Why aren’t there more Agile luminaries developing and selling software?

Have you noticed that few Agile luminaries earn a living from writing and selling software? Many do write code as consultants. Other are respected authors of non-commercial open-source development tools. Some do work for software companies such as RallyDev or ThoughtWork Studios, though it seems that most visible presenters coming from there are consultants or at least business-facing types. But almost none actually make money directly by doing what they teach others to do.

James Shore mentioned working on his own startup with Arlo Belshee and Kim Wallmark, but that was more than a year ago and we haven’t heard much since. Ward Cunningham is CTO of a website, which come reasonably close to being a software house. In fact, Kent Beck is the only example I know of someone who actually tries to make a living out of writing and selling software (with mixed results). Tellingly, Ward and Kent are not very visible on the conference circuit anymore (though they are certainly interviewed regularly).

Programmer on "Vacation"

This lead to an interesting discussion yesterday on Twitter with Deborah Hartmann Preuss, Alexandru Bolboaca, Willem van den Ende, Brian Marick, and Jeffrey Fredrick (see transcript at the end of this post).

I think most Agile personalities have become addicted to the relatively easy money of consulting. Why would they risk get a software product out in the highly competitive software market? It is so easy to just found your own consultancy. It is probably related to age, too, as you do need to have lots of spare energy for late night coding (Paul Graham once wrote that the ideal age to start a startup was between 23 and 38).

In fact, as I argue below, I do not believe that “being agile” is viewed as a desirable trait for a startup and I’m sure it might even deter some of the most likely candidates to create one, as it is now viewed as a process for medium to large companies. What is viewed as needed is raw hacking powers, even if that means making things hang together with duct tape. Agile techniques might be preferable, but their ROI will become mostly apparent after two years, an eternity for a startup.

So, Agile luminaries are not starting software development ventures, and the founders of successful startups that use Agile techniques probably do not have the time or the will to tell the rest of the Agile world how they did it.

This is regrettable. I wish there was more cross-pollination, like 37signals has done with Getting Real. Where are the others?

Transcript of our conversation on twitter:

  • elefevre Wondering why so few Agile luminaries are into the commercial software business.
  • alexboly @elefevre I think Kent Beck said it best: “As a business man, I’m a very good software developer” :)
  • elefevre @alexboly interestingly, he seems to be the only one actually trying to make a living selling software (seems hard)
  • mostalive @elefevre because they are too busy consulting or marketing? want to publish own commercial product? work happens in odd hours -> slow
  • alexboly @elefevre As a programmer I would rather live in Castalia (http://goo.gl/AzQn) As a business man, I need to live in the real world.
  • elefevre @mostalive sure they do consulting. But if agile dev is really better, then products they would make ought to be better too. => Profit?
  • DeborahH @elefevre I guess Mike Beedle (PatientKeeper) is an exception, then. Co-author of first Scrum book.
  • mostalive @elefevre Profit yes, and, consulting & product development don’t really mix, as the business drivers point in opposite directions.
  • DeborahH @elefevre ken Schwaber came from sw dev company iirc, but perhaps you can’t change the world AND refactor your codebase at once. Or?
  • mostalive @elefevre agile tool vendors may be the exception, however their consultants can not recommend the best tool for the context (post-its ;))
  • mostalive @elefevre and if a product is successful, it generates so much revenue, that consulting revenue is irrelevant.
  • DeborahH @elefevre … Then they wouldn’t be luminaries in the sense of “visible as a teacher, writer” imo: these things are jobs in themselves.
  • DeborahH @elefevre though I respect more those who take time for practice as well, it grounds one’s teaching. But usually on s/one else’ project?
  • elefevre @DeborahH yes. Maybe if you’re busy developing (not consulting), then you have less time & inclination helping others.
  • elefevre @mostalive also, I suspect majority of (or the best known) consultants from Agile Tool vendors are more business-facing type than developers
  • DeborahH @elefevre until recently, Jeff was CTO @ PatientKeeper.http://bit.ly/ctQJRb Once yr own house is in order, you gotta get a new challenge?
  • elefevre @DeborahH @mostalive @alexboly I think my point could be: are successful/rich developers/hackers really applying Agile techniques?
  • elefevre @DeborahH @mostalive @alexboly or is Agile orthogonal unnecessary for a successful startup? (maybe I’ve been reading too much Paul Graham)
  • elefevre @DeborahH @mostalive @alexboly I think that, in a startup, techniques might be “agile”, but do not need to be identified as such
  • elefevre @DeborahH @mostalive @alexboly while, in a bigger biz, it helps that people can relate to a consensual definition of development process
  • elefevre @DeborahH @mostalive @alexboly in our startup, we are 3 former Agile consultants (out of 5 devs), but we take care not to say we’re agile
  • alexboly @elefevre @DeborahH @mostalive Agile doesn’t exist. Agile tools exist. Do you need agile tools for a succesful startup? I think you do.
  • alexboly @DeborahH @mostalive @elefevre Do you need to call the agile tools “agile” in order do succeed? Of course not. :)
  • DeborahH @elefevre “Agile” is a means to an end. You cannot afford to primarily “be agile”n you must be primarily busines owners!
  • alexboly @DeborahH @mostalive @elefevre The point was never to “be agile”, it always was to build software in a way that increases the success rate.
  • elefevre @DeborahH @mostalive @alexboly there might even be a stigma to calling things “agile” in a startup. Not hip (anymore)
  • DeborahH @elefevre surely “hipness” is not more important than profitability? Like “agility”, “hipness” sounds like a red herring, to me.
  • alexboly @elefevre @DeborahH @mostalive I’d like to see that people don’t talk about agile anymore but do the right thing. Human nature loves labels.
  • elefevre @DeborahH certainly is a red herring. But I do think it’s important for startups, often packed with smug hackers. #overgeneralization
  • marick @elefevre I don’t have any good product ideas. I don’t have skills to do it all & it’s a big step from 1-person company to N-person company.
  • elefevre @marick my thinking is that the mobile market is more tolerant of seemingly mediocre ideas than the desktop/enterprise space
  • DeborahH @elefevre @marick perhaps because in mobile market short release cycles allow products to “grow up” in public?
  • elefevre @DeborahH @marick I think it’s because there are fewer high-standard apps, so users tolerate mediocre ones. eg. quizzes, website wrappers
  • Jtf @elefevre I think people who are successful consultants are addicted to fast feedback from helping. Products are delayed gratification.

