Scrum Gathering – Agile and Ethics

I’ll be presenting two talks at the November Scrum Gathering.

One of them is dear to my heart. I’ll be using this blog over the next few months to work up my ideas and document conversations I have around this topic.

The Ethics of Scrum and Agile Software Development.

Here’s what I proposed:

Presentation Description

Are Scrum and XP inherently ethical?

In the face of contradictory beliefs over what we do and how we do it, we software developers, agile or not, experience pressure to compromise our work and our due care for others. Meanwhile, as our products become more beneficial, more pervasive and inter-connected our potential to harm grows.

Attempts by the ACM and IEEE to engage us in a dialog on norms of conduct has resulted in a controversial code of ethics that borrows heavily from established engineering disciplines – mandating specifications to ensure effective software.

We, agile software developers are making an under-appreciated contribution to ethical practice in our field.

Whether our work is a profession or craft, we need to engage the larger community in a conversation about how our day to day actions affect our employers, our peers, and our society. This presentation will attempt to frame professional ethics in the context of agile values and practices.

Why is this topic of interest to Scrum Gathering attendees?

The discussion over norms of ethical conduct happens outside the earshot of most working developers. The day to day experience of Scrum practitioners is at a distance from those who concern themselves with software ethics.

As a Scrum community, we have a responsibility to help shape the expectations placed upon us by others. We cannot delegate our integrity. Nor can we defer concerns over negligence, recklessness, or intent to harm the human beings who use the systems we create. We openly discuss our projects, our working conditions, and our advancement but to protect those very interests we often deal with issues of conscience privately.

Yet the passion behind Scrum is, in part, an idealistic one – a hope that by dealing openly and responsively with our stakeholders we will build something of real value. We need to harness this idealism to encourage each other make better decisions in the interests of stakeholders who do not pay us and do not always have a seat at the project table.

Given the downstream effect ethical lapses large and small have on society, we need to engage in this discussion or have the wrong solutions imposed upon us by employers, institutions, and regulatory agencies.

Presentation Objectives

  1. Is it important for us to establish a shared commitment to ethical conduct?
  2. What obligations a software developer should feel beyond fulfilling the requirements of their employer?
  3. How the Agile Manifesto and Scrum/XP practices suggest a partial set of norms of ethical conduct.
  4. How agile organizations have started to provide their own statements of principles to extend agile values and encompass conduct towards our peers and society.


I’m a fan of personality assessments as a kind of casual gaming. I’ve had to take them for work but never used them as a manager except as a kind of team diversion.

In that casual, don’t take it too seriously vein, my boss pointed me to PersonalDNA. They have a fun UI for teasing answers out of you, provide fun and flattering results and an interesting, abstract way of badging.

Dysfunction in a Word

Creative problem solving as rote mechanical construction. Twist the wrench and pass it on.

  • forces sequential phases, “first we determine what it looks like then we figure out what it does.”
  • forces development in horizontal rather than vertical layers, i.e. “we’ve spent weeks coding but none of it does anything yet. We’re almost done though”
  • forces thinking in schedules instead of priorities, “I’ll have my part done in two weeks. What is it again?”
  • silos workers from each other, “What are you working on? Well, anyway, goodnight.”
  • ensures workers don’t have big picture, “Her copy doesn’t fit in my div based on his mockup. It’s not my fault.”
  • encourages hierarchies and coordination overhead (chicken husbandry), “My manager will get with your manager”
  • enourages narrow specialties instead of versatility and craftsmanship, “He does jpegs and gifs. She does html, css, and javascript. She does C# and Java. None of us actually build applications. By the way, did I already say it’s not my fault.”


    Distill complex interactions into a pretty picture. Take authoritative guidance from someone who’s only spent 15 minutes thinking about the problem.

  • encourages passive, diffuse product ownership, “you’re on the hook but they’re the deciders”
  • locks in premature commitments, “I put aside $10K for database integration”
  • invites arbitrary changes. “make this bit here blue”
  • creates low-value artifacts that lie, “sure it will work just like the wireframe.”
  • rewards promises over performance, “it will do everything I say, cost $40K, and be done in one month.”
  • bakes failure in, “how did we end up with this late, expensive hunk of junk?”


    offensive getwith: “you need to getwith Joe on this.”

  • forces input from people with authority, no accountability and no direct contribution — like being made to run around with a target on your back
    defensive getwith: “Does Joe agree with this decision?” “I gotwith him on it.”

  • ask someone to attend one meeting, characterize them as agreeing with anything you do after that — like pulling a target of your back and sticking it on someone else’s

Any additions?

Women & Agile Development (revisit)

ACM Technews referenced this article from

IT still trying to find what women want

The world is flat. Better go out and hire some women.

That seems to be the gist of a recent Gartner report on the gender gap in information technology

The article lists five gender-based traits CIOs should pay attention to when building IT staffs.

There’s a danger of drawing conclusions about individuals from differences in large samples. Just because men are statistically greater risk takers than women doesn’t mean I’m bolder than any particular woman. Or that she has better listening skills.

But at the level of an entire industry statistical differences are meaningful. Software would be better if we had collaborated and communicated better. Our products would be better if we had more empathy for customers and end users. Attracting qualified women into the field is a contribution to that end.

As the article suggests, the only appropriate way to do that in the context of a specific hiring decision is to include people skills as a requirement of the position, cast a wide net and hire the best candidate.

But you need to have a workplace and compensation package that is attractive to someone with people skills, technical chops and wants to give you their best at a sustainable pace.

To the argument that inviting women into a dysfunctional IT culture won’t make things better, I’d say that’s not my point. More women in IT is a hoped for result of humane workplaces — not a solution for creating them.

We have to work from within to make our companies better. In my software development team, our use of Scrum and XP has helped us do that. So far, my employer has been receptive.

I know that isn’t true everywhere. All I can say is those of us who have a choice sometimes have to make tough decisions about where we choose to collect our paycheck.

The Road Not Taken

Mountain Path Ript - Photo by Kathie Horejsi

I began advocating agile principles at my company four years ago. Over time, my co-workers and I have grown into a Scrum/XP team. We have a track record of successful projects and a handful of supportive sponsors. Senior executives value our developers. My CTO understands the team dynamic itself is the prize asset.

Having reached a milestone on one of our larger projects and seeing ambitious work ahead, I wanted to write about how I stood at a crossroads: contribute to the team or attempt to nurture agile values elsewhere in the organization.

It’s a pleasant, contrasting choice. But it assumes a lone agile team can thrive after becoming visible to the larger organization. There are two pressing reasons why I doubt this is true:

  • An agile team attacks impediments from within or without. Either the team makes progress against these obstacles or it declines.
  • Human nature abhors exceptions however exceptional. If the organization doesn’t become a little more like us, it will surely, inevitably re-make us to be more like it.

Mountain Path Ript - Photo by Kathie Horejsi

So, no crossroads. One path lies before me and it looks surprisingly familiar.

As I did four years ago, I must advocate agile from within and peer to peer. This time around, I have success at my back but face longer odds.

Scrum the project. Scrum organizational change.

I can only make progress one step at a time. I must demystify what we do by allowing more chickens into my team’s reviews. I must find and coach others predisposed to agile values. I must find at least one executive willing to scrum a thorny project with their staff. If I get the chance, I must seek out expert coaching for those above and across me in the organization.

As four years ago, success relies more on others than on myself. But I believe, as before, that not trying is worse than failing in the attempt.