What is Agile Methodology and How Does it Work?
Software is available everywhere we look. Any machinery we use associates itself with code that controls the way it works. Software teams work to write these applications, and many software developers band together to work on a single project. They keep working on ensuring that the application should work just as designed for the end-user when they deploy the code.
In today's landscape of the software technology industry, organizations design, deploy and manage large amounts of code and software every day. The real challenge lies in managing the process and the software development life cycle.
Many companies use the agile methodology to create and maintain software. This article will discuss the method, how it came into existence, and why it became a widely sought-after and appreciated method for software development.
Use these links to navigate the guide:
- An Overview of Agile Methodology
- How the Agile Method Works
- Advantages of Agile
- Focus on Excellence
- Increased Flexibility
- Stakeholder Engagement
- Customer Satisfaction
- Better Communication and Collaboration
- Examples of Popular Agile Methodologies
- Tools Used in Agile Software Development
An Overview of Agile Methodology
Project management mostly depends on the approach followed by the project manager. In software development, agile is a method of project management that comprises short development cycles known as sprints. Sprints are predetermined time frames for each task in the process. Sprints help to focus on the continuous improvement of the product or service provided by a company. At the end of every sprint, there is a review. In that review, there is a lot of focus on how the team could have worked more effectively.
An agile methodology is a flexible form of software development and project management. It practices an inclusive mentality where the company does not just work with the developers and the project management but also the clients and their feedback. This method’s customer and team-driven culture encourages growth, fosters team building over the formal division of departments, and focuses on a clearly defined life cycle.
After completing a sprint in an agile lifecycle, the team reflects upon ways to improve the outcome. Then, the team works on the next iteration and improvements of the software in the next sprint. The next iteration follows the agile SDLC model, including planning, requirement analysis, design, coding, unit testing, and acceptance testing individually. After each iteration is complete, the team keeps improving on it until the final iteration. Eventually, the last iteration holds all features that the customer had initially requested.
Regular communication is considered a virtue for agile. Frequent communication helps reduce human error significantly. This outcome is why the Agile Manifesto reiterates that teams should meet daily rather than weekly or monthly.
The History of the Agile Process
Before the existence of the agile process, software development projects used to be tough. Most of them used to follow the waterfall method for project management. This method was very restrictive, but it was a streamlined alternative for many who used it previously. It followed a linear and sequential cycle of initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closure. While it did boast of having clear and well-defined goals, objectives, documentation, and more accountability, it had many limitations caused by its rigidity and over-formalization of the process. It had low involvement from clients and focused mainly on the planning side of things and less on being adaptive throughout the process.
By the 1990s, alternatives to the traditional waterfall method of software development began to evolve. These alternatives were a reaction to the many flaws of the waterfall method and included practices such as:
- Rapid Application Development (RAD) in 1991
- Unified Process (UP) in 1994
- Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM) in 1994
- Scrum in 1995
- Crystal Clear in 1996
- Extreme Programming (XP) in 1996
- Feature Driven Development in 1997
While all of these methods mentioned above existed long before the official agile process came into existence, they are collectively known as agile software development methods.
In February of 2001, 17 software developers banded together in Snowbird, Utah, and discussed and wrote the Agile Manifesto. These people came from various software development methods and wanted to create a comprehensive software development process that would eventually become an industry standard. They wanted the project management method to focus on being people-centric, and they stressed the need for a more flexible and team-oriented software development approach. They coined the term Agile.
As a reaction to it all, the agile methodology focused on the people involved with the process. It is inclusive and invites not just developers and project managers but also clients. One of the goals of this method is also to be reflective. At the end of the day, the agile process is all about improvements.
What are the Differences Between Agile Methods and Alternatives?
After understanding the origins of the Agile method, let’s quickly compare it with its popular alternatives in the market.
The Traditional Waterfall Method
Referred to as the anti-agile method, the waterfall model was one of the primary reasons agile came into existence. This method follows a sequential approach to software development.
- Linear: The waterfall method is linear, while the agile approach is to improve via iterations.