About Eric Lefevre-Ardant

Independent technical consultant.
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13 Responses to Why aren’t there more Agile luminaries developing and selling software?

  1. Interesting thought! There are a few exceptions though. codecentric for example is fully agile AND we go out to conferences to share our experiences, and also blog about them. I would not personally count me in as an “agile luminarie”, but we heading in the right direction, I suppose.

  2. Well, my understanding is that codecentric does some consulting, and also that its products are targeted at the kind of people that attend Agile conferences. So it still makes business sense for you to do presentations there.

    It would be interesting to have more presenters that are high-profile and work for software houses that do not target software developers.

  3. Kay Johansen says:

    I don’t think you have to dig very deep to understand this phenomenon! It’s a freaking huge time commitment to remain at the level of luminary or thought leader. Try holding down a full time job and presenting at 15+ conferences a year, plus publishing actively. As you mentioned, those thought leaders who have chosen to develop software (such as Kent Beck) have fully or partially withdrawn from the “luminary” circuit.

  4. David Bland says:

    “In fact, as I argue below, I do not believe that “being agile” is viewed as a desirable trait for a startup and I’m sure it might even deter some of the most likely candidates to create one, as it is now viewed as a process for medium to large companies.”

    Respectfully disagree.

    In fact, there is a huge surge right now in the SF tech startup space to apply agile & lean concepts across the entire company. They are deploying code to production multiple times a day and using customer development techniques to rapidly find product market fit.

    While these companies may not be started by industry “agile thought leaders”, they are started by people who cut their teeth on agile software development over the last 10 years.

    We do not see them at conferences or hear much about them because:
    a. Conferences cost $$$
    b. They’d rather be building things!

  5. Mike Bria says:

    Interesting indeed.

    Often during my 2+ years with Industrial Logic I’d talk with Joshua Kerievsky about how we needed to blog/etc more. IL is, at its foundation, a consulting company with (IMO) a proven “luminary” at its helm (Josh) – but building a product, sold for real money. Essentially, I’ll add, a “startup” (from a product POV), operating in a wholey and truly agile manner. Amidst intense stretches of development work, we’d look up and see we barely payed attention to what was going on around us, let alone talked of what we were doing.

    Personally speaking, although I always had a million things in mind to write about, I just didn’t have it in me to actually write come quitting time. Simply too drained. You’ll see good evidence of this by actually following my hyper-linked name!

    As you note, the fact is that it’s damn hard for most people (including me) to be intensely focused internally on your own product development, particularly when it involves 1’s and 0’s, and then at the end of the day after it all turn around and wax poetic about how you’re doing it. Sort of ironic, when you think about it.

    All that said though… Josh remains a conference regular (often keynoting), and attention-grabbing writer now that he’s gotten back to blogging over the past year. And IL is a good example of a “luminary->product startup” that’s succeeding, and doing it “agile”.

  6. James Shore says:

    Kay has it right. I think most Agile thought leaders are consultants because the work of a consultant (writing, researching & building skills, attending conferences, training, coaching) matches what’s needed to be visible as a thought leader. It IS a full-time job. I think the honest consultants also try to do as much real-world work as they can, but I for one do it in the context of my other activities.

    As for the startup I founded with Kim and Arlo, that failed. We produced a product, but the market was infinitesimal. I also wasn’t as committed as I needed to be. Start-ups are more than a full-time job, and I wasn’t willing to abandon my existing business as a consultant to focus on an unproven start-up.

    I think we’ve also seen that Agile expertise isn’t even close to everything you need to be successful in software product development.

