Agile Data

Becoming Agile

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Chances are pretty good that you think that there is something to the philosophies and techniques described at this site.  Good. Unfortunately there is a big difference between reading about agility and actually becoming agile. You've already taken the most important, you've decided to consider new ways to do things, now you need to follow through and actually internalize them.  I have three critical insights for becoming an agile software developer:

  1. You don't have to be superhuman.
  2. Agility is really just a mindset.
  3. Become a generalizing specialist.

1. You Don't Have to be Superhuman

This site describes a wide range of skills that agile software developers, in particular Agile DBAs although Agile Developers should also have these skills, should have. These include an understanding of:

This is a formidable list. Am I asking too much of you? It clearly isn't realistic to expect you to become adept at all of these things overnight, but it would be reasonable to expect you to pick up these skills over time.  After perusing this site, which provides a very good overview of all of these issues, how long do you think it would take you to become reasonably adept? My experience is that many IT professionals can become adept at agile database techniques, when given the opportunity, in several months. The secret is that you need to be actively involved with a project and working with others who already have some of these skills (or at least closely resembling them). For example many Java programmers are familiar with some if not most of the techniques listed for working with relational databases, although they might not be aware of all of their options or the implications of each alternative.  Many DBAs may already be quite adept at evolving a database schema although may not have taken it to the next level encompassed by database refactoring. The point is that it isn't as hard to pick up these new skills as you may think, you just need to get started.

2. Agility is Really Just a Mindset

So what does it mean to be agile?  Agility is more of an attitude than a skillset. In my experience, the common characteristics of agile software developers are:

  • They're open minded and therefore willing to learn new techniques.
  • They're responsible and therefore willing to seek the help of the right person(s) for the task at hand.
  • Willing to work closely with others, pair programming or working in small teams as appropriate.
  • Willing to work iteratively and incrementally.
Notice how I didn't say that they program in a specific language, or that they have X years of experience with JUnit, or that they are a certified DBA.  Technical skills are definitely important, but they aren't what determines your agility. It's your mindset that is the determining factor.  To help you grow into each of the four roles defined by the Agile Data method, Table 1 provides some specific suggestions that you should consider.

 

Table 1. Recommendations to Become More Agile.

Role

Recommendations

Agile DBA

  • Gain some experience as an application developer so you understand the issues that they face.
  • Gain basic DBA skills, reading Craig Mullins' Database Administration is a good start, and enhance them with the techniques described at this site.

Application Developer

  • Recognize that there is more to agile software development than eXtreme Programming (XP).
  • Gain some database experience, often by working closely with your team's Agile DBA.

Enterprise Architect

  • Recognize that you're in a support role to agile project teams.
  • Recognize that you must be prepared to work in an evolutionary (iterative and incremental) manner.
  • Gain some experience as an agile developer and/or agile DBA to learn the tools, techniques, and technologies that they work with on a regular basis.
  • Get actively involved with agile development projects.

Enterprise Administrator (e.g. Data Management)

  • Recognize that you're in a support role to agile project teams.
  • Recognize that you must be prepared to work in an evolutionary manner.
  • Favor mentoring, and getting actively involved with, people on projects as opposed to simply reviewing their work.

The books Who Moved My Cheese and Navigating the Winds of Change are both short, well-written resources for anyone struggling with change, and Fearless Change describes a wonderful pattern language for effective change.  The first book will help you to identify four common personality types and their ability to handle change and both books provide advice for accepting and embracing change in your day-to-day working life.

 

3. Become a Generalizing Specialist

A critical concept is that you need to move away from being a narrowly focused specialist to become more along the lines of what I like to call a generalizing specialist.  A generalizing specialist is someone with one or more technical specialties who actively seeks to gain new skills in both their existing specialties as well as in other areas, they have a general knowledge of software development, and a good understanding of the domain in which they work. When you get your first job as an IT professional it is often in the role of a junior programmer or junior DBA. You will initially focus on becoming good at that role, and if you're lucky your organization will send you on training courses to pick up advanced skills in your specialty. Once you're adept at that specialty, or even when you've just reached the point of being comfortable at it, it is time to expand your horizons and learn new skills in different aspects of the software lifecycle.  When you do this you evolve from being a specialist to being a generalizing specialist.

A generalizing specialist is more than just a generalist.  A generalist is a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none, whereas a generalizing specialist is a jack-of-all-trades and master of a few.  Big difference. A team of generalists can easily flounder because none of the have the skills to get anything done. In short, I believe that generalizing specialists are much more effective than specialists or generalists.  My experience is that the best developers are generalizing specialists, or are at least actively trying to become so.  There is still room for specialists within your IT departments, they can often act as internal consultants to your development teams, but as IT departments become more agile we will see fewer specialists surviving over time.