- Rigid: Waterfall follows a strict sequence, leaving little to no room for on-the-fly improvements and other changes which agile can easily accommodate.
- Easy to Manage: The waterfall method is fundamentally simple. Hence it is easier to plan and implement than the agile counterpart. Each step in the waterfall method is well-documented.
The V-model is an extension of the waterfall model. The only difference is that instead of the linear and sequential way that the waterfall proposes, it bends upwards.
- Isolated Testing: V-Model incorporates a significant level of testing towards the end of the cycle, while Agile focuses on testing and fixing together.
- Rigid: Like the waterfall model, the v-model follows an extended list of steps to facilitate the process. This takes away the flexibility of adjusting to feedback and changes.
- Resource Intensive: A significant amount of resources are needed to follow all the v-model development and testing standards. For Agile, a small team can cover almost all parts of the process.
The concept of this development process is to create a system using repeated iterations and breaking down the timeline so that teams could work in increments. The idea here is to allow developers to learn from the previous iterations to improve the next step of the process.
- Non-Incremental: The iterative model focuses on breaking the main task into smaller tasks and work on it. Unlike agile, where working software is available at the end of every sprint, the iterative model aims to produce the final iteration’s functional software.
The spiral model takes inspiration from the repetitions in the iterative model. The project goes through four phases again and again in a “spiral” until it is complete. This allows for multiple chances for improvement.
- Risk Proof: The spiral model covers any risks that may arise during the cycle unexpectedly. Spiraling repeatedly throughout the entire process helps to handle almost any type of issue that may occur.
- Resource Intensive: Covering risks and reiterating multiple times can get heavy on the pocket for companies. This is why the spiral model is adopted by larger companies only, while companies of any scale use agile.
Rapid Application Development
The RAD model focuses on prototyping and developing in iterations with no specific planning. The process of writing the software includes the planning required for delivering the final product.
- Quick and Dirty: The RAD model aims to develop all features in the project quickly and recklessly and then improve the code over time. On the other hand, the agile methodology seeks to approach this in a much more logical way and minimizes the waste of time and resources into redoing things.
- Prototype-driven: The RAD model emphasizes solving problems by creating prototypes, which are eventually improved to build the final application. Agile works to produce the final product itself without making any prototypes in the process.
Big Bang Model
As the name suggests, the big bang model follows no specific process and spends very little time planning. Most of the resources go towards development, and sometimes even the client does not have a solid grasp of the requirements.
- High Risk: Due to lack of proper planning, the big bang model involves an increased risk of wasting time and resources in the project. On the flipside, agile involves a documented approach to building the software.
- Small Scale: Due to the high-risk factor involved, it does not make sense to implement this model on a large-scale project. Agile provides the organization required to work in large teams.
How the Agile Method Works
Now that you are clear on the origins of the method and its different alternatives, it is time to dive into its functions.
The agile method works by breaking up the project into iterations or sprints. Each of these sprints is of similar durations, for example, between 2 to 8 weeks. At the end of each sprint, the teams must deliver a product or a version of the product. Teams generally decide on core features of the software and collectively determine what they need to do within the first iteration. Features are prioritized and assigned an iteration. Towards the end of a sprint, the teams review its result and reflect on what they can do to make the next iteration better. Teams will make necessary changes to the next sprint, and this process goes on until the final deliverable is ready.
Core Principles and Best Practices
The agile methodology has 12 principles that drive its philosophy. These are present in the manifesto that we mentioned earlier. For your convenience, here they are:
- Satisfying customers with early and continuous delivery
- Welcoming changing requirements
- Delivering working software frequently
- Collaboration between business people and developers daily
- Building projects around motivated individuals
- Prioritizing face-to-face communication
- Considering working software as the most critical measure of progress
- Promoting sustainable development
- Paying attention to technical excellence and good design
- Emphasizing the importance of simplicity
- Understanding that the best architects, requirements, and designs come from organized teams
- Reflecting regularly on how to be more effective
The following best practices used in the agile process support the above principles:
- Iterative Development: The development team breaks down the process into sprints in which they carry out continuous tests. This way, it helps teams to find new perspectives and new features. In a way, this method is very explorative, as it is flexible enough to include new ideas into the design after feedback sessions.
