what are your insights?

It’s perfectly natural human behavior to forget lessons from the past. It happens in politics, medicine, conflicts—everywhere that human beings try to improve the future. Jefferson once said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” and that’s good advice for any sophisticated human activity.

If we don’t explicitly bolster and teach the costly lessons of the past, we’ll keep forgetting those lessons—and generally we don’t. Partly that’s because the software world has grown so fast that we never have enough experienced managers and teachers to bring those past lessons to the present. And partly it’s because we don’t adequately value what those lessons might do for us, so we skip them to make development “fast and efficient.” So, in the end, our development efforts are slower and more costly than they need to be.

The industry currently talks a lot about how to bring lighter methods to larger companies. Since you worked on Project Mercury – the predecessor for Project Apollo from the NASA – you probably also worked on larger teams and in larger companies. In your experience, what are the crucial factors for success in these endeavors, and what are the things to watch out for as they may do more harm than good?

In the first place, don’t make the mistake of thinking that bigger is somehow automatically more efficient than smaller. You have to be much more careful with communications, and one small error can cause much more trouble than in a small project.

For one thing, when there are many people, there are many ways for new or revised requirements to leak into the project, so you need to be extra explicit about requirements. Otherwise, the project grows and grows, and troubles magnify.

It is very difficult to find managers who know how to manage a large project. Managers must know or learn how to control the big picture and avoid all sorts of micromanagement temptations.

A current trend we see in the industry appears to evolve around new ways of working, and different forms to run an organization. One piece of it appears to be the learning organization. This deeply connects to Systems Thinking for me. Recognizing you published your first book on Systems Thinking in 1975, what have you seen being crucial for organizations to establish a learning culture?

First of all, management must avoid building or encouraging a blaming culture. Blame kills learning.

Second, allow plenty of time and other resources for individual learning. That’s not just classes, but includes time for reflecting on what happens, visiting other organizations, and reading.

Third, design projects so there’s time and money to correct mistakes, because if you’re going to try new things, you will make mistakes.

Fourth, there’s no such thing as “quick and dirty.” If you want to be quick, be clean. Be sure each project has sufficient slack time to process and socialize lessons learned.

Finally, provide some change artists to ensure that the organization actually applies what it learns.

What would you like to tell to the next generation(s) of people in the field of software development?

Study the past. Read everything you can get your hands on, talk to experienced professionals, study existing systems that are doing a good job, and take in the valuable lessons from these sources.

Then set all those lessons aside and decide for yourself what is valuable to know and practice.

Thank you, Jerry.

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One thought on “Interview with Jerry Weinberg”

  1. Blame kills learning… I would say that the mindset, which makes people blame for mistakes rather than learn from them is the culprit. And this is the mindset of focusing first and foremost on how one looks instead of what makes sense to do, or in other words, of focusing on personalities rather than behaviors. Yet the excessive emphasis on rationality quickly creates an organizational culture of blaming. Long time ago I even wrote an article describing how it happens:

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