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Agile and Culture Thrive Together - Is software development history repeating itself?

By Michael Kelly, CEO

My late father was early into software development in the late 1950’s. He worked for the Irish national transport company, a Government owned semi-state company who were one of the first organizations in Ireland to computerize.

The software department had about 60 staff who worked in teams of six to eight people, with each team dedicated to a system such as payroll, accounts, bus scheduling, train signalling, etc.  If a system was very large or needed to be developed quickly, two to three teams could be working on it at one time.  Each team was a unit that included system analyst/designers, Cobol programmers, testers and the team lead was a hands-on senior person, usually the analyst/designer.  The team ‘owned’ their system and were responsible for bug fixing, ongoing modifications, rewrites and system upgrades.  If a system was down for any reason then the team didn’t have to be asked to stay and work late into the night, into next day and even the following day, if required, until the problem was resolved – they did this naturally.  I recall one time my Dad being in the office for most of three days solid helping to get the payroll back up and running so bus and train staff could be paid on Friday.  I also remember he enjoyed staying up late at night meaning he would usually be last up in the morning in our house and consequently mostly late for work.  Given the dedication and flexibility my Dad and his colleagues showed in terms of supporting their systems, their time was never watched by senior management – it was a ‘get the job done’ work environment with a collaborative flat structure and a great atmosphere – very like agile today.

As the years passed, senior managers were replaced by politically appointed non-software people from outside.  A hierarchical management structure, a flexi-time clocking system, as well as continuous new rules and restrictions were continually introduced.  Having put in 30 years, and with a family of six of us depending on him, my father didn’t want to move job, but he did lose interest in work and eventually only focused on enjoying the social side of his job.  Around this time, there was a US military medical sit-com series on TV, called MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) set during the Korean war, that used to air on Irish TV late every Thursday night.  There was a character in it, Corporal Klinger, who spent his time trying to prove to senior officers he was insane so they would release him from duty and let him go back home to the US. Every week he’d come up with new approaches to prove his insanity to senior officers, including cross-dressing, but the officers were always wise to his motives and would just ignore his strange behaviors, making it very funny.  My father would be in tears laughing watching this guy Klinger’s antics every week.  I even think eventually my Dad modeled himself as a bit of a Klinger type character in his own work (except for the cross-dressing bit) in order to motivate his bosses to give him a lump sum and an early retirement pension.  We had some great laughs through that Klinger era listening to the stories Dad would bring home from work.  While it was fun, it was also an unproductive period for Dad, but eventually his strategy paid off and he was offered early retirement at the ripe old age of 56.  He went on to build his own little property business over the next 25 years and I guess he only really retired in his early 80’s.  Work was always fun and healthy for him.

The early and late eras of my father’s career prove to me that agile only thrives in a trust based engaging environment, where people are valued and have a sense of direction, purpose, ownership and accountability so they get the job done!