- Daily Meetings: This is one caveat for the agile methodology, as communication is vital here. Regular meetings are a requisite to make sure everyone is on the same page. During these meetings, team members have to state progress and pending tasks.
- Using Professional Tools: Agile teams use tools for project management to support processes in working well. The goal is to make the process effective and ensure that the development process follows the agile principles.
It’s important to know that agile teams are considered whole teams that are stable and consist of generalized specialists. In small agile teams, the following roles are available:
- Team Lead: The team lead, or the architecture owner, is the project lead. They are responsible for facilitating the team, getting resources, and helping them in solving problems.
- Team Member: The team members comprise of developers or programmers responsible for delivering the final product.
- Product Owner: The product owner represents all the stakeholders. Also known as the on-site customer, they are there to make decisions and provide information on time.
- Stakeholder: A stakeholder is anyone who will be using the software—the senior manager, operations staff member, the founding partner of the project, support staff, auditors, and everyone other than the team members, as mentioned earlier.
Sometimes there is a requirement to have technical experts, domain experts, and independent testers available to support.
The roles mentioned above are present in a small agile team, usually under 20 members. There will be teams within the parent team apart from the roles mentioned above in a larger group. These will have two additional roles as discussed below:
- Architecture Owner: They are similar to the team lead, but they manage the sub-teams. Architecture owners are responsible for facilitating the architectural decisions of the sub-teams.
- Integrator: Integrators are team members who bring all the subsystems together.
The roles and principles of agile focus on valuing individuals and interactions, working on software and customer collaboration, and responding to change.
Advantages of Agile
Now that you know what drives Agile and how it works, here are some of the advantages of adopting agile in your own company’s approach towards software development.
Focus on Excellence
Agile puts a lot of effort into maintaining technical excellence. The process intends to combat rigidity that hindered many of how software teams could develop the software. When teams welcome feedback regularly and work with individuals from other departments, there is a possibility of studying the market better and increasing awareness of how the software could work. This way, developers can create better software.
The flexibility of agile allows your company to create better quality software and maintain your customers. The increase in quality is possible because you are constantly adapting to improve the software. Agile is flexible as it allows stakeholders and customers to suggest changes at any part of the process. Since changes integrate automatically and continuously, teams can improve features they had worked on in earlier sprints.
The agile methodology allows stakeholders of the project to be part of the process as well. In doing so, you are not just listening to the developer's ideas but also other people. Multiple perspectives are available, and it can make the process more inclusive.
Agile guarantees customer satisfaction because teams provide the products fast and continuously deliver better upgrades. They are also part of the feedback loop that the team takes into consideration during maintenance. This feedback process allows customers to influence the growth of a product and enables the product to offer greater customer satisfaction.
Better Communication and Collaboration
The agile method emphasizes daily meetings where team members communicate their progress and what they need to do further. This way, everyone knows everybody’s tasks and knows who is providing feedback throughout the process.
Examples of Popular Agile Methodologies
Below are five of the most popular agile methodologies that companies around the world adopt.
Scrum is one of the most utilized agile frameworks. The use of cycles characterizes it. It is scrum that has popularized the term sprints. Its focus is on developing, delivering, and sustaining the software. Scrum is mainly suited for teams with teams less than ten members. Scrum includes a daily 15-minute meeting which is also known as the daily scrum. Once a sprint concludes, a review takes place to analyze the work done and decide the areas of improvement to incorporate in the next sprint.
Kanban, just like scrum, is immensely popular. In agile teams, kanban leverages the Just in Time (JIT) principle. This method allows teams to be flexible with their planning, produce faster output, have greater focus, and be transparent throughout all phases of the development cycle. For kanban to work, it demands complete transparency of the work in progress and real-time communication. A team using the kanban method will often use a kanban board, a tool that holds all of the information about the product and process in one place, in an accessible form.
eXtreme Programming (XP)
This agile software development methodology focuses on producing high-quality software and providing a higher quality of life for the software development team. It is the most specific of all agile frameworks in terms of appropriate engineering practices.
