Exploration Through Example

Example-driven development, Agile testing, context-driven testing, Agile programming, Ruby, and other things of interest to Brian Marick
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Tue, 23 Sep 2003

Brian Eno and agile projects

I don't pair program much. I'm an independent consultant, I live at least 500 miles (1000 kilometers) from almost all my clients, and I can't be on-site for more than a quarter of the time. (This was easier to pull off during the Bubble.) So it's hard to get the opportunity to pair.

Most usually when I pair, one or the other of us knows the program very well. But once, when I was pairing with Jeremy Stell-Smith, neither of us knew the program that well. And I got an interesting feeling: I didn't feel confident that I really had a solid handle on the change we were making, and I didn't feel confident that Jeremy did either, but I did feel confident - or more confident - that the combination of Jeremy, me, and the tests did. It was a weird and somewhat unsettling feeling.

That reminds me now of something Ken Schwaber said in Scrum Master training - that one of the hardest things for a Scrum Master to do is to sit back, wait, and trust that the team can solve the problem. It's trust not in a single person, but in a system composed of people, techniques, and rules.

All this came to mind when I read a speech by Brian Eno describing what he calls "generative music". I don't think it's too facile to say that his composition style is to conventional composition as agile methods are to conventional software development. (Well, maybe it is facile, but perhaps good ideas can result from the comparison.) They both involve setting up a system, letting it rip, observing the results without attempting to control the process, and tweaking in response. There is, again, a loss of control that I like intellectually but still sometimes find unsettling.

Here's that other Brian:

In fact all of the stuff that is called ambient music really -- sorry, all the stuff I released called ambient music (laughter), not the stuff those other 2 1/2 million people released called ambient music, -- all of my ambient music I should say, really was based on that kind of principle, on the idea that it's possible to think of a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music for you.

Now the wonderful thing about that is that it starts to create music that you've never heard before. This is an important point I think. If you move away from the idea of the composer as someone who creates a complete image and then steps back from it, there's a different way of composing. It's putting in motion something and letting it make the thing for you.

Sounds cool, right? But then there's this, where he demos a composition. Remember, he only puts in rules and starting conditions, then lets the thing generate on its own:

There are a hundred and fifty of these kinds of rules. They govern major considerations like the basic quality of the piece to quite minor ones like exactly how the note wobbles. I'll play you a bit - is this thing up? - He cried to the empty void (laughter).

This piece of music, which is quite unpredictable and sometimes has quite large gaps in it, as it has chosen to do right now, it's embarassing, this music is making itself now. It is not a recording, and I have never heard it play exactly this before. If you don't believe me I'll start it again. See. It will start.

You, dear reader, may not have ever done a live demo. But if you have, I bet Eno's experience hits home: "Observe this!... um, it usually works... (Gut clenches)" Surely agile projects run into this problem at a slower scale: "We're going to self-organize, be generative, we're a complex adaptive system, just watch... um, it usually works. (Gut clenches)"

Agile development involves bets. (The XP slogan "You aren't going to need it" should really be stated "On average, you'll need it seldom enough that the best bet is that you won't need it".) Sometimes the bet doesn't pay off. I believe that, over the course of most decent-sized projects, it will. But surely there will be single iterations that collapse into silence. I don't think enough is said about how to cope with that.

## Posted at 20:14 in category /agile [permalink] [top]

About Brian Marick
I consult mainly on Agile software development, with a special focus on how testing fits in.

Contact me here: marick@exampler.com.




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Working your way out of the automated GUI testing tarpit
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