  7. Philip schwarz says:

    JUnit Max is back. On 30th of June I got an e-mail that started as follows:

    Dear JUnit Max customer:
    While we developed JUnit Max using Lean Startup concepts and suspended our development last year, we find that we may have been hasty in our decision. The truth is that we miss Max when we don’t have it. There has been continued interest in JUnit Max and we have decided to once again offer this tool for sale and continue with its development at a sustainable pace. We are commited to supporting JUnit Max and continued development of the tool for at least the next two years.

  8. @David Bland: yes, I heard about the Lean Startup thing in CA (mostly because Kent Beck was involved). I like the idea, and I hope good things and good companies will come out of it. But in truth I think the “all or nothing” trait of other startups make them more likely to success. Many will fail too (possibly more than those following Lean Startup principles), but I anticipate that those who do succeed will be more successful than the Lean Startup ones.

    Anyway, it is definitely worth following what’s going on there. After all, it holds for many of us.

  9. @Key Johansen & James Shore: yes, I agree that consultants are better placed to attend conferences and I’m sure many try to get real-world experience during their engagements.
    Still, these engagements are more likely to be with medium-to-big companies, not small ones.

    James, I’m sorry your project didn’t work out. It would probably have had more of a chance if you didn’t have any way out.
    I appreciate that you gave it a shot, though. Wouldn’t it be nice if influencers in the Agile world were regularly going back to product development? I think this is especially important for those advocating Agile programming techniques, as they would have to address more frequently writing code under business constraints.

    For some context, this post came from my recent thinking as a former consultant working for a startup (as a simple employee):
    Agile conference programs seem less applicable to my situation, so I attend less often
    I used to present 4-5 sessions a year, I now do 1 or 2
    not many presenters come from other startups
    I’m toying with the idea of working on low-profile (commercial) side projects and was wondering if the only to do it was to be 100% committed
    as an alternative, I might also have the opportunity to do teaching and give more presentations in conferences

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts! All this helps with my own thinking.

  10. @Philip Schwarz: yes, I have a license for JUnit Max. I like the idea, but I wish I’d see more commitment to it, as there have been no new features in a long time.
    At the very least, I hope it will revive the competition with Infinitest.

  11. Don Wells says:

    I am the author of http://www.extremeprogramming.org and http://www.agile-process.org. I was one of three people who started the Agile conferences here in the US. I was on the first XP project and coach of the second XP project. Does that make me a luminary? Not sure. Anyway, I make all of my money from writing software. Of course at the moment that is nothing since I am unemployed.

    Here are some thoughts.

    Someone who wakes up in the morning and says “I see a problem and I am the only one in the entire world who can fix it” is usually not a good team player. Someone who wakes up in the morning and says “I see a problem and I need to get the entire world to help fix it” rarely gets anything done. The problem is that to work in an Agile environment you must be a good team player, but luminaries who are good team players don’t get anything done. In fact I would say that many of our Agile luminaries with a few exceptions are not good team players at all. You don’t want them helping you write software. You want them helping you change the way you write software, then you want them to leave.

    The revolution is over and Agile is main stream. Who wants more changes now? Who wants people who will say you are not doing it right? Who wants people who are irrationally focused on the esoteric potential of Agility? No one does. Once the revolution is over the people who defied conventional wisdom to make the revolution happen are just that “people who defy conventional wisdom.” Hire them to write software at your own peril.

  12. Paul Dyson says:

    I think it depends what you mean by ‘agile luminary’. I was one of the very early adopters, running the first XP project in the UK in 1997, and I did a few workshops and conference sessions between 1998 and 2000 because people were interested in what I was doing. But my only interest in XP was to deliver software and many of my contemporaries (people like John Nolan, Tim Mackinnon, Steve Freeman, Ivan Moore, Chris Cottee) were doing the same. You may have heard of some of those, but probably not all because none of us were producing much more than the odd conference session or paper; we were too busy actually *doing* XP.

    But all good ideas are jumped on by consultants and some of the early practitioners saw opportunities for themselves in consulting and being a successful consultant requires some degree of self-promotion. These are the people you see at conferences, the people whose names you know, the ‘luminaries’ of the ‘movement’. I don’t have a problem with that, it helps spread the word and gives people routes in to new ways of thinking and doing than they might otherwise have had.

    But I’ve always been a fan of the XP notion of “show, don’t tell”. One of the things that I really appreciate about the 37 signals people is that they deliberately eschew the luminary/self-promotion route and help people do better by demonstrating how to do better. Its not so much practice what you preach as practice, don’t preach. So perhaps the question isn’t “Why aren’t there more Agile luminaries developing and selling software?” but rather “why do you expect Agile luminaries to develop and sell software?” or “if you want to see good examples of using agile to deliver and sell software, why are you looking to the luminaries?”.

    And, in case its not clear, I don’t consider myself a luminary and would be mortified if anyone thought I was.

  13. I’m not a luminary, but I occasionally play one at conferences.

    I don’t run a product company (in part) because I don’t find the same joy in building things that I once found. I like to help people learn, and I like to amplify their ability to build things, but I have already built things. I might yet rediscover the joy of building things.

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