One of the chief characteristics of XP is to deal with the dynamically changing requirements of the software in development. XP usually has small, co-located teams. It also encourages automated units for development, with functional tests done regularly.
It has five values that govern the quality of software and the team.
- Communication: Like all other agile methodologies, communication is critical for knowledge sharing.
- Simplicity: This is because there is a need for efficiency and to avoid as much waste as possible.
- Feedback: Without feedback, teams cannot revise their practices.
- Courage: Teams should be courageous and flexible enough to change direction when they see things not working out.
- Respect: It is essential to respect each other for communication to be effective.
Lean Software Development (LSD)
Lean Software Development is an agile methodology that focuses on optimizing development time and resources to eliminate waste and ensure that the end product is delivered just as planned. This methodology is also known as Minimum Viable Product (MVP). In this method, teams release a bare minimum version of a product for users to interact with. The teams then gather information and learn the likes and dislikes of users. Teams gain feedback and then work on developing a better version.
LSD is very streamlined, which is why it is popular among many developers. It saves a lot of time by focusing only on the software’s functionality and cuts out all the unnecessary activities. In this model, the development team is encouraged to make decisions. This empowerment keeps their morale high, which means that they can work much more productively.
Crystal is another agile framework with its sights on individuals and interactions, a focus taken directly from the Agile Manifesto. This framework has two guiding beliefs—
- Teams can figure out ways to improve and optimize workflows on their own.
- Every project is going to be unique and will always keep changing. The team that is working on the project should be the ones making the decisions.
This agile framework gives freedom to the team to work on the projects in the way they believe would be effective. It facilitates team communication and fosters transparency and accountability. Finally, it can enable teams to be more flexible with changes in requirements or incorporating feedback because of its adaptive approach.
Tools Used in Agile Software Development
Agile tools are available to support teams that adopt an agile methodology. Here is the list of standard tools used for agile software development. These tools support the agile teams by providing them with a platform to find requirements and break them into several smaller tasks. Most tools also help to track changes and updates quickly.
Source Control Tools
Git is a perfect solution for source code control and versioning. Most teams use it to keep their code organized. While this tool isn’t made explicitly for agile teams, it is a highly effective tool for software developers to manage their code. Other similar tools include CVS, Mercurial, and Subversion.
Continuous Integration Tools
Jenkins is another tool that isn’t made explicitly for agile, but agile teams can benefit from its support for continuous integration. Continuous integration tools run automated jobs to incorporate changes to a deployed product when its source code is updated. They are also used to run unit tests to ensure that the software is working as planned. Other tools include Hudson, Integrity, Strider, and Travis CI.
Team Management Tools
Teams can use several tools for managing teams for an agile framework. Here are some highly recommended ones.
- Agile Manager: HP built the Agile Manager to organize and guide teams throughout all software development phases. It can also gather information by connecting with other tools like Jenkins, Bamboo, Eclipse, and Git.
- Active Collab: This tool allows you to track time and generate bills. It can be hosted locally or used on a cloud service.
- JIRA Agile: JIRA is a dashboard tool that helps a company manage its projects. Its intuitive and interactive interface allows you to customize it to your requirements.
- Agile Bench: This is a platform that tracks work assigned to a specific team member. It helps the team by showing which user is completing tasks on time and which team member is overwhelmed by tasks. It is also well integrated with Git-hosted sites.
- Pivotal Tracker: This is a collection of tools that create a page for the project. The page then populates itself with lists of rated tasks according to their complexity. It helps teams track what is going on.
Agile methodology is flexible and people-centric in its approach to software development. Its focus on incremental delivery and continuous learning makes for a dynamic and all in all supportive process. It emphasizes team building and fosters an environment of ensuring that the software at the end of the day is of high quality. Regular communication in agile enables the team to collaborate smoothly and finally make the best product their skills can contribute.
It may be a buzzword in the technology and project management community, but its support system backs it up. Even though it’s now 20 years old, it is still a method used by most companies in the world to date.