Sunday, February 27, 2011

The World's First Agile Project … or “We tried fire and it didn't work”

We tried coffee and it didn't work ...

There are two coffee machines at work.

The one on the left is totally automated, you press a button, and it delivers a not-bad (but mediocre) coffee, with synthetic milk.  And believe me the "latte" is no such thing - it's pure evil!

The one on the right though everyone agrees makes nicer coffee, but no-one uses. It's a manual coffee maker. You have to steam, stir and froth your own milk in a jug, then add an expresso shot or two.

Everyone agrees the one on the right makes nicer coffee, but everyone tends to use the one on the left.

Why? Well no-one really knows exactly how to use everything on the machine on the right, and there are no instructions. I actually always use the one on the right, one of only two people to use it. I've found to get good coffee it's kind of trial and error until I've got it “just right”. I've played with some of the buttons, functions and nozzles. And now I've got a working technique, and an alchemist brew to great coffee.

So why is everyone using the one on the left? People I think are afraid of “getting it wrong”, afraid to “play around” and make a few dreadful coffees, occasionally sending the machine into it's messy clean cycle whilst learning how to operate it.

Much as covered in the famous article “we tried baseball and it didn't work” people are so afraid of getting it wrong they're settling for mediocre coffee, or spending a small fortune getting coffee from Starbucks, whilst I enjoy great coffee provided by work!

We tried fire and it didn't work?

This has had me thinking back to our ancestors – the “prehistoric cave man”.

It's a bit of a misconception that prehistoric man is any different to ourselves (genetically we're identical). Many people feel smug that they're more intelligent than them. Certainly we benefit from better education and knowledge, but they were as educated and (in their own way) as skilled as us. In fact “they are us”.

Which brings me to fire. Again we do pre-historic man a huge disservice by saying they “discovered” fire. Do we talk about the “discovery” of the computer, atomic bomb or laser? No we talk about the “invention” of those things as the word "discovery" is indicative more of accident than design.

Okay so more than likely the first man-made creation of fire might have been accidental.  [The same goes for the discovery of penicillin!]  Lets look at it as pre-historic man would have seen it. You have created fire, ooh it's nice and warm, it gives off heat and light You just have to see with children the mesmerising effect it has. There would be a huge desire to touch it. And ouch how that burns!

This is where the modern engineer would say “we tried fire … and it didn't work! Lets agree to not make fire again”.

There's no doubt in my mind the first experiences of prehistoric man with fire would have been incredibly negative. “Oooh pretty … ouch it burns … ouch my hair is on fire”.

We all know the benefits of fire – keeps you warm, gives off light, cooks food (killing bacteria), and most animals have a fear of it.

So fire comes with a lot of benefits, but it's not perfect, it has some side effects as well. But to get to all “the good stuff” you have to get through the immediate “bad stuff”. And sometimes the downsides can feel so intimidating. We talk about man “taming fire”. But what we're really talking about is knowing the risks of fire, and “managing them”.

But forget iPhones and atom bombs – things that go in and out of fashion – fire along with the wheel is arguably the greatest invention of mankind. Without fire we don't manage to migrate to colder areas of the world, we don't learn to cook, we don't learn to cure animal hides, we don't learn metallurgy and smelting, we don't learn to generate power. Fire is the invention which drives all these developments.

Fire isn't something that “just happens” - to be able to control fire we need to learn the skills that go with creating fire and controlling it. What's interesting is these knowledge and skills existed before writing, and when vocabulary were basic. Prehistoric man didn't have colleges and books, yet they had effective ways of passing on skills of fire making, control, hunting to the next generation. And through this environmental culture the skills of fire making have been very effectively from one generation to the next right up to modern times, we've not suddenly “forgotten” how to create fire just because someone's not written it down.

So yes indeed – you could say with some authority that fire was the first Agile project!


  1. Ironically creating fire is more documented now than at any time in history. But we teach kids to fear “playing with matches”, and our heating systems are such that we don't even need to create fire, it's done for us. So without the culture around fire, it's becoming a forgotten skill in this generation. Certainly we moved to a house with a wood burner in 2009 and to be honest, our prehistoric forebears would have scoffed and felt superior at our fire making skills – yeah even with matches, firelighters and lighter fluid ….

    We really struggle to keep our fire going some nights for all our IT and tool skills. Hence kudos to our ancestors!

  2. Looking at the Agile Manifesto – two things really strike me …

    Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

    Working software over comprehensive documentation

    Looking at these two points – prehistoric man wouldn't have cared how fire was made. There are of course two main ways we think it was done – either using stones to create sparks to cause tinder to catch fire, or rubbing two pieces of wood together until the friction creates enough heat to cause fire.

    Prehistoric man wouldn't have cared how he created fire – just that he had fire. And that people knew a way to do it.

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